The Book of Jhereg, by Steven Brust
Posted October 25, 2010on:
The Book of Jhereg includes the first three novellas in Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series , Jhereg, Yendi, and Teckla. Brust is already pulling the first of many fast ones on you tho, the novellas aren’t in chronological order. Published order yes, but not chronological. I suggest reading the three stories in the order in which they are written, and then as a reread, reading them in chronological order.
The first time someone told me about this series, my first thought was “Assassin? Witchcraft? Sorcery? Srsly can you get any more cliched?” luckily, this series isn’t really about assassins, witchcraft, or sorcery, and it’s some of the least cliched fiction I’ve ever come across. Brust’s writing is wry and sarcastic, and subtler and smarter than you’d first guess. Besides, I never get sick of these antihero stories.
I’ll get into the plots of the stores in a bit, but first let me give you some background as to the world. Much of this is covered in the first published story, which is another good reason to just read these in the order offered.
Behold the great Dragaeran Empire. Nearly as old as time itself, and ruled by seventeen great houses who in a specific order (sometimes by force), take turns sitting the throne. Named after indigenous animals, many people believe members of the houses reflect the traits of their symbolic animal. The further away you are from the top of the cycle, the lower your House’s status. In this world, your House is everything. It defines your occupation, your marriage options, your ambitions, everything. Not exactly human, Dragaerans of all houses are obscenely tall, usually with dark hair and dark eyes, and then tend to live a few thousand years. And they all (ok, nearly all of them) look down on the filthy, short-lived human Easterners who live in their midst. Not only are Easterners filthy and poor, they insist on practicing that silly witchcraft of theirs, when everyone knows Dragearan sorcery is far superior. Adrilankha, capital city of the Empire is home to the Phoenix Empress, and much corruption, politicking, and murder. No worries about the murder rate: so long as they didn’t use a Morganti Weapon (it eats your soul), a family member or your employer will just pay a sorceress a small fee to revivify you. In a world where death is rarely final, assassins are hired to send messages, not create widows.
And then there’s Vlad Taltos. Easterner, assassin, witch, dabbler in sorcery, member of the House of Jhereg, sometimes friend of the Empress, and partner and caretaker of his familiar, Loiosh the jhereg. Vlad might be one of my favorite literary characters, and he might be smart and quick and a curiousity to the nobles, but he’s not much without the obnoxious and sarcastic Loiosh riding on his shoulder. Psionically linked, they are dependent on each other for survival. What one feels the other feels, what one knows, the other knows. And Loiosh is such a bastard sometimes!
Along with his jhereg familiar, his loyal employees, a few local thugs, and one very well placed Monty Python joke, Vlad runs a small area for the House of Jhereg. This means he allows and protects the semi legal businesses in his neighborhood, so long as the owners give him a cut of the profits. Oops, didn’t I mention the house of Jhereg is the house of organized crime? Reminds me a little of the bits and pieces of stories my Mom used to tell me about growing up in the Bronx in the 1950’s. She’d known someone who knew someone who knew someone who borrowed money from the Mafia. . . and well, they always left women and kids and any other innocents alone. And so does Vlad.
The opening story, Jhereg, takes place about in the middle of Vlad’s career, but it’s a perfect place to start. While you’re being introduced to a million characters, Brust tells you just about everything you need to know about the Dragaeran Empire, and how Vlad, a low class Easterner managed to gain not only citizenship in the Empire, but a noble title as well, along with a number of other, very important “things to know while living in Dragaera”. Vlad has been tasked with tracking down a tricky character, Mellar, who is suspected of stealing one helluva lot of gold from the Jhereg Council. Who steals from a gangster council? A dead man, that’s who. It should be easy to take this guy out, except that he’s accepted an invitation to spend a few weeks at Castle Black, the floating home of DragonLord Morrolan. Vlad has done some work with Lord Morrolan before, and is aware of his “don’t kill any of my guests on my property” rule. Why did Mellar steal the money? How can Vlad get Mellar away from the protection of the castle before others find out how easy it is to steal from the Jhereg council? What’s this guy really up to? Ah, now you start to see a Brust pattern. . . .what you think the story is about? It ain’t about that at all. Not one bit. Nice little misdirection trick, that is.
Yendi, takes place much earlier in Vlad’s career. He’s recently won his own territory, and is fighting to keep it, which mostly means allowing a lot of gambling, and not beating people up too much if they are late paying him. A turf war gets ugly, and Vlad finds himself at the wrong end of a very pointy object. One vivication later, and he meets his would be assassinator. Her name is Cawti, and she’s beautiful. And an Easterner. The turf war is still going, and there is no way this other guy has the funds to be doing what he’s doing. Whose behind it? Why do they want Vlad out of the picture?For me, Yendi was the weakest story of the bunch, but I can also say it’s the most important, as we learn the circumstances of how Vlad meets his wife Cawti, and we learn a little bit more about Sethra Lavode, all of which becomes very important later. And by the way, you never learn more than just a little bit at a time about Sethra.
Teckla is the final story in the volume, and also the latest one, chronologically. Remember this post? This was the story I was talking about. Cawti has retired from her previous profession, and finds herself drawn to join a revolutionary group made up of Easterners and Teckla, who are sick of being treated like second class citizens by the rest of the Empire. The Teckla are Dragaeran, but aren’t considered a noble house, as they are the farmer, share cropper, servant, and slave class. Cawti is fighting the status quo, while Vlad doesn’t see anything wrong with the way things are. Easterners and Teckla want to improve their lives, what’s stopping them? Look at how Vlad improved his lot, working his way up from muscle to hitman, to small time crime boss. The revolutionary group’s protests gain the attention of the Empress, and troops are brought in. Vlad fears for Cawti’s life, and tells anyone who will listen that he will destroy anyone who harms her. Cawti, the famous retired assassin? Can’t she take care of herself? This isn’t a story about an assassination and a job, it’s about what we give up when we choose (if it was ever a choice in the first place) to assimilate. It’s about two people who love each other, and what they are willing to give up, or not give up to make the relationship work, if that’s ever a choice in the first place.
As much as I believe Steven Brust can usually do no wrong, these books are not for everyone. Lest we forget what Vlad does to pay the bills, there are scenes of explicit violence and cruelty. There are subplots that are started, ignored, then picked up again much later. There are characters who will outright lie to you about who and what they are. There isn’t much closure. Vlad tries to be a good guy, tries to do the right thing, and sometimes he fails. Miserably. When it comes to fantasy, I believe Vlad Taltos is one of the truest, most human characters out there.
I don’t know how much of his personal experiences Brust put into these stories, but I suspect a lot. He’s created a world that I want to know more and more and more about, populated by people I can’t wait to learn more about, and the perfect flawed man to give me the guided tour. There are currently about a dozen Vlad Taltos novels, and the full series is expected have 19. I’ve read about six of them. Some of the newer titles are available as singles, but most of the older novellas are published two or three in one volume.