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Books: Jhereg

One nice thing about getting older: it's easier to pick out a book that I know in advance I'll enjoy. I just select any novel that I read before 1997 and vaguely remember liking the first time; my lack of long-term memory (which appears to max out at about a decade) ensures that the ending will still be a surprise.

And so I recently reread Jhereg. Actually, I was doubly sure I would enjoy it, as I'd read it twice before -- once shortly after its initial release in 1987, and a second time in the Peace Corps, some 10 years ago. It's not one of my all-time favorite works of literature or anything, but it certainly lends itself to rereading: it's short, it's funny, it's clever, and, despite the fact that it's the first in a series of novels, it's self-contained.

Though set in a fantasy world (and fond in the "Fantasy" section of your local bookstore), Jhereg is more of a mystery novel. In fact, it's really two separate mysteries. The first revolves around a thief named Mellar, a former member of the Jhereg high council who embezzled an obscene amount of money and then promptly vanished. Another member of the council contacts the book's protagonist, Vlad Taltos, and charges him with the task of tracking down the missing man and funds. Though this proves to be fairly easy, Vlad must still unravel the intricacies of the heist, to learn how and why Mellar committed the crime.

The second mystery is inverted and stacked atop the first. Because, you see, Vlad isn't a private detective -- he's an assassin. He has been hired to bring Mellar to the authorities, but to very publicly kill him, to ensure that no one ever dare steal from the Jhereg again. To that end, Vlad must endeavor not to solve "the perfect murder," but rather to plan an execute it. And Mellar does his best to make Vlad's task difficult, setting up a Doomsday device of sorts, which prevents Vlad from striking even though he knows exactly where to find his target.

The is a rich backstore to Jhereg -- about the 17 ruling houses, the difference between sorcery and witchcraft, and a complete bestiary of exotic creatures that inhabit the world -- but author Steven Burst only reveals what you need to know to understand and enjoy the current chapter, never letting the narrative get bogged down in lengthy exposition. There is plenty of humor in the story (mostly witty repartee between Vlad, his assistant, Kragar, and his familiar Loiosh) but this isn't one of those "comic fantasy novels,' a la Terry Pratchett or Piers Anthony -- though the characters joke around, their work is (literally) deathly serious. And Burst has written each of the nine books in the series such that no one book is a prerequisite for another, and each can be read, understood, and enjoyed independently.

I'm not really a huge fan of fantasy novels, so don't let the genre deter you. Jhereg is a light, funny, inventive, and engrossing book, and one I look forward to reading again in 2017.

Posted on January 10, 2007 to Books


I totally remember books at the pre-10 year age. Reading Green Eggs and Ham is acutal hell because I remember that Sam tries them, his he does. No damn rhyming her.

Actually, I usually agree with this, but recently tried reading a book from previous year and was saddened because I already new the end.

--as a note. I did not really super enjoy Eragon (did not like the movie either) but have heard that Eldest is quite good.

Posted by: karen on January 13, 2007 11:03 PM

whew. I mean yes he does. Sam I am.

Posted by: Karen on January 13, 2007 11:05 PM

Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos books are truly inspiring to read as a writer. There are huge world differences between his world and the 'standard' fantasy world, but for the most part he leaves it to the reader to learn those differences through the context of the story rather than from exposition. And the few bits of necessary exposition are usually handled quickly as a sort of thumbnail sketch, leaving story events to fill in the gaps.

This is a great series of books, I recommend tham highly, too!

Great analysis of the mystery plot, too!

Posted by: Kevin on January 13, 2007 11:17 PM

The other thing that's so impressive and interesting about these books is that they are set in a world where powerful magic is commonplace. Try writing a good mystery novel in a world where most of the characters have access to teleportation, mind-reading, resurrection, clarivoyance, curses, magical poisons, amnesia spells, and the like.

Also, I highly recommend Brust's book The Phoenix Guards, set in the same world, but staring characters who are thinly-disguised versions of the Three Musketeers and written in the style of Dumas, including chapter titles like this: Chapter the Second, In Which Our Friends Take a Journey Which is Not as Uneventful as One Might Suppose.

Posted by: Michael on January 14, 2007 1:09 AM

Thank you so much for writing "charges him with the task", not "tasks him".

Posted by: B. on January 14, 2007 7:17 AM

Thank you for the reminder. When the most recent book in this series came out this summer, I was dissapointed because all the other books in the series that I owned were boxed up in storage, so I couldn't re-read them. Now I can go dig them out and read them again.

Generally, any of Brust novels set in that world are very enjoyable. I was somewhat dissapointed in the most recent one because it lacked in comparison to the rest of the series, but even so it was still enjoyable simply because of revisiting the familiar characters.

I suppose you could say I'm a fan of the series... my first cat is named Taltos. Considering the fact that I've seen him try to chase down deer in the yard, it seemed appropriate.

Posted by: Mazlynn on January 14, 2007 11:45 AM

Ah, my favorite light fantasy series.

Each novel is self-contained so you don't have to read any of the others to follow the plots, but there is something of a timeline. He jumps back and forth, with one book happening "now" and the next book actually occuring several years before the last book. The timeline goes something like Taltos - Dragon - Yendi - Jhereg - Teckla - Phoenix - Athyra - Orca - Issola. I haven't read Dzur yet (waiting for it to come out in paperback), but I believe it belongs after Issola.

Posted by: C. on January 14, 2007 11:52 AM

Thank you for reminding me of that book. I will have to dig it out and reread it.

Oh, and you wrote "Burst" instead of "Brust". Which makes me giggle for no apparent reason.

Posted by: Keith on January 14, 2007 8:37 PM