Pluralistic: Steven Brust's "Lyorn" (09 Apr 2024)

Originally published at: Pluralistic: Steven Brust’s “Lyorn” (09 Apr 2024) – Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow

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The cover of the Tor Books edition of Steven Brust's 'Lyorn.'

Steven Brust's "Lyorn" (permalink)

Today marks the publication of Lyorn, the seventeenth book in Steven Brust's long-running Vlad Taltos series. While this is definitely not where you should start reading this series, I hope I can convince you that this book is so delicious that you should go read the other sixteen books right now:

I have been reading these books since I was 12. I've literally grown up with them. Brust has said all along that there will be nineteen Vlad novels. Once again, Lyorn is number seventeen. It is no hyperbole to say that i) I have been waiting for this moment all my life and ii) it is nearly upon us.

The Vlad books are set on Dragaera, a fantasy world dominated by a race of long-lived elven-types called Dragaerans; wedged into the corners of Dragaeran society are humans ("Easterners") who speak a kind of pidgin Hungarian, practice Hungarian witchcraft, and cook delicious Hungarian food (the meals in the Vlad books are the best part, except for all the other best parts, which are even better).

We meet Vlad Taltos as a teenaged tough whose father, a restaurateur, scrimped and saved to buy them membership in House Jhereg, the noble house that supplies the empire with its organized criminals: killers, thieves, money-launderers, and other important social lubricants. Vlad likes being a Jhereg thug, because at last someone is paying him to beat up Dragareans, something he used to do for sport and as revenge for all the racist taunting and violence he and his father endure.

Over the next sixteen (!) books, we follow Vlad as he rises within the Jhereg to be a serious crime boss, but also a key figure in the skullduggery of imperial succession, and also the affairs of the fates, the gods, and the Jenoine, who may or may not be aliens who created this whole Dragaera business as part of an unknowable experiment.

Brust – a literary heir to Roger Zelazny and Fritz Lieber – is doing a kind of noir sword-and-sorcery thing here, filled with evil-snort-provoking snappy dialog (I emitted three evil snorts within the first ten minutes of reading Lyorn), fantastic fight scenes, intricate capers, epic romances and gigantic, Return-Of-the-King-grade set-piece battles.

But Brust is a clever motherfucker. These books don't just range up and down thousands of years of history (there's a whole related series set millennia before Vlad was born, written in the style of Alexandre "Three Musketeers" Dumas), but they also have all these wonderful, delightful, absurdly clever framing devices.

For example, there's a book that's entirely told around a menu. Another opens with a cleaning and tailoring bill and each chapter explains the wild adventures that contributed to each of its line-items. One book is told as three Rashomon-style novellas that tell the same story from three points of view. Another is a retelling of Red Harvest. Last year's Tsalmoth wove a brilliant intrigue around the planning of Vlad's wedding to his once-and-again true love, Cawti:

And then there's Lyorn. For complicated reasons, Vlad has to hide out in a theater. Why a theater? They are shielded from sorcery, as proof against magical spying by rival theater companies, and Vlad is on the run from the Left Hand of the Jhereg – the crime syndicate's all-woman sorceress squad – and so he has to hide in the theater.

The theater is mounting a production of a famous play that's about another famous play. The first famous play (the one the play is about – try and follow along, would you?) is about a famous massacre that took place thousands of years before. The play was mounted as a means of drumming up support for the whistleblower who reported on the massacre and was invited to a short-term berth in the Emperor's death row as a consequence.

This prompts an Imperial crackdown on the play, which in turn provokes a rebellion against censorship, which provokes an even more outrageous crackdown, bringing more factions into rebellion (they didn't care much about the censorship, but the crackdown has them up in arms).

So that's the first play. The second play is a musical about the first play – about the crackdown. That's the play they're mounting in the theater where Vlad is hiding out. It's a musical about a play about a massacre. Vlad's trying to get up to speed on all this, so he's reading a book. The book tells the story of the musical about the play about the massacre. And all this is in a book that Steven Brust wrote, called Lyorn. Brust wrote a book about a musical explained by a book about a play about a massacre.

The book – not the book Brust wrote, the book Vlad is reading – has a lot of legal drama. There's the death-sentence trial of the whistleblower, and the censorship trial of the playwright and theater company who put on the play about the whistleblower. Brust gets into some really fascinating legal stuff here, brilliant turns of logic and strategy.

So Vlad is reading all about these court cases while hiding in the theater for the musical of the play, and wouldn't you know it, the same faction that sued the original theater company is still around – remember, Dragareans live for thousands of years – and they sue the theater company that's hiding Vlad. So now there's a second legal drama going on, with a parallel – but totally different – set of legal arguments and tactics, each more fascinating than the last.

Now, remember I told you it was a musical? Every chapter begins with the lyrics to one of the songs from the musical (about the play about the trial about the whistleblower about the massacre). These lyrics are clearly meant to be sung to the tunes of our own popular showtunes, and they are just fantastic, delightful doggerel that perfectly fit the story, and also perfectly fit the scansion and rhyme-schemes of these standards. They are stupidly, insanely clever and Steven Brust is having way, way, WAAAY too much fun here.

It's infectious.

So here we are: there's the lawsuit about the musical about the play in the book about the lawsuit about the whistleblower who saw the massacre. And there's funny lyrics.

But that's just the goddamned framing device. It's not even the plot. The plot is a fantastic, fast-handed caper story that has a million moving parts, a beautiful prestige, and a coup de grace that'll have you cheering and punching the air.

So that's what this book, Lyorn, seventeenth of nineteen, is about. And no, you won't be able to really enjoy it without reading the previous sixteen volumes, And yes, you should just go and read those other sixteen books right now so you can.

Because by the time you're done, number eighteen might well be on the stands. What's more, I had dinner with Steve last year and he tells me nineteen is in the can. He's been figuring out how to bring this series in for a landing for forty years, and he's nearly there. Strap in, folks.

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