Yendi by Steven Brust

Yendi is the second book published in Steven Brust’s long-running Vlad Taltos series. It takes place after the prologue of the first book, Jhereg, and a fair amount of time before that one’s main story begins.

As I noted previously, “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.”

Taltos himself (the name is pronounced in the Hungarian way, with the final “s” said like “sh”) is a human, low in status and very short-lived compared with the human-like race called Dragaerans, who dominate the part of the world seen in Brust’s novels. Vlad is a mid-level mafioso, because that is all that the social setup allows a person of his background to be. Though the adventure story in the book concerns a mafia war that is more than it seems, the following passage was, for me, the heart of the book:

“… my father ran a restaurant. The only people who came in were Teckla [peasants] and Jhereg [mafia], because no one else would associate with us. My father … wouldn’t let me associate with Easterners [humans] because he wanted us to be accepted as Dragaeran. …
“My father tried to make me learn Dragaeran swordsmanship, because he wanted to be accepted as Dragaeran. He tried to prevent me from studying witchcraft, because he wanted to be accepted as Dragaeran. I could go on for an hour. Do you think we were ever accepted as Dragaeran? Crap. They treated us like teckla [the animal, not the peasantry] droppings. The ones that didn’t despise us because we were Easterners hated us because we were Jhereg. They used to catch me, when I went on errands, and bash me around until—never mind. …
“I hate them. … I joined the [Jhereg, i.e., mafia] organization as muscle so I could get paid for beating them up, and I started ‘working’ [assassinating] so I could get paid for killing them. Now I’m working my way up in the organization so I can have the power to do what I want, by my own rules, and maybe show a few of them what happens when they underrate Easterners.
“There are exceptions … But they don’t matter. Even when I work with my own employees, I have to ignore how much I despise them. I have to make myself pretend I don’t want to see everyone of them torn apart. Those friends I mentioned—the other day, they were discussing conquering the East, right in front of me, as if I wouldn’t care.
“So I have to not care. I have to convince myself that I don’t care. That’s the only way I can stay sane; I do what I have to do. …”

The heat of this passage also partly explains one thing that bothered me as I read the book: the amount of casual killing, without apparent consequences. Hand-to-hand combat with lots of casualties is a common characteristic of sword and sorcery fantasy, all the more so when the main character lives outside of what little law prevails in such a setting. I enjoyed reading Conan, Elric, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and dozens more that featured scores of bodies that wound up on the wrong end of a sword or a spell. At some point, I may go back and see if I gloss over all of that as easily as I once did, because now, reading that four guards were quickly dispatched by the hero’s bodyguards gives me pause, even if the lead character has no second thoughts and none of it seems to have given the author any pause.

Taltos and his people, however little solidarity he generally shows with them, have been on the receiving end of discrimination and violent abuse in the Dragaeran Empire since time out of mind. Among other things, he is working to be able to pay some of that back.

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