To set the stage, so to speak, the events in Vallista take place just before the action in Hawk. At any rate, Vlad is still on the run from the Jhereg, who still want him dead — a little matter of Vlad having told the Empire more than the Empire really needed to know about the workings of the Jhereg. As he and his host of the moment are relaxing over coffee, there comes a clap at the door. Only Dragaerans clap, so after arming himself, Vlad opens the door; it’s Devera, who happens to be the granddaughter of the goddess Verra (Vlad’s patron goddess), who asks him to walk with her. They wind up at a large manor house near where Kieron’s Watch used to be; they walk into the house and Devera vanishes.
It turns out that Devera is somehow trapped in the manor house and needs Vlad’s help to escape. It’s the “somehow” that’s important: the house doesn’t seem to exist in any sort of normal time or place, as Vlad discovers as he begins to explore the premises. He enters rooms that should be below or above where they are, and corridors that lead to, for example, a fully stocked wine cellar in which all the wine has gone bad (yes, even the best wine will go bad, if given enough time). There’s a corridor that leads to a cave that leads to a ledge from which Vlad can see Kieron’s Reach, which fell into the ocean-sea during the Interregnum. And everywhere, there are mirrors.
The first person he meets is a ghost named Tethia. And then he meets the lord of the manor, Zhayin, who is somewhat less than cordial. There are servants — Gormin, the house steward (who fails to show him out, as instructed by Zhayin, because the doors are now locked), a butler named Harro, a large, misshapen creature that might once have been human, an Issola dancer named Hevlika, an Athyra sorcerer namd Discaru, and Odelpho, who was the nurse to Zhayin’s son before the son had an unfortunate accident.
Now, the House of the Vallista is the house of creation and destruction – which usually translates to architects and engineers, as well as sorcerers. Zhayin himself is a necromancer, which, while it’s come in handly for his lifelong project, has complicated things for everyone else.
Unlike most of the novels in the Taltos Cycle, there’s very little forward motion. The jacket copy promises “swordplay, peril, and swashbuckling flair.” Well, sort of – there’s not really much swordplay and no buckles get swashed, but there is a lot of peril, which, after all, has become the basic condition of Vlad’s existence. There is only the puzzle. (It’s worth noting here that much of speculative fiction is built on puzzles. This is especially true of the Taltos Cycle.) Quite frankly, I gave up on trying to figure it out myself, although the clues are there. It’s enough that Vlad figures it out.
And, given all of that, I’m not sure what my reaction to the book is. Brust is one of those writers who captures the reader’s attention and doesn’t let go. In this case, there is enough of the story that’s under the plain words that it did get a little frustrating – especially when he does put it all together and your sitting there thinking “Why didn’t I see that?” But it’s still a good read.