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PHOENIX
1990

Book cover art by Denis Beauvais.
Review © 2002 by Thomas M. Wagner.

With the specter of the Law of Diminishing Returns looming over him, Steven Brust wisely chose to make Phoenix, his fifth Vlad Taltos novel and a direct sequel to Teckla, a pivotal entry in the series marking a sea change in the main character's life and the direction future books may take. A good idea, as it turns out, because though Phoenix ends up being the series' best entry up to that point since Yendi, its opening chapters reveal that a fresh approach is sorely needed. Brust's love of filling all of his characters' mouths with withering, sarcastic wisecracks is getting as stale as yesterday's toast, for one thing. Sure, I hate it when fantasy writers feel they have to go on an Elizabethan kick in order to give their dialogue a mythic feel, but good grief, the cast of NYPD Blue doesn't talk as much smack as Vlad and his gang.

Phoenix opens with Vlad accepting a hit from no less than the Demon Goddess Varra. Vlad is expected to infiltrate the magic-free island of Greenaere and whack their king, for reasons Varra declines to reveal. He does the job and is caught, but rescued by his allies Morrolan and Aliera of Castle Black, who end up learning a thing or two about why it is sorcery cannot work on Greenaere.

Upon returning to Adrilankha, Vlad finds massive amounts of trouble stirring that could well be tied in to his actions on Greenaere. War looms between Greenaere and Adrilankha as islanders sink some of the city's ships in retaliation for their king's assassination, which they naturally assume was mandated by the Empress. At the same time, the group of anti-imperial rebels that Vlad's estranged wife Cawti has fallen in with are all rounded up and tossed into the imperial hoosegow. And Vlad, investigating the reasons for the arrest in an attempt to free Cawti, runs afoul — to put it mildly — with his own crime bosses. All the while Vlad cannot seem to figure out what it is that Varra is getting out of all this.

This novel has the most labyrinthine of all the books' plots, and for the most part, Brust does a good job of tying together story threads that seem totally disparate. But it shouldn't be surprising that he stumbles here and there in the plausibility department. One character Vlad meets on the island becomes such an obvious red herring throughout the book's length he might as well be wearing a "RED HERRING" T-shirt. Also, a crucial plot point towards the end has Brust resorting to a little author's convenience; the Empress is an awfully agreeable lady, for an Empress, and she agrees all too readily and happily to a wild plan by Vlad to prevent the oncoming war, when she frankly doesn't have any reason to that I could see.

But plot fumblings aside, the real strength of Phoenix lies in Brust's attention to character. Will Cawti and Vlad mend fences? And what of the puzzling and manipulative Varra? (I especially enjoyed a line from Vlad — "When a god does something reprehensible, it's still reprehensible." — that is very similar to a point I've made when arguing with my religious friends over things like faith and morality.) Vlad must end up making some profound decisions about his future at the novel's end, and without giving spoilers, I admired Brust's willingness (hell, even eagerness) to resist catering to fan expectations and desires.

There is no doubt that the series must take a new path at this point, and it's richly satisfying to see Brust making that choice, when other prominent fantasy writers have fallen into a pandering routine that reduces the very act of storytelling to a mechanical exercise designed to earn a paycheck. (Xanth, anybody?) And though Brust has never meant the Vlad novels to be read in strict chronological order, at this point to do a story going back in time (like Taltos) would be a real slip-up. Phoenix ends with Vlad boldly facing an uncertain future; it's a pleasure most fantasy writers don't grant their readers, and with luck, Brust will make the most of this lack of resolution as we join Vlad on his forward journey.

In 2000, both the novels Taltos and Phoenix were published in an omnibus trade paperback edition titled The Book of Taltos. Followed by Athyra.