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JHEREG
1983

Book cover art by Stephen Hickman.
Review © 2002 by Thomas M. Wagner.

The Vlad Taltos series has become one of fantasy's most popular, and it's easy to see why. Brust writes with an enviable edge, his stories devoting equal attention to suspense, imagination and wit. He's also a hybridist. Jhereg is at times a noirish detective story, at others an epic legend, at still others a buddy-action yarn not unlike a popular cop flick. True, Brust's saga gets off to something of a rocky start as he warms to his concept. But there's some crafty storytelling here, and the book is refreshingly free of the self-importance that burdens so much of contemporary fantasy.

The story is set in a land in which humans are second-class citizens to the more powerful native Dragaerans, who rule an empire through a series of noble houses and whose individual lifespans can run for millennia. Vladimir Taltos is a lowly human Easterner, who rises to prominence in Dragaera through his reputation as a witch and an assassin. His familiar is Loiosh, a dragon-like animal called a jhereg, with whom Vlad has shared a "psionic" bond since his adolescence.

Vlad is approached by the Demon, a leading member of the council of House Jhereg, to assassinate a former council member, Lord Mellar, who has absconded with the House's treasury. As Vlad attempts to trace his victim, questions arise as to how Mellar was able to rise to prominence in the council so quickly in the first place. Further surprises emerge when Mellar is found living under the protection of a member of the House of the Dragon, ancient sworn enemies of House Jhereg. So why would a Dragonlord be protecting someone from Jhereg? Unless the Dragonlord were being set up, too...

The more deeply Vlad digs into the affair, it becomes clear that there's a very real danger of another war between the houses of Dragon and Jhereg. And, as we learn in some compelling backstory that foreshadows exciting tales to come in this series, past wars between the houses have had nearly apocalyptic consequences; another war is too bleak a prospect to think about, and Vlad, much to hs chagrin, finds himself at the center of it, and perhaps the only person who can prevent it.

Like the detective and mystery stories that have inspired it, Jhereg is a maze of surprising narrative twists and schemes built upon schemes. Occasionally it comes off a little contrived, but no more so than any other noir plotline (which, by their very nature, are elaborately artificial constructs as opposed to realistic, organically flowing stories). I only have one major gripe with this novel, and that is Brust's dialogue, which often gets wisecracky to the point of sounding anachronistic. I'm not someone who wants to hear fantasy characters talk in some wretched form of faux-Shakespeare, but sometimes Vlad and his compatriots sound too 20th-century American, and it can be off-putting. Sadly, the worst exchanges are between Vlad and Loiosh, who spend most of their time trading good-natured insults and telling each other to shut up. Didn't it occur to Brust that the bond between human and jhereg ought to be a little more rich and meaningful? Loiosh himself is really a missed opportunity for Brust in the area of character development.

Still, I must say I was tremendously entertained by this story overall (the cheesy banter pretty much dries up in the second half), as well as with Brust's creative energies and ability to keep his plot on track and avoid the pitfalls such labyrinthine mystery plots often fall prey to. Other aspects of the book impressed me as well. I liked the way the relationship between Vlad and his wife Cawti was depicted, as one of both love and mutual respect, in addition to being a true professional partnership. A scene late in the novel where together they begin to put pieces of the puzzle into place was beautifully done. (Vlad and Cawti's relationship is explored in greater detail in the second book, Yendi.) That Brust's sense of humor sometimes lapses into juvenilia (he ends the book on a poop joke) doesn't detract appreciably from his storytelling strengths.

Jhereg might not be for all tastes, but for those who wish to lose themselves in a fascinating fantasy realm full of equal parts mystery and myth, this novel comes up aces all the way.

(In 1999, the complete novels Jhereg, Yendi, and Teckla were included in an omnibus trade paperback edition titled The Book of Jhereg.)