Raymond Chandler, The High Window
There is something vaguely unnatural about Raymond Chandler novels. Although they’re generally very bleak, being noir detective stories with a greater than usual dose of personal trauma above and beyond the murder-for-money motives, I tend to read them through with a huge grin on my face. I know what it is, it’s the constant wisecracking and world-weary self-aware irony of Philip Marlowe. I still find it vaguely unnatural. But I adore them nonetheless.
Dashiell Hammett, The Thin Man
Despite my love of noir (and I have been indulging it greatly the past few weeks, I should post a list of the movies I’ve been watching, too), I have never before actually read any Dashiell Hammett. But I grabbed a copy of The Thin Man while stocking up on Bogie movies at the library last week, and I adored it. It’s not as gritty as Chandler, but Nick and Nora are wonderful, as are all the minor characters. (I was surprised at how much I ended up liking Gilbert, the morbid teenager; his fascination with cannibalism was what cemented it for me, I think.) It’s a pity Hammett didn’t do sequels, I’d love to read more of them. Perhaps I will investigate the movies.
Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time
This is the best book about invalids doing research that I have ever read. Okay, that sounds like damning with faint praise. I loved it. A Scotland Yard investigator is laid up in the hospital and decides to try to figure out just what the hell Richard III was doing, murdering the princes in the Tower, and comes to the surprising conclusion that he wasn’t. It’s all the best parts of doing historical research without any of the boring bits. Not a strictly noir mystery, except for the way that the accused doesn’t manage to regain his besmirched reputation — which might be close enough, actually — but extremely satisfying nonetheless.
Steven Brust, Tiassa
And a break from the detective stories for the latest Vlad novel! I have to say, I know he’s cranking these out at one a year, but it’s still not fast enough for me. I’ll just have to be grateful for what we get. Unlike last year’s Iorich, I think this would be a great introduction to the Vlad stories. You get a little bit of all the main characters (except for Morrolan, he’s been strangely absent for a while) and a little bit of each of the narrative styles: first-person Vlad POV, third person straight narrative, and Paarfi. The story itself is easy to follow if you don’t know all the background, but there’ll be plenty in there you’ll still want to find out about, to make sure you go back and read the other novels. But then, how could you not?
I read…way too many books. Far too many for someone in graduate school. Far, far too many to write up detailed reviews for each one. But, since I do read so many books, and since readers advisory is one of those things the Internet was practically made for, I thought I’d institute a Book of the Month feature, where I highlight a book I read in the past month. I can’t promise they’ll all be new, and I can’t promise they’ll all be good, but I can certainly promise I will always have read at least one interesting book in a month.
Steven Brust – Iorich
This book is both new and good! Excellent, we’re off to a great start. Also, I love science fiction and fantasy in all forms. This will become apparent very soon, if it hasn’t already.
I’ve only been reading Brust’s Dragaera series for a couple of years — the first one I read in hardcover was Jhegaala — but the friend who got me hooked on the series has been reading them since Issola was new. If you’re not familiar with Brust, don’t be put off by the increasingly weird names, the books aren’t nearly as hard to understand as the titles are to pronounce. Your narrator is one Vlad Taltos, friend to the powerful, former assassin, now on the run from the organized crime of his world, a human in a world of Dragaerans. (Or Easterner in a world of humans — the Dragaerans call themselves human, you see.)
In many ways, the Dragaeran universe is a classic fantasy setup. Dragaerans are tall, imposing, live for a thousand years and more, and practice a complicated kind of sorcery. They’re ruled by an Empress, and have a complicated system of Houses and nobility. Our main characters (Vlad aside) are some of the most powerful figures in the Empire. This is definitely not your standard sword-and-sorcery adventure, though. Vlad is the first big difference: his no-nonsense, sarcastic narration was revolutionary when Jhereg came out in 1983 and is still one of the best and most entertaining parts of the series. (And when Vlad isn’t sarcastic enough for you, there’s his telepathic flying lizard Loiosh. If you like fantasy novels, you’re probably already on board with this. If you don’t know if you like fantasy novels, trust me, you’ll love Loiosh.)
The series is planned to include one book for each of the seventeen Dragaeran Houses, plus two additional, including one that has already been published. In publication order, then, these are: Jhereg, Yendi, Teckla, Taltos (not a House), Phoenix, Athyra, Orca, Dragon, Issola, Dzur, Jhegaala, and Iorich. Each House has a particular defining characteristic, and this characteristic becomes the main theme for the book: Orca are merchants and businessmen, so the theme of Orca is economics; Dragons are generals, so Dragon is about a war. And so on. (Forthcoming: Tiassa, Lyorn, Hawk, Tsalmoth, Vallista, Chreotha, and a final book which may or may not be called The Last Contract. Fans spend a great deal of time trying to figure out just what the characteristics of these Houses are and thus what the plots of these books may entail.) There’s a depth of understanding in these books that also sets them apart from cookie-cutter fantasy, as Vlad comes to more fully understand the world he lives in and works to change himself. The character development can be subtle, since publication order is not the same as in-universe chronological order, but it’s immensely satisfying.
Finally: Iorich. Iorich stands for law and justice, and the House of Iorich serve as Justicers (judges) and advocates. In this book, one of Vlad’s old friends is arrested for the practice of Elder Sorcery, and he takes it upon himself to start up the legal proceedings. He hires Perisil, a tedious but extremely efficient Iorich, to deal with the official matters while Vlad talks to pretty much everyone he knows trying to understand why Aliera was arrested for something everyone knew she’d been doing for years. In between the arguments, secret meetings, and assassination attempts, the theme of the book is really justice — whether it’s possible to get any, and what it would mean if you did. Like all the hard questions, this one has no easy answers.
I loved Iorich, but I’m not positive it’d be the best place to start if you’re just getting into the series. If you’re into this kind of modern-language high-concept fantasy, it certainly wouldn’t be a bad place to start, either — particularly if you’re aware that at least half of the “but that’s another story” references are still obscure even if you’ve read all the other books in the series. This is a big universe, and Brust certainly hasn’t told all the stories in it yet. For a gentler introduction, I’d suggest Jhereg, Taltos, or Dragon (although if you’re a fan of noir mysteries, Jhegaala has a lot of in-jokes for you). Once you’ve gotten through all those, and if you take to it anything like I do, that will only be a week or so, Brust’s other Dragaera books are Brokedown Palace, an Easterner story in the mode of a Hungarian fairy tale, and the Paarfi series, starting with The Phoenix Guards, which is a high-fantasy pastiche of The Three Musketeers.
The Lyorn Records, a fan-run wiki attempting to organize all the Dragaera information we have. Contains book summaries with spoilers.
The Dream Cafe, Steven Brust’s website, and Words, Words, Words, his blog.
Dragaera on Tor.com, a collection of reviews of the books by Jo Walton. May contain spoilers. (These reviews are much, much better than mine. If you’re interested, check them out — the first post contains no spoilers at all.)