If you’ve ever played 1st Edition Dungeons & Dragons, when you read a Dragaera novel it becomes clear that Steven Brust has, too.
The thing that draws me to Steven Brust’s Dragaera novels is the first person narrative. It’s hearkens back to hard-boiled crime fiction, a genre I also love and I suspect a lesser influence on Brust’s work as well. His main stated influence is the work of Alexandre Dumas, and if you’ve ever read Dumas you can pick up on that right away. What smacks you in the face, though, is that this feels like a player telling you about their character. Not in some weird, I’ve been cornered by a lonely nerd at a con sort of way, but by someone who’s probably a really great gamemaster skilled at setting a scene, describing the supporting characters, and making you really feel immersed in the world.
Brust’s main series revolves around Vlad Taltos, a human living among a tall, long-lived humanoid race called the Dragaera. The Dragaerans are organized into noble Houses, all named for the animal that reflects the values and personalities of each House. Taltos is a Baronet, a title purchased from the only House that sells them, the Jhereg. The animal jhereg is a small predatory scavenger resembling a dragon, and Taltos one as a familiar; the House Jhereg are basically in charge of organized crime throughout the Dragaeran Empire, including gambling, prostitution, thievery, and assassination. Which means Taltos is a crime lord, essentially a swashbuckling fantasy mafia don and hit man.
A spin-off series, known as the Khaavren Romances, begins several hundred years before the Taltos books, and features younger versions of a few of the Taltos cast in supporting roles, although for the most part they feature new characters. These books not only fill in some bits of Dragaeran history, but are homages to Alexandre Dumas’ D’Artagnan Romances. The Three Musketeers becomes The Phoenix Guards; Twenty Years After becomes Five Hundred Years After. The Vicomte de Bragelonne becomes The Viscount of Adrilankha, which Brust expanded into a trilogy. This series is a lot more light-hearted in tone than the Taltos books, not that those don’t have their whimsical and comedic moments. They’re not straight-up Dumas pastiche or scene-for-scene adaptations of the Musketeer books, but manage to capture the spirit while telling original stories.
There’s not a lot in Brust’s novels that can’t be dropped directly into a standard fantasy roleplaying game. There’s some large-scale magic that has no equivalent in standard fantasy rules, like floating castles, at least in terms of existing spells or magic item creation. Citizenship in the Dragaeran Empire allows anyone to know the current date and time, to contact other citizens telepathically, and to teleport nearly anywhere within the empire; this can be handled with a hand wave to the rules and a declaration that it exists, rather than sussing out specific mechanics or requiring die rolls.
There is also a heavier emphasis on psionics than can be found in later editions of mainstream fantasy games, or in most fantasy literature. All creatures with intelligence can learn to use psionics, and Brust clearly states that the witchcraft practiced by humans utilizes psionic, rather than magical, energy. There are some science fiction underpinnings to the world in the distant past, not present in the time the stories are set, which is in line with some of the things Gary Gygax wrote as well as more than a handful of books in the original Appendix N.
A lot of things in Brust’s world are standard fantasy elements with the names changed. The Dragaera are pretty obviously elves, with their delicate features, slightly pointed ears, and long natural lives. I’ve always assumed that humans are referred to as “Easterners” not just because they come from the lands east of the Dragaeran Empire, but as a sly nod to Aman, the continent that lay to the west of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, where the elves sail off to when they weary of the world. Brust essentially files the serial numbers off of things and makes them his own, reskinning standard elements and using them they way he needs them to be used, like and good gamemaster is wont to do.
There’s a lot of resurrection in the books, so just like in many of the early games I played in and ran characters don’t tend to stay dead if they have friends and/or money. Brust creates some rules to mitigate this, like burning bodies and destroying the brain making people un-revivifyable. He makes assassins’ rates a sliding scale based on how dead a target needs to be; killing them in a manner that renders them impossible to resurrect costs a lot more, because it’s also a greater crime than simple murder. To further complicate the resurrection situation, Brust introduces Morganti weapons, ego-intelligent blades that destroy a target’s soul. No soul, no way to bring them back to life. Possession of Morganti weapons is illegal within the Empire, but that doesn’t mean that people can’t get ahold of them, for the right price. This, again, is creating solutions to rules problems within the context of the story and the setting and the rules themselves.
Reading Brust’s Dragaera
For the most part, the books aren’t written in chronological order. The second book, Yendi, for example, takes place before the first book, Jhereg; it’s not a prequel, it’s just a separate tale that happens to take place at a different time. There have been attempts to construct a timeline and create a chronological reading order, but I don’t put much stock in them. I prefer the publication order, the way Brust chose to tell these stories. You aren’t missing anything no matter what order you read them in, because each book gives you as much as you need to get through that story. The hints and clues and little bits of information about the world do add up, though, and the more books in the series you read, the better you understand both the individual characters and the big picture of what’s going on in the setting.
The Vlad Taltos Series
The Khaavren Romances