Thursday, November 06, 2008

Jhegaala by Steven Brust

I realized, when I was just starting to read Jhegaala, that I'd managed to miss the book just prior to it, Dzur. (And I remembered how, as well: Dzur was on my "possible omnibus" shelf, back at the SFBC, waiting for another book to come around for a 2-in-1. I always avoided reading potential omnibus books until I had all of the parts in hand -- because I wanted to read it the way a member would, and find out if the books worked that way -- so I hadn't had a chance to get to it before I was shown the door.)

Luckily, all of Steven Brust's "Vlad Taltos" novels are independent stories. You'll get more out of them if you start from Jhereg and work your way forward, as Brust wrote them, but there's no reason a new reader couldn't pick up Jhegaala to get a feeling for the series, and go back if she felt like it.

The Vlad Taltos novels have been mostly moving forward in time, with flashback novels every third book or so. Jhegaala is one of the flashbacks, but -- since the series has been running for twenty years now -- it's actually, for the first time, a flashback to a period in between two of the previous books (Phoenix and Athyra), rather than to Vlad's life before the first book, Jhereg.

Before I get into this book's plot, here's the two-bit version of the backstory: the Vlad Taltos novels are set on an alien world, probably in the far future. Humans came to that world either under their own power or were brought by more powerful aliens; in either case, that was long ago and essentially forgotten. Those aliens genetically manipulated both local creatures and those from Earth (including humans) to create a hybrid ecology. The manipulations on humans (now called "Easterners") created Dragaerans (which some humans call "elfs," and who call themselves "humans"), who are ridiculously long-lived and have a semi-typical Byzantine political structure of Houses and a not-precisely-typical fantasy Empire.

Vlad is thus a human (shorter, less magical, dying sooner, hairier) in a society of tall aristocrats; he's also an assassin and capo (ex-capo, at this point) in the official criminal organization of the Jhereg. (With the Dragaerans, everything has an official version; they're organized into seventeen Houses, each of which eventually gets its turn to rule the Empire.) After some unpleasant events in the novels Teckla and Phoenix, Vlad's marriage broke up and his employment with the Jhereg is at an end. Seeking to avoid assassins, Vlad headed East, out of the Empire and into the lands of humans.

And so Jhegaala starts with Vlad entering the kingdom of Fenario, looking for his mother's family in the paper-making town of Burz. But the mere mention of their family name, Merss, causes all of the local powers -- and there are several, from the lord outside town to the Guild of merchants and a secret coven of witches -- to assume that he's working for one of the others.

Jhegaala is a corrupt-town novel, similar in structure to many Westerns, though Vlad doesn't quite realize what's going on before he gets himself in too deep. Obviously, he comes through in the end -- it's a flashback, remember? -- but fans of the series know that something had happened to him around this time, and Jhegaala is that story.

The series is mostly about Vlad as a human in a society of Dragaerans, so Jhegaala is a departure from that, and it's not as distinctive as most of the series. Vlad is still an outsider in a strange society, but he's one human wanderer in a corrupt town. There's some magic, which makes it a fantasy novel, but otherwise very similar plots are familiar from many genres -- Westerns, of course, but also mysteries like Red Harvest and even samurai movies. In Jhegaala, we don't learn anything more about the Dragaerans or their world, and we really don't learn anything about the human kingdoms, either -- this is a backwater town, out in the middle of nowhere -- so all we're learning is specifically how some unpleasant things happened to Vlad.

Jhegaala is a pleasure to read; Vlad's voice is as engaging as ever. But Jhegaala ends up as one of the minor books in the series -- it's written to explain how something already mentioned happened to Vlad, so there's an air of getting from Point A to Point B about it. I wouldn't recommend anyone start the series here; it doesn't show Brust's (or Vlad's) best strengths. But it should satisfy those of us who have been reading about Vlad, and tide us over to the next book (which Brust is reportedly already working on).


Knock my socks off again said...

Hello Andrew,
Oddly, I just finished reading Jhegaala last night, and I enjoyed it for what it is--a Hammett/Chandler/Yojimbo style mystery story. Anyway, from his blog, he has finished and turned in the next book, Iorich, and if all goes well it may see print in late 2009. Dave

Brad Holden said...

Maybe it is me, but Brust's economic world view seemed particularly evident in this book. Orca was the other one that struck me this way.

Brad Holden said...

David's news is awesome, though. Yea more Brust books!

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