One of the things that tends to happen with
long series of
speculative fiction novels is that, at some point, the author will
stop, look around, and begin thinking about how the world around their
main character really works. They'll begin asking questions like:
is it really like to live as a near-immortal in this semi-feudal,
caste-based, Fate-bound Empire I've created? How long does a
near-immortal remain a
child or a young adult? What types of jobs do the common people do? How
does the economy function?
And so forth.
can either be a good thing or it can be a bad thing. It's a good thing
if it adds a richer depth to
the world and opens up stories which might otherwise never be told.
It's a bad thing if it leads to the author blandly info-dumping their
"research" (which, in this case, doesn't even have the advantage of
imparting actual facts).
In the case of Brust's Dragaera novels it is
a very good thing.
As with my discussion of non-traditional
narrative structures in Taltos,
this is another trend that actually started with Teckla,
but it's a tradition that carries strongly into Phoenix.
doesn't make the mistake of boring his readers by having his
protagonist (Vlad) lecture them on the finer details of Imperial
history, military tactics, or social engineering. Instead, the world
simply happens. Details are dropped when necessary for comprehension,
but the focus remains tightly fixed on the immediate story being told.
In the case of Phoenix,
it's a story made up of political assassinations; divine meddling;
foreign entanglements; social unrest; and (most importantly) personal
I think it says something about this novel
that, by page
5, Vlad is standing in front of a goddess... and proceeds to haggle
Let me say that again: Vlad stands in a
front of a goddess and haggles with her.
I'm not sure what it says to you, but to me
"WARNING: AWESOME ROLLERCOASTER RIDE COMING UP."
The other thing to note here is that what
really makes these Vlad Taltos novels click is not what happens
(although that's almost always entertaining in its own right), but how
those events affect
The only real criticism I can level at Phoenix
is that it never quite comes into its own -- it never quite seems to
figure out how to fire on all cylinders. The events of the novel are
all entertaining enough, but don't quite rise to a particularly
memorable level in their own right. The supporting cast is still varied
and well-drawn, but none of them are deeply affected by the events of
the novel. (Which should not be thought a flaw: There is no particular
reason why they should
be affected or transformed by these events.)
means that the real engine of the novel is, essentially, the character
arc of Vlad Taltos himself. But even here, the developments of Phoenix are
essentially a coda to the turning point reached during Teckla. In many
ways, in fact, Phoenix
ends up feeling like an extended (although not over-extended) epilogue
to that novel.
Which is fine. It's probably even a
necessary step in the development of Vlad's character. But it does mean
that Phoenix is
(a) the first novel in the series that doesn't stand by itself; and (b)
pleasant enough, but nothing to get particularly excited about.
maybe "epilogue" isn't quite the right description. In a lot of ways,
this book feels like the second part of the trilogy -- having neither
the advantage of an explosive beginning (Teckla) nor the
satisfaction of a well-earned conclusion (wherever Vlad's going).
final note: I was utterly unsurprised when I reached the end of the
novel, read Brust's biographical blurb, and discovered that he had
joined a band. I'm not sure what it is about SF authors who join bands,
but they seem incapable of realizing that what they think are "pithy"
observations about how "crazy" the music biz is are (a) not that
interesting and (b) usually bone-jarringly anachronistic.
kinda reminds me of certain military SF written by actual combat
veterans in which the tactics, jargon, and culture of 33rd century
warfare all look and sound exactly like whatever war the author was
fighting in (even when that doesn't make the slightest lick of sense).
think it must have something to do with the experience being personally
transforming, while also being so incredibly personal and specific that
they have difficulty using
the material to enrich their writing instead of letting
the material use them. (For a counter-example, consider J.R.R.
Tolkien's personal experiences in World War I. The
described in The Lord of the Rings
don't look anything like trench warfare (and would be horribly
anachronistic if they did). But I feel that Tolkien was still able to
use his personal experiences to enrich his fictional depictions of what
being in a war feels like.)