With this novel, Brust seems to have lost the unique voice of Vlad Taltos. Instead of the clever wittiness of previous volumes, the Vlad of this book is merely sardonic and shrill. There’s also an oddly anachronistic tone in a patter drawn with distinctly 20th century rhthyms and tone.
This loss may have something to do with the fact that Brust is, once again, jumping back to a much earlier time in Vlad’s life. He handled this back-and-forth movement of the meta-narrative adroitly in the past, but the Vlad that we had last seen in Orca had been deeply transformed. Brust wouldn’t be the first author to demonstrate that, sometimes, you just can’t go home again.
The other failings of the book are less understandable, perhaps, but might ultimately have the same origin: If Brust was struggling to find young Vlad’s voice, that inauthentic note can very easily spread to other aspects of the work.
Notably there’s a narrative bloat coupled with a lack of focus. There’s lots of stuff on the page here that doesn’t seem to serve any real purpose and a lot of it is authorial meandering of the worst type. (“I’m going to talk about my inability to cook a particular type of bread because I’ve got a word count to hit by Friday and I don’t know what else to write just now.”)
Even the non-traditional narrative structure doesn’t work. It’s not actually being used to accomplish any specific effect (unlike the similar structure used in Taltos). So it just comes off as gimmicky and trite. In fact, the novel probably would have been better without this cheap trick. (In Taltos the same technique improved the novel because the structure reinforced the themes of the book and gave wider context to the individual events.)
In the case of Dragon, Brust tries to blatantly tell you that he’s giving you wider context. But, in actual practice, he just deflates the entire plot: The fact that you know what’s going to happen long before it happens just adds an even larger sense of bloat to the mild bloat which is already dragging the novel down.
It should also be noted that things generally improve as the novel continues, feeling almost as if Brust was warming up to his subject. In the end, however, I found this to be the weakest of the Taltos novels.