“Jhereg feeds on others’ kills”: Steven Brust’s Jhereg

One of the things we disagree about in our house is series reading order. Families in movies always squabble about whose turn it is to take out the garbage or wash the dishes. It must be very boring to be them. However, generally where publication order and internal chronological (IC) order are different Emmet likes reading a series in publication order and I like reading them in IC order. (We first met on rec.arts.sf.written disagreeing about reading order for Womack’s Dryco books, so this is a long standing difference of opinion.) I think I mentioned when I re-read the Miles books in publication order that I always normally read them in IC order. I used to do the same with the Vlad Taltos books until with the publication of Dragon Brust made that impossible. The reason I prefer it is that with reading in publication order you can see how a writer develops and how they develop their idea of where the series is going, but by IC order you can see how the characters develop when events happen to them in order. Pamela Dean once said that you should read Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin books in order if you normally read chapters of a book in order. That’s how I feel. Reading them out of IC order requires building a structure in my head to fit the characters and events into, with “how we got from here to there” arrows and bars as part of it. But since playing with structure and making you hold things in your head is one of Brust’s things, here we go, publication order.

I have to say that Jhereg is a very satisfying introduction to the series and to the world. There are seventeen Houses of the Dragaeran Empire, and the series is intended to have a book for each House plus an introduction and a conclusion, making nineteen in all. In each book, there’s a significant character belonging to the House in question, and also Vlad acts in the way characteristic for that House. So in Jhereg he’s hired to kill someone and it runs into complications. Jhereg begins with a little about Vlad’s early life and how he acquired a jhereg familiar — a poisonous flying lizard with human intelligence and psionic capability. It then plunges directly into the story, showing Vlad running his own area, happily married, with powerful friends, he accepts a contract for more money than he’s ever had before, we learn a lot about the world.

The way the characters are introduced as friends, and the way they work as friends, is excellent. We’re going to see in earlier-set books, these relationships beginning, we’re going to see Vlad a lot less confident, and then in later-set books we’ll see him develop a conscience. Jhereg‘s a good introduction and also a good story. This was the first Vlad book I read—I’d previously read The Phoenix Guards, which is a much less good introduction to the world. I can remember thinking with the overcast that perpetually covers the Empire and the way the Cycle works that now I got it.

If you haven’t read these, Jhereg is a fine place to start.

Spoilers from here on, potentially for everything except Iorich, which I haven’t read yet.

Chronologically, Jhereg comes about a year after Yendi and pretty much immediately before Teckla.

Thematically, Vlad spends the book trying to assassinate a member of the House of Jhereg, thus acting like a Jhereg and with the book revolving around a Jhereg. There’s also the acquisition of Loiosh in the prologue and of Rocza at the end, providing plenty of jheregs.

The actual plot of Jhereg is extremely neat. Mellar has been plotting for several hundred years to destroy the Houses of the Jhereg, the Dragon and the Dzur. He’s doing this because he’s a mixture of all three and feels underappreciated by all of them. His death at Jhereg hands in Castle Black really would accomplish what he wants. The shape of the book is really the shape of Vlad working out what’s going on. The pace of revelation is excellent, both for the Mellar plot, the world, and the revealed backstory about Vlad’s soul and the beginning of the Empire. The information about that and the Interregnum directly contradicts Paarfi, and I’m going with Vlad’s account direct from Aliera’s mouth here. I also very much like the way everyone has to go around Morrolan’s code of honor and the Jhereg code of honor—the idea that they’d recover from a war in ten thousand years, but if they lost their reputation they’d never recover.

Despite trying hard, I can’t see any set-up here for the unhappy marriage in Teckla. There’s some in Yendi, but here I don’t think it’s Vlad being oblivious, I’m not seeing it either. Cawti would like to work, sure, but that’s all. I remember when I first read it liking very much that there wasn’t a romantic subplot—romances and divorces are common in fiction, people who are quietly happily married all through a book are notably rare. Oh well.

Neat little things: Vlad’s vision, including Devera. We know what almost all these bits are now?

There is a cry of “charge” and five thousand Dragons come storming at the place the Eastern army is entrenched. [Dragon] Making love with Cawti that first time—the moment of entry even more than the moment of release. I wonder if she plans to kill me before we’re finished and I don’t really care. [Yendi] The Dzur hero, coming alone to Dzur Mountain, sees Sethra Lavode stand up before him, Iceflame in her hand. [???] A small girlchild with big brown eyes looks at me, and smiles. [Devera getting everywhere as usual] The energy bolt, visible as a black wave, streaks towards me, and I swing Spellbreaker at it, wondering if it will work. [Issola] Aliera stands up before the shadow of Kieron the Conquerer, there in the midst of the Halls of Judgement, in the Paths of the Dead beyond Deathsgate Falls. [Taltos]

I’ve always wondered how much of the whole story he knew before he started it and how much he’s making up as he goes along, and this implies “lots”. It must take a lot of confidence to make a first novel the start of a nineteen book series.

Other cool things: it sets up an insoluble problem and then finds a very satisfactory solution to it. Also, Brust is doing a thing where he has a wisecracking assassin professional criminal and you accept him as a good guy. He’s setting that up for undermining later, but it’s worth noting the way he takes genre conventions here (as with Agyar) and uses them to mess with your head.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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