Remember when fantasy used to be fun? The genre wasn’t full of these door-stopper, epic fantasies that go on for thousands of pages with just a little bit of a point. Sure, those can be good now and then, and I actually like a few series, but I miss the times when you could pick up a fairly short novel and have a laugh or two. Yes, Discworld is still out there, and I believe Robert Asprin is still writing the “Myth” books, but what more?
Back in 1983, Steven Brust introduced us to Vlad Taltos, an assassin, a “mob” boss (or the Dragaeran equivalent of one), and a human fish out of water. He’s the man with the dragon-like creature (called a Jhereg) on his shoulder, and he’s good at what he does. The first book of the series was called Jhereg and gave us our first peek at Vlad’s world. Having finally read this book, I can truly say that it is great. Brust’s characterizations shine through, and his wit is infectious. I’ve had this series recommended to me many times, and I regret having waited so long to start it.
Vlad is a human in a Dragaeran world, a citizen of the Empire whose father came from the East. In fact, his father spent most of the family’s money so that he could buy a title in the Empire - so Vlad would have a standing in it. The House, Jhereg, is more “mob”-like than the rest of the houses, and Vlad quickly moves up the ranks to have his own territory. He has also made himself one of the best assassins out there, but he is quite surprised when another boss, called “The Demon,” hires him to kill one of the Jhereg higher-ups who has absconded with a great deal of the House’s money. One condition: Vlad must do it quickly, before word gets out that somebody has done this to the Jheregs. There’s also a hitch: the target in question has taken refuge in Castle Black, as a guest of Morrolan the Dragonlord. Morrolan’s honor is strong enough that, once he has welcomed somebody as a guest, the guest is under his protection, no matter what. Vlad also finds that the case is even more complicated, reaching all the way back to the beginning of the Dragaeran Houses. Can Vlad succeed in time, without getting killed in the process?
The world Brust has created is very imaginative, and he doles out the information pieces at a time. Jhereg begins with a little about Vlad’s childhood and how he earned his Jhereg side-kick, Loiosh, and then gets right into the action. We slowly learn about Dragaeran society, how the Houses work, and how they interact. All of Vlad’s relationships are already established, including that with his wife, Cawti (the next book, Yendi, details how they met), so Brust takes us along for the ride, and we have to absorb everything as we go. I like that, as Brust is always clear enough that the reader is never really lost (though how the honor system works sometimes eluded me).
Vlad is the narrator of the series, thus his characterization is the most important. Thankfully, Brust nails him, giving us a likable protagonist who, occasionally, kills people for either money or because they crossed him, but that’s neither here nor there. The dialogue, especially between Vlad and Loiosh, is wonderful. His telling Loiosh to “shut up” after a sarcastic comment can become tiresome, but it seems to be their shtick so one just gets used to it. I also loved Kragar, Vlad’s henchman, and would really like to know more about his story. He has a good relationship with his boss, but the funniest part about him is how he’s so unnoticeable. The running gag in this series is how somebody’s looking for Kragar and he’s right there sitting in front of them, without anybody having seen him come in. That joke may get old for some after a while, but I still find it hilarious each time it happens.
Jhereg’s plot is very lean, with no extraneous material taking up space and racking up the page count. Vlad’s dilemma is interesting, as he has to try and find a way to get Mellar out of Morrolan’s house without using magic and without killing him in Castle Black. When the plot expands even more and the risk of a great war between the Jheregs and the Dragons because of this killing rears its ugly head, the plot gets even more intense. Vlad’s loyalties are tested as he is good friends with (and works for) Morrolan, so he will not carry out any assassination that will hurt Morrolan’s honour - which unfortunately makes Vlad a target for assassination as well. The twists and turns in the story make it unpredictable, and the way sorcery and witchcraft (in this world, there is a difference) work, along with some of the magical Great Weapons that are about, makes the ending unpredictable. Thankfully, Brust doesn’t pull the ending out of left field, though, setting it up nicely beforehand.
The only fault I found with this book, and it’s my own preference more than anything else, is that I’m getting tired of the “let’s create an intricate plan that involves lots of people, sit down and be briefed on what everybody needs to do, then carry it out” sequences. They just annoy me. I call it the “Let’s have a meeting and then execute the plan” formula. Always, one thing (maybe two) goes wrong, they have to improvise, and they end up succeeding anyway. It’s so predictable as to be maddening. Then again, this book is over twenty years old, so I’ll grant it a waiver.
Jhereg is an excellent beginning to the Vlad Taltos series. If you like your fantasy a little fun, this is a great one to pick up.