Steven Brust,
The Book of Athyra
(Ace, 2003)

Steven Brust's assassin-hero Vlad Taltos, accompanied by his faithful familiar Loiosh, returns in The Book of Athyra, an omnibus compilation of Brust's Athyra (originally published in 1993) and Orca (1996).

In Athyra, Vlad, on the run from the Jhereg crime organization in which he rose from mere muscle to boss of his own territory, finds himself in lands owing fealty to an old enemy. Befriended by a village boy named Savn, Vlad must fight to save himself, both from the undead overlord and from the Jhereg assassin sent to hunt him. Badly wounded in an uneven battle with soldiers sent to arrest him, Vlad, for the first time in his life, must rely on someone else to save and hide him. In the process, he learns a few things about himself that he might, perhaps, have preferred not to know.

Orca picks up Vlad's story a few months later. Now accompanied by Savn, he travels to Northport, a city where he once hid out after an assassination. It's more complicated than that, of course, but to say more on that matter would be to spoil the story of Athyra. Vlad and Savn stay with an elderly country sorceress facing eviction from her home. In return for her help, Vlad agrees to find out who is behind the eviction and see if he can obtain the deed to the woman's property. But he'll need the help of a talented thief, so he turns to his old friend Kiera, the only member of the Jhereg that he can still trust with his life.

Athyra and Orca were excellent choices for an omnibus, as they tell related tales. Brust has a habit of writing a book in Vlad's present, then jumping into an episode from his past in the next book, which can leave one extremely confused; I originally read these books as they were published, but could never remember what order they were supposed to go in.

Vlad Taltos is not your normal fantasy hero. He's a criminal, for one thing, a very highly paid assassin who was also once a crime boss. But he's an engaging fellow, with a sharp wit and a wry view of life who is truly a joy to read. His interactions with his jhereg (a kind of flying lizard) familiar, Loiosh, are sarcastic and funny. The stories are generally convoluted and not easy to figure out ahead of time, thus engaging the reader and keeping him/her avidly turning pages.

For fans of the series, Athyra can be quite startling; it is the only one of the books thus far to be told in the third person; normally the stories are written as though Vlad were in a tavern telling his tale to the reader. Also, Vlad is not the point-of-view character. Instead, we see the story through the eyes of young Savn, apprentice physicker. I wasn't particularly keen on this change for the first few pages, but Savn soon became nearly as engaging as Vlad (though in a completely different way) and I settled happily into the story.

Orca returns to the first person, but alternates between Vlad and Kiera as the narrator, with interludes in which Kiera relates the story to Vlad's estranged wife Cawti. My only complaint about this book concerns a revelation that occurs near the end; it seems completely out of the blue to me. Although the clues were there in the text, they were way too subtle and I read right past them. Other than that, the story is typical Vlad -- full of twists and turns, narrow escapes, wit, sarcasm and a few buckled swashes.

The Book of Athyra is a good place for newcomers to begin the series, since the action doesn't take place in the middle of a story -- it wouldn't have worked well to pair Orca and Dragon, for instance. I'm betting newcomers won't remain newcomers for long -- Vlad is too entertaining not to read the entire series.

- Rambles
written by Laurie Thayer
published 10 May 2003

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