Jhereg

by Steven Brust

Cover image

Series: Vlad Taltos #1
Publisher: Ace
Copyright: April 1983
ISBN: 0-441-38551-6
Format: Mass market
Pages: 239

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Vlad Taltos is an assassin. He's a human in a world of tall, extremely long-lived beings known as Dragaerans, a member of House Jhereg in a world divided politically into Houses with strong shared behavioral characteristics. At the start of the story (after a prologue setting the world background and explaining how he got his familiar), he's hired to assassinate a spectacularly successful thief. From there, the story grows into an interplay of motivations, hidden pasts, conflicts of honor, and complications of loyalty.

The world background for the Vlad Taltos series is a headlong tumble through genre tropes that works mostly because very little time is spent dwelling on its foundations. There's both sourcery and witchcraft, with different sources of power, and separate chaos magic, plus telepathy, plus familiars, with genetic engineering in the background, and interactions between humans and long-lived human-like species, not to mention past-life regression and magical Great Weapons. All this does make more coherent sense than it has any right to, but Brust did throw in everything plus the kitchen sink. He avoids infodumps, though, explaining what's necessary for the story and giving the impression of a rich (if occasionally silly) history for both the world and the characters. And he doesn't make much attempt to come up with a plausible unified theory of how all this happened, which is for the best.

The core of the story is, in essence, a detective novel (with some hard-boiled sensibility) except featuring an assassin instead of a detective. Brust sets up a situation where Vlad cannot simply kill his target and keeps piling on another twist, another conflict of duty, honor, loyalty, or politics. Vlad narrates the story from the first person and is a somewhat typical hypercompetent hero with untold hidden power, but Brust makes up for that by not putting him in the traditional coming of age scenario and adding extensive helpings of snark and banter. The dialogue doesn't always work, particularly early in the book when it can sound forced, but it works often enough to keep me amused and make Vlad a likeable character.

Jhereg worked best for me when the plot swept up the characters and each page had another twist, another fight, another desperate gambit to cut the Gordian knot of the central problem. When the plot slows down enough to dig into the world background, I couldn't shake the feeling that the whole construct was a bit much, a little ridiculous. Those moments are rare, though, as Brust keeps matters moving right along, and since the characters themselves don't take much seriously, the structure feels more like a shared joke than a lack of coherence. Plus, there's some appeal in the sheer audacity of it all, the appeal of a juggler with flaming torches who goes after a stack of knives at the same time.

This is good, swashbuckling adventure with a nicely twisty dilemma that is fully explained for the reader. Recommended for light reading and a funhouse mirror on a whole pile of genre tropes, particularly how Vlad manages to regularly make observations about the life of an assassin in exactly the tone that hard-boiled detectives state the rules of their lives. (Oh, and to reassure those with bad associations with East European names, there is no hint of vampires in this story.)

Followed by Yendi.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-07-17

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21