A thirty-year-old fantasy adventure novel has aged less badly than a seventy-year-old Hollywood novel. That’s the first thing that struck me thinking back on Steven Brust’s Jhereg, and comparing it to the other book that I just recently finished. Though to be fair, I suppose I should check back in another forty years. I’ll mark my calendar. (I’ve also kinda started in on Stand on Zanzibar, which is pushing fifty, and which I am pretty sure I haven’t read in at least twenty, more likely twenty-five. It’s eerily accurate about some aspects of the early twenty-first century. It’s also a bit startling to see how much I retained from previous encounters with the book.)
Anyway. Jhereg was a lot of fun, for values of “fun” that include “lead character is an assassin by profession.” That would be Vlad Taltos, the novel’s first-person narrator and overall hero. Vlad is a mid-level mafioso, in a fantasy world that features humans, a human-like race of people called Dragaerans, various other intelligent creatures, and at least three different kinds of magic. The heart of the action in Jhereg is Vlad’s forty-second assassination commission, which turns out to be more than he had bargained for.
A jhereg, by the way, is a flying reptile with a poisonous bite, not too large to perch on a person’s shoulders, but still big enough to attack people and do grievous harm. Vlad has one as a familiar, and their banter occurs telepathically, or as Brust writes, psionically. Vlad’s world is a high-magic setting, with death often no more than an inconvenience (though it can become permanent under certain circumstances), and teleportation common enough that Vlad will undertake several in a busy day, and that his office has a designated spot for both incoming and outgoing teleportation. This not the kind of book that explores the ramifications of commonplace magic very rigorously; it’s the kind of book that takes such things as read and gets on with telling a fast-paced adventure story. It’s possible that carefully working out the implications of the setting and magical systems that Brust provides would reveal plot holes, but Brust is not a writer to let the action slow long enough for a reader to want to do that kind of poking.
When I first sat down to write up a few thoughts on Jhereg, I had been thinking that there’s not much in it that would make a reader think this is the first book in a series that is still going strong 32 years and 18 further novels later, but that isn’t quite correct. In the book’s world, each Dragaeran belongs to a House, of which there are seventeen. The Houses are named after creatures of the book’s world, some familiar, such as Dragon or Phoenix, some not, such as Jhereg or Yendi. The book itself has seventeen chapters, each preceded by an epigraph concerning one of the Houses, or perhaps the creature itself. The Houses appear to rotate possession of the Imperial throne, and Jhereg is firmly in the middle of the procession. And while there are a few scenes in the book’s prologue about young Vlad, by the time the main story starts he’s grown up and established in his profession. Equally, however, he appears to be writing the story from a vantage point of some years later. Add all of these elements together, and it’s clear that Brust was at the very least constructing a character and a setting that would give him room to tell many more stories. Jhereg is a good start.