When Vlad Taltos was a punk kid, getting beat up regularly on the streets of Adrilankha, his father owned a restaurant. As a result, Vlad learned how to defend himself, how to beat up people who were bigger and stronger than he was, how to cook, and how to appreciate well-prepared food. Vlad sold the restaurant a few years after his father’s untimely death, but throughout his career as a free-lance assassin and “boss” for the Jhereg (the Dragaeran Empire’s version of the Mafia) he has retained his love for exquisite cuisine. And in almost every volume in the series to date, he has mentioned Valabar’s, the best restaurant in Adrilankha, and possibly the oldest restaurant in the entire Empire. For its entire history, Valabar’s has been run by the same family of Easterners (humans, that is); that Valabar’s has survived for so long, in an Empire where Easterners are second-class citizens at best and hated enemies at worst, is a tribute to Mr. Valabar’s skill, delicate touch, and creativity.
However, in none of the Vlad books to date has Vlad actually stepped foot in Valabar’s while he’s actually on-stage. With Dzur, all of that changes. Yes, this is a fantasy novel for your inner foodie.
A little background. Vlad, as I say, grew up tough. His father, eager to be accepted in the Empire, spent all of his savings to buy a title in House Jhereg, the only one of the Empire’s seventeen Houses that accepts Easterners as members–and then, only because there is money to be made. It’s not true that all Jhereg are criminals; many are not. But Jheregs always have an eye on the main chance, and on making a profit, and they are generally engaged in those activities which, though not strictly legal, are yet always in demand. At the age of seventeen (there’s that number again) Vlad goes to work for a small-time Jhereg boss as an enforcer. He takes on additional duties, and begins to do assassinations on the side. Eventually he becomes a boss himself, managing a number of illicit enterprises. In the mean time, he’s made some unusual friends for an Easterner and a Jhereg, including a number of extremely powerful nobles (both magically and politically) from the House of the Dragon.
Let’s be clear. Vlad is not a nice guy. He kills people for money. He sends enforcers to rough up folks who won’t pay back his usurious loans. But he’s not without virtues. He’s loyal to those who are loyal to him. He’s witty. He’s smart. For a murdering S.O.B. he’s got a certain integrity. And he’s a survivor.
Eventually, after some goings on that involve his wife and the impoverished Easterner’s ghetto in South Adrilankha, he finds himself at odds with his higher-ups in the Jhereg. In fact, he annoys them so thoroughly that he finds a price on his head…a fabulously large one, in fact. It is axiomatic that if you betray the Jhereg, you are a dead man walking…but far from waiting to be killed, Vlad takes it on the lam. A number of years elapse, during which time Vlad has a number of adventures and makes a number of discoveries. Then, two of his friends disappearunder mysterious circumstances; his other friends manage to contact him, and he spends a book (Issola) helping to extricate them, and manages to help preserve the World As He Knows It at the same time. Afterwards he’s tired, disgusted, depressed, and sick of living in the wilderness where no one knows how to make a decent cup of klava. Damn it, it’s not safe, but before he heads out again he’s going to take a chance. He’s going to have dinner at Valabar’s for the first time in years, and he’s going to enjoy it, and if anyone wants to kill him they’ll just have to wait until he finishes the meal.
And that’s where Dzur begins. Nobles of the House of the Dzur are big tough wizards and warriors (usually both at once) who like nothing better than to wade into a fight at impossible odds. If they are defending something noble and good, so much the better; this gives them additional motivation. Vlad has his meal at Valabar’s with a young Dzurlord–a meal that is described, over the course of the book, in exquisite detail; and then he has to deal with new developments in South Adrilankha. Vlad would never be mistaken for a Dzur…but it appears that it’s time for him to act like one.
So much for the background. Steven Brust is one of the few authors whose books I buy in hardcover, and along with Lois McMaster Bujold and Terry Pratchett, he’s one of the even small group of authors whose books I read aloud to Jane as soon as we get them. As it happens, I’ve spent a fair amount of time this summer re-reading most of the Vlad books aloud to Jane, so Dzur‘s timing was wonderful, and we enjoyed it thoroughly. On the other hand, while a number of interesting things happen little is actually resolved in terms of Vlad’s larger story arc; this was a bit of a disappointment. Consequently, I offer this advice: if you’ve been reading the series in paperback, wait for the paperback. And if you’ve not been reading the series at all, there’s a trade paperback available called The Book of Jhereg, which includes the first three Vlad novels; go buy it. (Don’t let the third one, Teckla, put you off; it’s a bit heavy going, but it’s worth it, as it’s a pivotal book in the series.)