Jhereg, by Steven Brust, MMPB, Ace, © 1983, ISBN 0-441-38551-6
Earlier this year I read Jo Walton’s collection of essays What Makes This Book So Great, which is a collection of essays from over a decade ago mostly about books she re-read and discussed on the Tor blog. In it she covers all of the books published up to that time in two series. One of them I’ve read before, Lois McMaster Bujold‘s Miles Vorkosigan stories. The other was Steven Brust’s Draegarian novels, which I haven’t. I enjoyed her writing about them that I decided to start reading them myself. (I bought a used mass market paperback on eBay because I dislike the trade paperback format, but that’s another story.)
I’ve never been a big fantasy fan. I could have jumped onto this series fairly early, as I blasted my way through most of Michael Moorcock’s fantasy in 1986, but these were pre-Internet days, and it was unlikely I was going to get into a series through other than word-of-mouth. Brust was a fixture in midwest conventions when I lived there and attended them, and I remember seeing Five Hundred Years After on dealer’s room tables at the time, but I didn’t start reading them then. These days I still gravitate mostly to science fiction, but I read the occasional fantasy novel, and after reading Jhereg, the first book in the series, I’m looking forward to continuing, as one of its prominent features is something I really enjoy, and which I want to discuss here: The world building.
I hope to keep this spoiler free, as there are some nice twists in the story for those who haven’t read it.
At 239 pages, Jhereg is comically short by the standards of today’s fantasy series. Even in the early 80s it was on the short side, but not ridiculously so. However, it packs a huge amount of world building into that span, while still having space for an engaging story with a couple of nice twists. It’s quite an accomplishment for a first novel, especially the first of a series which has been running for nearly 40 years. I understand the series moves backwards and forwards in time from here, and I’ll be interesting to see how much consistency the series exhibits.
The lead character is Vlad Taltos, a human on the world of Draegara, who hails from the East, but lives in an empire of Draegarans, who are humanoids who live for centuries or even millennia. There are seventeen houses in the empire, each associated with an animal on the world, and the book makes clear that membership in a house strongly governs the lives and behavior and alliances of its individual members. Vlad is a member of House Jhereg, who are assassins, and by some considered the lowest of the houses. Vlad is in business as an assassin, and apparently a good one.
Draegara has magic, of at least two forms: Sorcery, which appears to be an exertion of will, and witchcraft, which are more ritualistic and time consuming. Vlad has some familiarity with both, the the book opens with him performing a ritual to obtain a Jhereg dragon egg, which grows to become his familiar, Loiosh. The world also features telepathy and teleportation, as well as resurrection from death, and methods to thwart such resurrection. The clever, powerful, and resourceful all take measures to deal with these various powers, and while one could not argue that Brust builds an airtight balance of forces, he does a good enough job in the scope and length of this novel that it’s not needed.
(Thanks to Clarke’s Third Law, one could imagine that this series is science fiction with a fantasy skin, but I prefer to take stories like this at face value unless given reason not to.)
Vlad is essentially a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. He’s constantly surrounded by people who are better than him at any one sill, but his edge is in fitting all of the pieces together. He also has an extensive backstory, having inherited his membership in the Jhereg from his father. He is married to another Jhereg, and is head of security for Morrolan, a powerful member of House Dragon. He’s friends with several other powerful people associated with Morrolan, and he runs his own business with his own staff and contacts. It’s unclear how old he is, but probably late 20s or 30s in this story.
Draegara itself has an extensive backstory, with periods of war, an interregnum, and characters who have lived through it all. And I’m sure there’s plenty we don’t see, since there are whole novels later in the series which take place centuries in the past.
Weaving all of these pieces together without seeming like two hundred pages of exposition is no mean feat. To be sure, Vlad spends a lot of time talking, gathering information, and even learning a few things he didn’t already know. But it all works. I think because Brust is careful not to go in too many directions at once. For example, only three houses – Jhereg, Dragon, and Dzur – figure significantly in the story, and mainly because of the characters’ connections to them.
Oh yes, the story: Vlad is hired by a high member of the Jhereg named The Demon to find a man named Mellar who has stolen a large amount of money from the House. This is embarrassing for the House, but moreover it could signal the others could and should try the same thing if it gets out. So The Demon wants to kill Mellar quickly and permanently, and recover the money, so that even if it does get out, the risks will be clear. Unfortunately, once Vlad finds Mellar, actually killing him proves to have huge and unexpected challenges.
So the story is partly a mystery about Mellar, and partly a puzzle as to how to kill him – or, more precisely, how Vlad can fulfill his contract, do right by his house, and overcome the challenge that killing Mellar presents. (I was pretty happy to figure out the mystery about ten pages before Vlad did. I sort of figured out the puzzle, but my solution probably wouldn’t have worked – or at least, it just would have shifted the steep cost to other parties.) The story is also pretty clearly a set-up of Vlad’s relationships and loyalties, as well as laying the ground rules for how some of the characters and structures in Draegara work. I expect these will be developed and play out in later novels.
All in all, Jhereg is a remarkable piece of work. It even doesn’t feel very dated – for example, several of the major characters are women, including one of the most powerful ones, even though it’s a book with a male protagonist written by a male author. In some ways it’s what I’d wanted George R. R. Martin’s A Song if Ice and Fire (a.k.a. Game of Thrones) to be, with more action, more character, less wordiness, and more of a sense of wonder. Definitely recommended if any of these elements appeal to you, and I hope the series only gets better from here.