Vlad Taltos, by Steven Brust, is a sleeper series that has now officially been coming out for 30 years. Planned as a nineteen-book series and still going strong, Tsalmoth is the sixteenth entry in the story and one of my favorites. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this series and feel like I just bombarded you with word salad, here is a short primer. Vlad Taltos follows the life of the titular Vlad as he tried to make his way in a magical kingdom as a foreigner. He has burrowed his way into The Dragaeran Empire, a powerful magical kingdom made up of 17 great houses, each represented by a magical animal. The houses exist in a complex web of power and wax and wane with strength as the years pass and their house rises to the top of the calendar in a magical zodiac-esque system. The houses themselves are a combination of noble bloodlines and individuals who join of their own volition, and each house tends to attract people who identify or align with the temperament of its signature animal. For example, Vlad is a part of the Jhereg house, representing a temperamental, vicious, and cunning lizard, which suits him perfectly.
Each book in the Taltos series focuses on a different house, usually telling two stories—one related to something personal of Vlad and the other having to do with Vlad’s involvement in some private matter of the house. The books are less a linear story of Vlad’s life and more a disparate and deeply non-chronological story of the experiences that define him. Our house in question this time, Tsalmoth, is represented by enormous, patient, and tenacious bear-like creatures. The chronology of this story places it fairly early in Vlad’s known life, and our two storylines in question focus on Vlad’s wedding and the murder of a man who owes Vlad money. We also get some answers to longstanding questions about elements of Vlad’s life that had been a mystery up until now.
I love all the Taltos books for their vibrant characters, rich webs of politics, engaging mysteries, and tight narrative foci; but Tsalmoth stands out as great even among its esteemed brethren. The murder mystery is told via paired steps in planning a wedding, with chapters following things like making a guest list, wedding traditions, planning a menu, and more. A wedding is such a fresh and fun setting for a story that I had a blast following along with the chapters and watching them tie to the steps. There is some fun and meaningful commentary about the nature of unions and what it means to give up a part of yourself to something else in both plotlines. The multiangle interpretation of concepts in Taltos is something that gives it a special spark that keeps me coming back. The mystery angle is also in rare form here, dropping lots of classic tropes and cliches in order to better fit the book’s thematic spirit animal. The reveals are picture-perfect; delightful in their simplicity while still just as impactful as a convoluted multistep answer. Top marks all around for this puzzle box.
Honestly, I just want to take a moment to cheer Brust for continuing to deliver quality books in this series thirty years down the road. We have only a few more books left in the series before it is put to rest and it is beyond impressive that they are still hitting as hard as they do. Vlad is such an interesting character, never feeling like a blank slate to be a reader insert. His struggles, both external and internal, often don’t feel like something I identify with personally but do a fabulous job at giving me a window into a different way of thinking. He has a coherence and a consistency that is rare in fiction like this, but still constantly demonstrates noticeable growth in each of his adventures. This is even more impressive given that his tales aren’t told in chronological order so it must be a titanic hassle for Brust to keep all the pieces straight and aligned.
Tsalmoth is a bear of a book, a warm teddy from one angle, and a muscled beast from another. It feels like the perfect lighter story to read before we move to the endgame of the series that is just around the corner. But, just because this book isn’t a huge lore dump doesn’t mean it doesn’t pack an emotional punch. With stunning writing and character moments, Tsalmoth is an emotional read from start to finish and continues to reaffirm my love of this classic fantasy series.
Rating: Tsalmoth – 10/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.