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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