Details: (c) 1988 Steven KZ Brust; Pub 2002 Ace; ISBN 0-441-00894-1
Verdict: Phoenix is really well-crafted and emotionally intense.
Reasons for reading it: It's the next in the Vlad Taltos series which I've enjoyed so far. I promised cartesiandaemon I'd finish it before seeing him so I could lend him this volume which contains the fourth and fifth books.
How it came into my hands: I bought it from Amazon.
Wow. Phoenix really shifts the series up a gear, and also ties the earlier four together in a way that recasts them as spearshaft for the really powerful impact of this volume. I am definitely becoming reconciled to long series in reading this set; Phoenix does a wonderful job of building on and re-visioning the earlier books, though it's a complete story on its own. It's very exciting, and full of complexity which still drives the plot forward rather than just existing to show off. It's also amazingly moving; not only was I caught up emotionally as a reader, there were several scenes that really resonated at a deeper level. The ending, particularly, really devastated me; I could only just step back enough to admire the technical achievement.
I think the big thing that makes Phoenix so much more powerful than the earlier books is that actions have real consequences. It breaks the pattern that I've started to expect, where Vlad gets into some terrible scrape, sorts things out by some amazing cleverness or dramatic intervention by his powerful friends, and ends up richer and with more power. Instead he actually has to deal with the results of messing with people more powerful than him. Characters die, not just red-shirts. Noish-Pa gets involved. I also cared about the general populace of Adrilanka much more than in previous books; I think Teckla is trying to set up this kind of political sympathy, but it doesn't really achieve its effect except in combination with Phoenix (which follows immediately after in the chronology). It's not just Vlad being irritatingly angsty about the morality of making a living as an assassin, he really starts to be emotionally and practically affected by the situation, and therefore the reader is affected too.
The book is still swashbuckling and exciting and has elves and magic and generally works as a fun, pacy story, and Vlad's voice is as beautifully snarky as ever. But there's a much more serious undercurrent, it's talking about emotional and political reality, with even a subtle whiff of theodicy, in spite of the light-hearted, readable framework. Phoenix works really well on both levels, as a good story and as a many-threaded work dealing with lots of interesting ideas.
rysmiel, thank you so much for bringing these to my attention!