Jhereg, by Steven Brust

jhereg-by-steven-brust coverGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Ace
Published: 1983
Reviewer Rating: five stars
Book Review by David Hart

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This is the first of the Vlad Taltos books, which take place on a world with two main intelligent species. In the East, imported in the very distant past, are humans. In the West live the tall, long-lived Dragaerans, plus a few humans. Dragaerans are divided into 17 inbred tribes, each with its characteristic temperament and abilities; for example the headstrong, imperious Dragons, the warrior-hero Dzur — and the Jhereg, named for a carrion-eating winged reptile, a House of outcasts, thieves, assassins. Vlad Taltos is a Jhereg assassin, unusual in that he is human. Unusual too for, being an Easterner, he is adept at witchcraft and has as a familiar a jhereg. He accepts an assignment urgently to kill an important Dragaeran, only to locate him in a place of sanctuary.

It is quite difficult to categorize this book. Firstly it is right on the border between Science Fiction and Fantasy. It has many of the ingredients of fantasy — a non-technological world with sorcery and witchcraft, ‘magical’ swords, and even some mention of gods. However the sorcery/witchcraft seem just to be labels for psychic abilities; and the feel of the book is much nearer to SF. Secondly, the plot type is that of a mystery, almost a detective story. The nearest equivalent I can think of is Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy books (and if you don’t know what I mean, go and read them!).

For such a book to work, it needs to have both a strong, watertight plot and an interesting setting (of course no one will complain if the writing and characterisation are good too, but they are less important than usual). Brust has managed this very well. I’m not going to give away the plot, but it is interestingly complex without being Machiavellian, not too predictable, and is based on what we gradually learn about Dragaeran society. And the Dragaerans are interesting in themselves: their origins, their history, their psionic abilities; all of which are slowly revealed in the course of the story. There are also hints of more to come, with mention of gods, reincarnation, three or four apparently-different modalities of magic….

What is bad about the book? Nothing really. I could suggest that the intelligent Taltos seems a little too ignorant about his world, allowing us to share his education; but then Brust has carefully arranged for him to have an outsider upbringing, and the Jhereg records are known to be incomplete. Again, he learns about a new method of magic, and almost immediately manages to evoke it; but a plausible reason has just been supplied for him to possess such an ability. Really these are just quibbles, nothing more.

If your taste runs more to space-opera or epic fantasy or romance, you will like this book less than I did. But if you enjoy a well-plotted, well-paced SF mystery, I strongly recommend it to you; and the good news is that there are several more books in the series.

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