Tsalmoth by Steven Brust – Book Review | Vlad Taltos #16

The short of it: Tsalmoth is an exciting new addition to the perennial urban fantasy series Vlad Taltos. Vlad, owed money by a dead man, tries to get his eight hundred imperials back–and things get infinitely more complicated than he’s signed up for. A captivating mystery, a few murders, including Vlad’s own, and a support cast to kill for–all of these brought to live by Steven Brust’s witty and dynamic dialogue and characterization.

The long of it:

Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series has left an indelible mark on me as a human being.

It has failed at turning me into an assassin or a mob boss, and I can’t even strut around with a purchased title in the House of Jhereg. What it has done is shape my sense of humour and my tendency towards quips that are too clever by far for my continued health. I read and reread these books religiously as a child–and there are quite a few of them. Fifteen published to date, with today’s title, Tsalmoth, marking the sixteenth release. Three more to go until we reach the promised land.

Tsalmoth is published forty years after the first book, Jhereg. However, it takes place before the events of that first book. These are the golden years of Vlad, portraying him as the grumpy, likeable crime boss working his territory, trying to get back the eight hundred he’s owed by a dead man. Eight hundred might not be a lot for anyone who’s anyone in the Dragaeran Empire, but it’s a lot for Vlad. Besides, it’s a matter of principle…and he’s getting married, soon, too. Can’t well be a fiscally conscious marriage partner if you don’t walk that extra mile to collect what you’re owed by a dead guy, can you?

Little does Vlad realise, everything gets real complicated real quick. Lucky for the reader, as every time Vlad’s life turns miserable, he’ll come calling out to his posse of ridiculous and high-powered friends: Morrolan, lord of Black Castle; his cousin Aliera, as short as her fuse; the Necromancer, whose lack of social graces is equalled only by her knowledge of dead and bizarre things; Lady Teldra, the kindest, most decorous Dragaeran you’ll ever meet; and Sethra, undead sorceress, general, and owner of a significant chunk of real estate. Add to these Vlad’s right-hand man Kragar and his murderous fiancee Cawty, and you’ve got a cast to kill for.

This might be the most involved Cawty’s been in one of Vlad’s novels in terms of sheer size; as newlyweds-to-be, the two are inseperable. Vlad’s introduction of her is too funny:

I met her on a warm, pleasant day with a nice breeze flowing in from the ocean-sea when she killed me. Nothing personal, she’d been paid. And I got better, didn’t I? Death is only permanent if you’re unlucky, which makes it the opposite of marriage.

As this is a prequel, we all know–readers and author alike–where these characters are going and so it’s a joy to see future character development seeded here, in small, subtle ways. A great nod to knowing fans, but also a hint at what’s to come for anyone picking up a Vlad Taltos novel for the first time. An example that caught my eye is the following passage:

We passed a small group of Easterners and Teckla marching and holding up signs I didn’t bother reading. I was going to make a remark about them, but the way Cawti was looking at them made me change my mind.

If you’re familiar with Cawti and Vlad’s relationship, you know how well these three sentences forecast the series of arguments, accusations, and recriminations that come to pass a ways into the series, at catastrophic personal cost. Small elements like these put on display Steven Brust’s mastery like little else does.

One of the elements I’ve always loved about the series is, each novel reflects the make-up of the fantastical Dragaeran House whose name it carries. Each House signifies its own characteristics, and each member exhibits them in some way: for Tsalmoth, these are unpredictability and tenacity. Tsalmoths are “usually craftsmen of some kind, maybe merchants–they do the sorts of things anyone else would get tired of, but they have a reputation for finding different ways to do the same thing, which I guess keeps them from getting bored. Kragar once told me a joke about a Tsalmoth taking twenty years to get from Little Deathgate to the Hook because he had to take every path to decide which one was best.” Another way to look at those born in Tsalmoth is as people capable of great perseverance. That, like the traits of every other House in the series, plays a key part in unlocking the puzzle Brust sets up and peels away.

One of the funniest elements to this one is, it’s framed as a story Vlad is telling Sethra. At numerous points, he’ll pause his narrative of the events described and have conversations with her. The catch is, the reader never sees her responses, so we have a one-sided conversation, and are forced to piece together whatever Sethra’s telling Vlad based on his responses. It’s entertaining most of the time, and the rest, it’s hilarious and might make you mouth foul-mouthed words at an author whose merciless teasing demands as much. As in here:

Every time I was [in the hallways of Castle Black], something different caught my eye; this time it was a sculpture off to the right below the top of the stairway that seemed to be two people joined together, one with arms raised, the other holding a two-handed sword, facing in opposite directions. I decided I’d try to remember to ask Morrolan about it. Of course, I forgot. Maybe next time I see him.
Huh, really, Sethra? Then how did Morrolan end up with it?
Oh, that’s funny! Good story. You should be talking instead of me.
No, no. I don’t mind the interruptions.

You see what I mean? Such a tease!

I wish I could read to you every quote that made me grin, chuckle, and cackle through Tsalmoth, but we don’t want this video to drag on endlessly–which it probably should, because this is a fantastic novel and one of my favourite fantasy works of the year. I could talk about it for days, but the point is, you should experience a Vlad Taltos novel for yourselves and this is a great place to start.

You should read Tsalmoth if:

  • Someone has owed you money and you’ve gone to extraordinary lengths to get it back;
  • No, really, at some point it’s just not worth it–but, okay, I get it;
  • You’re looking for a how-to guide on prepping for married life;
  • You find a period of your life absent from memory, are looking for answers, have a cool moustache and an even cooler pet, and are named Vlad;
  • And more! Prob’ly.

I’ve reread the first ten-twelve books in the Vlad Taltos series no less than four times–thrice or more in Bulgarian, and a few years back, in English for the very first time. If you’re worried that this might be one of those cases where an author goes back to the “golden years” of a favourite character and writes them in such a way they read a little like a parody of themselves–don’t be! Brust’s work is magisterial. Tsalmoth slots wonderfully between the earliest Taltos novels and I already can’t wait to reread it a few months from now, while sipping cocktails and taking over my own local crime area.

Tsalmoth came out at the end of April, with the next Vlad Taltos book said to be coming out April 2024–if you can trust Wikipedia about that kind of thing. The plan? I’m going to try and write a little something about every single Dragaerean book Brust has written by the time the next one comes out.

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