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Review: Tsalmoth by Steven Brust

  • Tsalmoth is a fast-paced fantasy mob mystery featuring Vlad Taltos. Witty dialogue (much of it Vlad's internal dialogue) keeps the plot engaging even as it becomes increasingly complex and eventually reaches a satisfying conclusion.

Tsalmoth, a Vlad Taltos novel by Steven Brust, begins with a punchy opening line: “Have you ever noticed that getting married is like trying to collect a debt from a dead guy?”


Well, have you?


I myself have not noticed this, but I also do not have any personal experience doing either thing, so perhaps I am not best qualified to assess the analogy. In any case, I certainly felt compelled to read the next line, and the next, and the next—which is a good thing, because before that, I had been slightly worried to discover that I was starting the sixteenth Vlad Taltos novel, having read none of the previous fifteen! This seems to be a theme with my book reviews—jumping into series and universes at random points and trying to find my footing. I needn’t have worried though, as I was able to understand enough about the world and characters to find it deeply enjoyable as a stand-alone novel. Indeed, after a few pages, I found myself caught up in the story and piecing together enough context to enjoy the ride.


Tsalmoth follows the adventures of Vlad Taltos, a sort of mid-level organized crime boss in a fantasy city, as he attempts to plan a wedding and collect a debt from a dead guy. The story is told first-person from Vlad’s perspective, and I quickly found myself enjoying his voice. Although the first few pages had me feeling in over my head with characters and lore, Vlad quickly addresses this by offering “...maybe I should tell you a bit about myself. Nah, skip it. That’s boring. You’ll figure it out.” This snappy and somewhat cocky tone is tempered by Vlad’s curiosity, good-heartedness, humor, and noted simple tastes.


Each chapter begins with several ‘out of time’ paragraphs of Vlad describing the wedding planning process. As he sorts through the various traditions and cultural expectations of a wedding, I was reminded of a The Sopranos meme of actor Michael Imperioli as the hapless Christopher Moltisanti pinching a cigarette between his fingers and earnestly explaining his understanding of a concept. Go ahead and insert “So get this, Tony…” before any of Vlad’s expositions and you’ll see what I mean.


Brust, as Vlad Taltos, does include some absolutely effective descriptions that can’t help but resonate with the reader. For example, recounting a conversation with his betrothed, Cawti:


We talked about moving stuff around. How can a discussion of moving a table from one side of a room to the other make you so happy? I don’t know. It did.


Those few, simple words about the pure contented feeling of planning with another person that you trust and want to spend time doing nothing with do more to capture the feeling of love than a lot of flowery prose that I have encountered.


Vlad’s adventures begin, as alluded to, with the death of a guy who owes him money. In his efforts to find who is responsible, and who might be able to make good on the debt, Vlad is drawn into a world of intrigue. In classic mob story fashion, the plot thickens—and thickens again, as more players are revealed, and factions emerge. Each time it seems that he is closing in on the money, a new angle develops, until the very end when everything is tied up in surprising and satisfying fashion.


One element that I found to be missing, although I stayed on my toes expecting it for the whole read, is a devastating betrayal. In fact, most of the characters, aside from Vlad, are fairly one dimensional (in the character sense, not necessarily in the planar existence sense). This could be an intentional choice of the author to depict an unreliable and self-interested narrator, so I mention it more as an observation than a criticism. 


There is sorcery and necromancy and demonology in the world of Vlad Taltos, as well as a collection of races and classes that I struggled to keep track of. I attribute my struggles more to the fact that I started in the middle of the series than as a shortcoming on the writing. If anything, I am now motivated to read more of Brust’s books so that I can begin to understand more of this world.

Overall, Tsalmoth is an entertaining mob mystery set in a fantasy world. The quick pacing and snappy dialogue helped smooth over any of my confusion about the world of Vlad Taltos. Even if I didn't know exactly what was happening in the universe, I always knew what was happening in the moment. Steven Brust has firmly been added to the list of authors whose works I will always check for at libraries and booksellers.

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I thoroughly enjoy Brust's Vlad Taltos series and his other spin off that takes place earlier in the world.  In any other series I would have an exception to reading out of order the books and then giving a review.  The stories of Vlad however often do not come in any chronological order that you would find most series.  In fact it jumps around many times to various parts of Vlad's life.  Childhood to thief to assassin to fugitive to rebel.  It can be a jumble but the stories are always these condensed periods of mystery, action and wild plans and desperate gambles.  Good review.

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