“Jhegaala shifts as moments pass”: Steven Brust’s Jhegaala

Jhegaala is another one that I hated the first time I read it. As it only came out last year, I’d only read it once before this, so I haven’t yet had time to get to like it. As I also hated Teckla and Athyra on first reading, I’m reasonably confident that I will. All the same, I picked it up with a certain amount of reluctance, and I didn’t enjoy it all that much.

Jhegaala is definitely not where you want to start this series. It’s out of the main continuity, set between Phoenix and Athyra. When I finished Phoenix I wanted to read it, because I never have read it there, where it belongs in internal chronology, and I swear next time I’m going to read them that way and see Vlad developing and having my events in order rather than doing all this complicated juggling. After Phoenix, Jhegaala might have more appeal. After Dzur it feels like stepping back. Vlad’s less mature here, still smarting from Teckla and Phoenix, and we have to watch him go through the process of becoming more mature. I know it can’t all be meetings with old friends and dinner at Valabars, and I would get bored if it was, you need shade as well as light, but even so, even appreciating that they can’t be all “Vlad has a nice day,” this book is a real downer.

Spoilers.

Jhegaala is an expansion of a couple of lines in two of the other books. Emotionally, it’s an expansion of the bit in Taltos where Vlad mentions that the Easterner kids beat him up for being too Dragaeran and it didn’t hurt as much as when the Dragaerans beat him up for being an Easterner, except that it hurt more inside. Jhegaala is Vlad discovering for real that Easterners are just as bad—good, bad, and mixed—as Dragaerans, it isn’t that the ones he knows in South Adrilankha are immigrants damaged by the immigrant experience, they’re like that in Fenario, too. And then, literally, it’s an expansion of the bit in Orca when Loiosh suggests they go East and that it needn’t be as bad as it was last time. This is the story of how bad it was, and it really was awful. It’s also probably the true story of how Vlad lost his finger, though it’s carefully not quite specific there.

Jhegaala seem to be some kind of insectoid thing which metamorphoses a lot. I don’t remember anybody from House Jhegaala in any of the other books, and the only one we see here is in the chapter start-quotes from the rather odd mannerist murder comedy play Six Parts Water. There we are told that you need to find out what phase they are in. I suppose Vlad does metamorphose in this book and he also does a lot of waiting around and eating, and a lot of time when he might as well be in a coccoon, like the animal jhegaala in some phases, and he’s certainly moody, so it does fit. Vlad comments that Jhegaala grow into and out of things in different phases, and this is certainly the book where he does some of that.

Good things: Vlad in the East, without any magic, without an organization or any friends. No, hang on, this was supposed to be good things. A little bit of Noish-Pa. Some interesting information about Vlad’s mother, which I’d have liked if it didn’t go where it did. Some lovely Vlad and Loiosh banter “There’s nothing worse than a smartass who pretends not to understand hyperbole.” The East, its reality, economics, and sky.

What is with the Overcast anyway? It’s not something the Orb is doing—it was there during the Interregnum. Loiosh and Rocza hold their breath when they fly through it (Athyra, Rocza POV) but when they climb through it on the way up Dzur Mountain in Paths of the Dead it just gives a reddish cast to everything and they breathe normally. In Phoenix, Zerika talks about disasters the Orb prevents that weren’t prevented during the Interregnum, and it struck me that they are natural disasters—mountains spewing fire and lava, people being blown away by strong winds, the ground shaking and cracking open. I assumed then if it was preventing volcanoes and hurricanes and earthquakes it was causing the overcast, but no. Also, what is it for? It hides the sun and the stars (no moon!) but while Vlad’s blinking in the sunlight, Morrolan missed it when he went to the Empire after being raised in the East, so  it can’t harm Dragaerans, which was my first thought.

So, why I don’t like it. Too much torture, too much angst, too much helplessness, and a very complicated plot that relies on everyone being idiotic—very much the way that people are idiotic, but even so. I also can’t help feeling that it doesn’t entirely make sense—the whole thing with Vlad mentioning the Merss family being taken as a threat and then the way they’re all killed doesn’t entirely fit with the explanations at the end. I don’t say “Ah-ha!” I say “Huh?” Which no doubt means I’m missing something, but I missed it this time, too.

On the subject of missing something, the book has two layers of extra-narrative quotation. One layer, about the natural history of the jhegaala, fits perfectly and makes sense—it illuminates the stages the animal goes through and these have some metaphorical relationship to what Vlad’s going through, no problem. The other, the quotations from the play, baffle me. They’re mostly funny little bits of dialogue, but there’s not enough there to deduce the whole play from the fragments, it seems to concern a Jhegaala but we don’t know who, and they serve generally to cast shadows instead of illumination. As this is a book about shadows, I suppose that makes sense.

On to Iorich, which I have not yet read, and which isn’t even published until January.


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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