Review: Jhereg by Steven Brust

Jhereg by Steven Brust
Jhereg by Steven Brust

Steven Brust, read by Bernard S. Clark
Audible Frontiers, 2012

The first of the Vlad Taltos novels, Jhereg, by Steven Brust has been on my “to-read” list for the better part of a decade and a half. Back in August, released Jhereg (and just about all the other Vlad Taltos novels, via their increasingly impressive Audible Frontiers label. Jhereg introduces the readers to the assassin Vlad Taltos. Living in amongst a race of tall long-lived sorcerers called Dragaerans, Vlad has risen to a station of respect and power (if of a limited variety) despite his human heritage. Aiding Vlad in his endeavors is his Jhereg familiar Loiosh, earned after Vlad embraced the witchcraft of his human ancestors. The novel sees Vlad hired by a legendary figure called The Demon to track down a kill a thief (Mellar) who robbed the Jhereg Council (the clan that Vlad himself belongs to) of a great sum of money; so great a sum that if Mellar gets away the council will essentially be crippled.

It should be noted for prospective readers that Jhereg, while the first novel to feature Vlad, is not the first within the series’ own internal chronology. Published in 1983 Jhereg was followed in 1984 by a prequel (Yendi, which itself received a sequel in 1998) and didn’t get a sequel until 1987 (Teckla). Jhereg, Yendi, and Teckla are all available in print as The Book of Jhereg or individually in audio from I’m the type of idiot reader that always wants to know what will happen next so discovering this after having listened to Jhereg is kind of annoying since I’m also a bit of a completionist. There are further chronological oddities in the series’ publication and I’m not sure there is any right way to read the series. Brust himself tossed a monkey wrench in such discussions when he released both Dragon and Tiassa both of which have sections taking place in different times. My gut says go with publishing order.

Jhereg stems from the sword and sorcery tradition particularly in its approach to character. This isn’t a novel about epic quests but about the struggle of an individual character to achieve a specific goal with the primary narrative driving the how of those actions. Brust shows an adept hand at world building without ever becoming too distracted by the particulars of the setting. Most of the historical and cultural details gleaned about the world have direct implications to the current plot with only minor deviations with the seeming intent to set up further plot points in later novels. When it comes to world building Brust’s attention is focused in a subtle examination of the society of the Dragaerans, the inter-relationships between the various clans (aided by the chapter headings), and the place of humans in the struggles of those clans. While this definitely gives readers a good handle on the history of Jhereg’s world it also plays an essential role in how the plot unfolds and marks a rather clever means to get readers interested in the history of the Dragaeran Empire.

Vlad’s role as both an assassin and crime boss (he is in charge of a section of the city) gives Jhereg a subtle noir bent that adds a nice twist on the proceedings. When I was younger I doubt I would have been so quick to point out the delicate and subtle elements of other genres that seem to make it into fantasy and science fiction. As I’ve grown older I’ve realized the some of the most glorious and entertaining novels I’ve read are the result of author who decided to combine seemingly contrary elements from multiple genres. While there will always be a soft spot in my heart for “traditional fantasy” there is an indefinable special something about a fantasy of science fiction novel that doesn’t adhere to the strict and limited tropes of a single genre. Brust ably proves in Jhereg that one can combine a crime thriller and fantasy novel (with a touch of politics) into an engaging and entertaining read.

Brust’s willingness to play with chronology is apparent in the series’ publication history and you get a touch of that same willingness right at the start of Jhereg. While the novel does give a bit of a backstory to Vlad it only focuses on the those elements that are most integral to the plot of novel (this only becomes obvious towards Jhereg’s conclusion). It is a clever means to introduce us to Vlad’s past while at the same time not encumbering us with too much unnecessary information. While I ended up with a basic understanding of the society in which Vlad lives and works within I ended up with an excellent understanding of Vlad’s character; as the primary lens through which the reader views the world (the novel is primarily in first person) have a crystal clear understanding of who Vlad is leads to a greater connection to his surroundings as well.

Jhereg is a fantastic fantasy novel and a classic of the genre. While it doesn’t operate on the same grand scale of the doorstopper fantasies we all know and love it Jhereg provides an introduction to multifaceted character living, and having adventures in, a world that feels complete and whole. Where Jhereg tells a satisfying and complete story the details of Vlad’s life and the greater mysteries of his and the world’s past definitely left me clamoring for more. I definitely returning for more of Vlad Taltos in the future. If you’re a fantasy fan and haven’t given these novels a shot there isn’t a better time than now.

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