I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again “There is nothing harder than reviewing one of your teenage favorites once you grow up.” And, unfortunately, Jhereg isn’t an exception to this fact.
Like many longtime fantasy fans, I first picked up Mr. Brust’s novel in the mid-80s. The unique setting, unusual hero, and the different denizens of this fantasy world pulled me in immediately. So much so that it remained a favorite of mine for many decades, and even now, it is difficult for me to criticize it, because the recollection of my teenage self sitting in the local mall bookstore (now closed) reading away about Vlad Taltos, Loiosh, and all their amazing Dragaeran friends still wanders in my mind. However, after completing a re-read, it has become painfully obvious that the enjoyment I received from this book must have been one of those teenage fads because . . . it has disappeared right along with my desire to keep solving a Rubik’s Cube.
Like most readers know (or can guess), the tour guide in Jhereg is Vlad Taltos. And the world he guides us through is a standard one from 1980s fantasy. Here a huge Empire controls most of the world, inhabited and ruled by the Dragaerans, who are basically LoTR-like elves. Indeed, the few humans in this world often refer to their overlords as “elves,” though to “confuse” the reader a bit the author has the Dragaerans refer to themselves as “human.” Other than this one quirk, there is nothing to set it apart from other fantasy worlds from this period.
Vlad is one of the human minority of the Dragaeran Empire, labeled by his “elvish” overlords as an “Easterner” and born into the lowest class of society. However, thanks to a social-climbing father, Vlad is actually a citizen of the Empire and a noble of one of the lesser Dragaeran houses. (There are 17 Great Houses in Dragaeran; each named after an animal of the world.) Of course, the house Vlad is a noble of just happens to be one huge criminal organization, which greatly resembles the modern day Mafia. Our protagonist’s role in this elvish “mafia” is as a minor crime lord, supervising certain criminal interests of the “house,” and as an accomplished assassin. To throw in a little “fantastical,” the author also makes him a minor sorcerer.
The novel itself starts out with Brust focusing on Vlad’s childhood, especially the story of how he acquires a live Jhereg egg, which later hatches out into his “familiar” Loiosh. (The golden reptile on the front cover of the paperback edition is Loiosh.) The two of them share a telepathic “link;” their constant bantering being the main comedic point of the book, though it does grow tiresome after a while.
After this boyhood tale, Brust time warps ahead approximately seven years to the main action of the novel. (This fast forward effectively leapfrogging three of the subsequently books in the series, making this the fourth in chronological sequence I believe.) Here another “mob” boss hires Vlad to kill one of the Jhereg’s higher-ups, who has disappeared with some money that doesn’t belong to him. The job has to be done quickly before word of this theft can get out and make the Jhereg look “weak.”
Since Vlad is a skilled assassin, the job doesn’t seem like a big deal until he discovers that his target has taken refuge in Castle Black, as a guest of Morrolan the Dragon lord. Morrolan is a heavy-weight Dragon with bad mojo magic. Word is that this Dragon lord is such a tickler for honor that once he has taken someone into his home as a welcomed guest that they are under his protection, no matter what. Plus, Vlad has a professional relationship with Morrolan (a strange friendship even), which complicates everything.
So now, the easy job has gotten complicated, and Vlad spends many pages planning the perfect assassination scheme. Ultimately, the plan boils down to this convoluted scheme to get the target out of Morrolan’s house without using magic and without actually killing him inside the actual castle. (It is much more complicated and cumbersome than that; I’m just trying to make it easier to understand here.) Naturally, things fall apart, people have to improvise, the incident turns into a full blown political situation between the Jhereg and the Dragon houses, and then things get cleared up at the end.
There are several nice things about this book, which many reads will no doubt enjoy.
1) It is fast paced – mainly because it is very short – and is written in a flowing style that keeps the pace moving, never bogging down in descriptions or tiresome wordiness.
2) It is also very modern in tone. The magic and other “fantasy” elements here are very straight forward, accepted by everyone in the story as part of every day life and never really discussed. Indeed, Jhereg is so modern in tone that it can just as readily be enjoyed as a contemporary mafia story rather than a fantasy; if the “fantasy” elements bore you, all one must do is just imagine it is all taking place in New York City as opposed to another world.
3) Jhereg is a fantasy detective or mafia story during a time when Tolkien clones were all the rage. So, at least in the early 80s, it was different. Not so much now but still good variety I suppose.
4) The interaction between the men and women of the book is very business-like with a post-feminism flavor. No sexual discrimination here. Hell, no sex here. Lol! Nope, no sexist remarks about females in general or anything like that; everyone appears equal without any distinction between male or female.
1) While this book is a fantasy, it has only a thin veneer of it. Sure, there is a bit of magic thrown around here or there, but if not for the strange names and “sorcery,” it is a contemporary story about a mafia hitman.
I read somewhere (I believe it was Ursula K. Le Guin’s book on writing) that in order for a novel to be a “fantasy” she felt it should have such a “fantastical” feel that a reader knew this could not take place down the street. Le Guin even gave an example of this, using an excerpt from a popular 80s fantasy novel. She quoted an entire passage from said “fantasy,” changed the kings to senators, holy priests to representatives and illustrated how this “fantasy” work read like a story about Washington, D.C.. I’m going to try to do the same, but I’m no Le Guin so bear with me.
We ate the meal in silence, enjoying each other’s company, feeling no need to talk. As we were finishing, Cathy said, “So, you get work, while I stay home and wither away from boredom.”
“You don’t look withered to me,” I said, checking. “And I don’t remember your asking me for help with that little matter last month.”
“Hmmmmph,” she said. “I didn’t need any help with that, but this looks like something big. I recognized the target. I hope you are getting a reasonable price for him.”
I told her what I was getting for him.
She raised her eyebrows. “Nice! Who wants him?”
I looked around the restaurant, which was almost deserted. I didn’t like taking chances, but Cathy deserved an answer. “The whole bloody Gambino family wants him, or will if and when they find out.”
“What did he do?” She asked. “He didn’t start talking, did he?”
I shuddered. “No, not that, thank the Virgin Mary. He ran off with nine million dollars in family operating funds.”
I changed only 5 words in that passage. Now, instead of Vlad Taltos the human assassin in an elvish empire, we have Vlad the local hitman, trying to take down a mob boss who has taken off with the family’s cash. And this is only one example and can basically be done throughout the whole book. Naturally, some spots take more than 5 words to transform the story, but you see the point.
This sort of thing doesn’t bother some people. If that is you, so be it. But if I wanted to read a novel about the mafia, I’d rather do so without the strange names and sorcery thrown in. Like I said however, it is a personal choice.
2) Jhereg is written in first-person narrative by the author. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself (Mark Lawrence pulled this off brilliantly in Prince of Thorns), but it does not seem to work here, making the scene transitions awkward and sluggish. And, quickly, Vlad’s constant descriptions of his actions like “I had my back to the door” or “I approached slowly, sizing him up, reaching for my daggers even though my palms were slick with sweat” began to read like a shopping list. It did not sound natural, and it really limited what I actually saw in the fight scenes, making me feel disconnected with everything else that was going on. Nope, instead of actually reading about Aliera doing something awesome, I have to wait for someone to describe it to Vlad.
3) No romance of any kind. (And before anyone mentions it, I know this was written in the 1980s, but even back in the dark ages of fantasy, writers did portray love, emotional attachment and sex in their stories.) But here, even though Vlad and Cawti are married, they act like business acquaintances. Sure, they talk about work or make dinner for one another, but other than that sort of “friendly” type of relationship, nothing is going on here. No affection. No deep, emotional talks. Nope, everything is all business between for these assassins.
Now, with all that being said, I know that the lack of affection or romance might not bother some of you. That is perfectly fine. It isn’t always what I’m looking for in my fantasy either. But I read many fantasy reviews were people expect some emotional bonding between couples, and if you are one of those people, just realize that you are not getting a story about a loving couple or on-page steaminess here, because this is a mafia story, plain and simple.
4) Lastly, if you are one of those people that loves reading about some grand, new world and its magic or history (What we have now label world building) Jhereg is going to disappoint you; the world building is at the bare minimum. Brust only includes the details necessary to remind you this is not happening in New York City and Vlad is not really a hitman, but an assassin in another world. Sure, we have weapons that destroy souls and talk about ancient Dragaeran Houses or the Orb, but they are fleeting, can easily be omitted without impacting the “hitman” plot and leaves one intrigued, but unsatisfied, with his/her knowledge about the “world” Vlad exists in.
To sum up, Jhereg is a decent book; both entertaining and quickly read. When I was a teenager, I loved it and would have rated it 4 or 4.5 stars. Unfortunately, some things do not age “well,” and this book is one of those things, resulting in a rating of 2 or 2.5 from my grown up self. It just pales in comparison to the type of fantasy novels we have all grown accustom to these days. But if you are needing to waste a couple of hours and don’t want to read another “detective” novel, pick this one up. It might make you *YAWN* in its simplicity, but it probably will keep you awake long enough to finish it.
Buy The Book of Jhereg at Amazon.