Details: (c) 1993, 1996 Steven Brust; Pub 2003 ACE (as single volume); ISBN 0-441-01010-5
Verdict: Athyra is slight, but fun; Orca brings some unexpected novelty to the series.
Reasons for reading it: I'm gradually working through the Vlad Taltos series, which so far range from enjoyable to really enjoyable.
How it came into my hands: cartesiandaemon got enthusiastic about the series too (it's been fun discovering them together!) and bought the next double volume so we could both keep reading. I read Athyra back in December and then didn't get round to reviewing it. And I didn't get to Orca for a long time because the two-volume edition is physically so big that I was never able to fit it in my luggage.
I was a bit disappointed with Athyra; it's not bad, but it slips into fairly ordinary sword-and-sorcery stuff. I was really excited about Phoenix, especially the highly dramatic ending. Athyra doesn't quite live up to that level, but it does provide a fresh direction for the series, with Vlad as a desperate exile rather than an annoyingly successful small-time gang boss and assassin.
For me, the problem is that the book is from the viewpoint of Savn, the teenaged Teckla that Vlad befriends. Savn is not a bad character by any means, but he's a little bit of a stereotypical teenage apprentice discovering his power and the world, and he's just not nearly as much fun as Vlad. cartesiandaemon appreciated the way that the novel turns round the typical fantasy opening where a wizard shows up in a remote village and takes on a young apprentice, because having followed Vlad for five books we see things from the point of view of the wizard. I can see that that's interesting, but it wasn't quite enough to sustain me through the story when I really wanted more of Vlad. Especially when he's really starting to develop as a character, not just as snarky, hyper-competent assassin. I did like having a bit of Rozca viewpoint as well as Loiosh, though, because she's a delightfully non-anthrophomorphic, yet intelligent, animal.
With Vlad cut off from his loyal staff and friends in high places, there is plenty of dramatic tension, and Loraan works better than some of the previous villains as a genuinely powerful enemy that Vlad doesn't just defeat by means of being unreasonably good at swordplay. The ending in particular is really thrilling, and definitely makes up for the slightly slow start.
Orca is, somewhat bizarrely, a fantasy version of the Maxwell Affair. It's pretty well done, but I was a bit put off by the unsubtle direct parallels with the real Robert Maxwell, and the long expositions about economics. The Kiera viewpoint is interesting, but even she is not as likable or convincing a character as Vlad, though I did enjoy the description of her disabling the alarm. It feels a bit as if Brust was trying to break out of the formula established in the first five books, and was experimenting with different angles and characters. A change of direction rather than more of the same is a good thing, but the latest pair aren't quite at the level of the established formula when it is working at its best.
The political angle of the story worked well in this one. Vlad seems genuinely out of his depth, faced with problems he can't solve just by assassinating a key enemy. I liked the way that Vlad and Kiera think they're successfully manipulating people when actually they are being manipulated. And there's more of a feel of political intrigue than in the earlier novels, where it sometimes seems as if there isn't much world beyond Vlad's direct experience.
I wasn't crazy about the revelation about Kiera at the end. It was less cheating than a lot of similar twists, but I generally don't like books which conceal a major revelation about the identity of the viewpoint character by means of leaving out crucial information from their internal monologue. Still, I'm intrigued to see where the story will go from here with Kiera's secret identity. I'm also slightly disappointed that Hwdf'rjaanci turned out to be exactly who she seemed to be; it would have been much cooler if the innocent hedge-witch thing were just a facade for someone powerful and sinister!