By Steven Brust
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Tsalmoth is the sixteenth novel in Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos series, which began with the novel Jhereg in 1983 and has at least three more novels before it comes to its conclusion. Over the course of the novels, Brust has shown Taltos as a low level crime boss with oddly powerful friends moving from his natural environment to being a useful fugitive. Tsalmoth is set early in the sequence's history, with Vlad trying to reclaim 800 imperials he is owed.
Vlad's story is driven by the death of Bereth, the man who borrowed the money from Vlad. Trying to recover his money leads Vlad into a warren of intrigue that includes other crime bosses, Vlad's own boss, Toronnan, various factions within the Jhereg (Vlad's own house), and several individuals from House Tsalmoth. Vlad narrates the story and Brust uses him to provide often opinionated background for the story, including the fact that Tsalmoth tend to attempt to accomplish goals in a seemingly haphazard manner that requires them to try a variety of different methods, adding the the twists and turns of the novel.
For all those twists and turns, Tsalmoth begins in a relatively straight-foward manner. Vlad is attempting to regain his money and at the same time he is trying to plan his wedding to Cawti. The wedding plans are separated from the general plot of the novel and are alluded to in a series of lengthy epigraphs in which Vlad describes the various Easterner marriage traditions and compares them to his understanding of the marriage traditions for the various Draegarian houses. About a third of the way through the novel, however, Vlad has an experience that is anything but straight-forward and allows Brust to introduce all the twists and turns the reader has come to expect from Brust that makes Vlad's attempts to regain his money, and incidentally learn what is really happening, more entertaining.
With its primary setting the streets of Adrilankha, and the chronological placement in the series prior to Vlad's marriage to Cawti, Tsalmoth feels like a throwback to the early novels in the series. However, throughout the intervening forty (!) years, Brust has become a more self-assured author and has built up Vlad's world through more than twenty novels, there is a depth to Tsalmoth that did not exist in Jhereg or Teckla. By jumping around in his chronology, Brust, who clearly knows the full outline of Vlad's story, keeps the reader guessing, so that even within three books of the series ending, its eventual form is still somewhat amorphous.
Even as Tsalmoth forms a part of Brust's overarching plan for his series, the book stands well on its own. Brust provides introductions to Vlad and his vast supporting cast in a manner which does not seem repetitive to long-time readers of the series, but are also welcoming to readers who are being introduced the his world for the first time in Tsalmoth. While the focus of Tsalmoth is telling the story of Vlad's attempts to recover his money and, to a lesser extent, marry Cawti, it is quite clear the Brust has incorporated ties to his overarching story, even if the exact nature of those connections and the way they will play out is not evident.
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