Book reviews by Mobilism's Book Review team
Feb 9th, 2017, 4:27 am

TITLE: Jhereg (Vlad Taltos #1)
AUTHOR: Steven Brust
GENRE: Sci Fi / Fantasy
RATING: ★★☆☆☆


Jhereg, the first book in the Vlad Taltos series by Steven Brust, is told in the first person point of view by the story's main character, Vlad Taltos. I picked this book to read based solely on the fact a dragon is on the cover. It is funny I realized after starting the book that I never actually read the blurb to find out what the book is about. I did not expect the book to be about an assassin!

Vlad is an easterner in charge of a small territory. He is both well respected and a titled member of the Dragaeran house of Jhereg. We are introduced to a few Dragaeran houses in this book. Each Dragaeran house is named for a native Dragaeran animal and has a specific focus. Jhereg specialties are criminal enterprises, assassination, spy and mercenary work. Then we have house Dragon known for its military prowess. House Dzur specializes in swordsmanship and heroism (I’m still not sure what animal a Dzur is but I think it might be equivalent to a Jaguar). As a member of the Jhereg, Vlad and his team specialize in assassinations and spying.

The two main influences in Vlad's life are his father and his grandfather, who are as different as night and day. Vlad's father is a man not comfortable in his own skin, ashamed of his easterner background. His grandfather embraced everything about the easterner culture. The contrast between these two men has had lasting effects on the development of Vlad's character. His father is so ashamed of being an easterner that he purchased the Jhereg title. He refuses to be healed by easterner magic, even though he couldn’t afford to pay for the sorcery that would’ve saved his life.
"I wondered what my father would say, if he were alive to say anything. He wouldn’t approve, of course. Witchcraft was too “Eastern” for him, and he was too involved in trying to be a Dragaeran."

"But my grandfather was still around. One day I explained to him that, even when I was full-grown, I would be too short and too weak to be effective as a swordsman the way I was being taught, and that sorcery didn’t interest me. He never offered a word of criticism about my father, but he began teaching me fencing and witchcraft."

There’s also the issue of prejudice between Dragaeran and Easterner. Dragaerans are highly prejudiced toward Easterners.
"When my father died, he was pleased that I was a skilled enough sorcerer to teleport myself; he didn’t know that teleports made me physically ill. didn’t how often would use witchcraft to cover up the bruises left by punks, who would catch alone and let what they thought of Easterners with pretensions."

Read a book and there’s a character you love, hate, or who annoys you. In Jhereg, there isn’t any one character I can say I had any significant feelings about. Vlad is an assassin who has no idea how he feels about killing. He’s been doing it for years, yet he has no feelings at all about it. In the real world, he would be viewed as a sociopath. But he’s not. He does, however, get excited about the planning of the job itself and compares himself to an artist.
"Kragar once asked me, when I was feeling particularly mellow, if I enjoyed killing people. I didn’t answer, because I didn’t know, but it set me to thinking. I’m still not really sure. I know that I enjoy the planning of a job, and setting it in motion so that everything works out. But the actual killing? I don’t think I either consciously enjoy it or fail to enjoy it; I just do it."

“Sometimes, when I’m in the middle of planning, I’ll get a sudden inspiration, or what appears to be a sudden burst of brilliance. I fancy myself an artist at times like this."

The most interesting thing to me about Vlad is he refused to become a thief because he didn’t approve of stealing... but he's ok with murder?
“Kiera,” I said, “there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to learn your art. Besides, my grandfather doesn’t approve of stealing."

We meet a few other characters in the story Kragar, Vlad's partner. The Jhereg (the animal) named Loiosh who is Vlad's familiar, his wife Cawti, Kiera the Thief, Valiera, Morrolan, Sethra. I could name characters for days, but none of them stood out, each lacks individuality and realism. For example, Brust tries to give a voice to Vlad's familiar, a Jhereg (the Animal a miniature Dragon not house Jhereg) named Loiosh. More than anything Loiosh is an extension of Vlad's personality. The dialogue between Loiosh and Vlad doesn’t seem to serve a purpose in the story that I can tell. Brust tries to paint him as snarky but I don’t get a feel for Loiosh as a separate personality from Vlad.
"I turned to Loiosh, who was still resting comfortably on my right shoulder. He’d been strangely silent during the conversation. “What’s the matter?” I asked him psionically. “Bad feelings about the meeting tomorrow?” “No, bad feelings about having a Teckla in the office.Can I eat him, boss? Can I? Huh? Huh?” I laughed and went back to changing weapons with an all-new enthusiasm."

In the dialogue between characters, there is no personality. In the dialogue below there’s no telling whether he is talking to the same person or different characters, there are no distinguishing between each character’s style...
“What is it, boss?” “Can you get a fix on me?” “It’ll take a while. Problems?” “You guessed it. I need a Morganti blade. Don’t bother making it untraceable this time, just make it strong.” “Check. Sword, or dagger?” “Dagger, if possible, but a sword will do.” “Okay. And you want it sent to where you are?” “Right.And hurry.” “All right.Leave our link open, so I can trace down it.” “Right.”

“He wanted me to take his shift this time, and he’d take mine. I guess he had some kind of business.” I was bothered by this. “Do you do this often?” I asked. “Well,” he said, looking puzzled, “both you and Morrolan said it was all right for us to switch from time to time, and we logged it last shift.” “But do you do it often?” “No, not really very often. Does it matter?” “I don’t know. Shut up for a minute; I want to think.”

Vlad accepts a contract on a Jhereg named Mellar that is nearly impossible to fulfill within the confined time. He and his Team must find a way to fulfill the contract or become targets themselves.

Most of the story revolves around figuring out the mystery surrounding this Mellar character. It’s not long before the problem expands. Fulfilling the contract on Mellar could possibly have several negative ramifications if not handled correctly.

Discovering Mellar's true origins and intentions provides Vlad the insight he needs to create a workable plan to fulfill the contract on Mellar; while preventing a war between house Jhereg and Dragon as well as the destruction of the reputation of Castle Black and House Dzur.

One of the things that really stood out for me about this novel is that the author tries to make Vlad's character a hero. Brust fell a little short trying to paint Vlad as something he’s not: An assassin who is scared to die spooked by an assassination attempt trying to kill his target the right way in order to prevent catastrophes and save reputations.
"Over the years, I have developed a ritual that I go through after an attempt has been made to assassinate me. First, I return to my office by the fastest available means. Then I sit at my desk and stare off into space for a little while. After that I get very, very sick. Then I return to my desk and shake for a long time."

This leads me to compare Vlad to the one character that I’ve read about who is most similar to him. from Jennifer Estep’s Elemental Assassin series. I may be committing a faux pas because the Vlad Taltos series is labeled as sci fi/fantasy whereas the Elemental Assassin series is urban fantasy -- but I just could not help myself. Gin Blanco is a cold blooded assassin who, like Vlad, has excellent skills and magic of her own which she uses to take out her marks. But Gin’s character is distinct, there’s no doubt of who she is: not by Gin, not by the author, and certainly not by the reader. Gin does not hesitate if someone tries to kill her, she doesn’t get scared; she gets determined and they get dead. Fast.

Brust has a conflicting writing style; at times the writing is very methodical and purposeful.
"I agonized over each word, each syllable, exploring it, letting my tongue and mouth linger over and taste each of the sounds, and willing my brain to full understanding of each of the thoughts I was sending. As each word left me, it was imprinted on my consciousness and seemed to be a living thing itself."

Things are explained in great detail but other things I consider important to the story as a reader are not. At times the confused reader is left to figure things out as the story goes along. I felt like when it would've made sense to give more background the author fell short while giving too much unnecessary information at other times. Bouts of monotonous dialogue to prepare the reader for small scenes that don’t really have a significant impact on the story.

Jhereg is a book written with no particular timeline in mind, the first book in the series, it probably should’ve been a lot further along in the series. The prologue gives us a little insight into Vlad's past but not enough for the reader to catch up to where he is in life currently. Vlads has come a long way since the events of the prologue. Although I found the prologue the most interesting part of the story, the events of the prologue didn't give enough insight to serve an actual purpose; it is not needed.

References are made that leave a reader clueless because he or she has no knowledge of previous events or the Eastern cultures. I got half way through the book before I finally understood that a Dzur was both a Dragaeran house as well as an animal native to Dragera.

Jhereg is not a bad book, but I am still on the fence about continuing the series. Jhereg is interesting, but I did not feel excited about it, I never got drawn into the story or enraptured by it. I found the Prologue to be more exciting, informative, and fulfilling. Jhereg was originally published in 1983, and I believe it reached the target audience of the time. However, Jhereg doesn’t seem to transcend its time. I’m not entirely sure if I would recommend the book to others. I think it perfect for those who love old-school fantasy, but everyone else will have to make their own judgment on this one.
Feb 9th, 2017, 4:27 am
May 13th, 2017, 1:56 am
I actually recommend proceeding further. The world of Dragaera is complex, and unfolds over the course of the series.

One bit you apparently missed concerns the people. Easterners are human. Dragaerans are not. The closest referent to them in traditional fantasy is "elves". Among other things, a Dragaeran lifespan is about 500 years. The geography is never described in detail, but the world that includes Dragaera suffered cataclysmic upheavals in it's past, and there are hints that our world lies in Dragaera's distant past, and those cataclysmic upheavals may have resulted in the lands where Vlad came from winding up to the east of Dragaera. (If I recall correctly, the events that caused Vlad's parents to move to Dragaera are detailed in an earlier Brust work called Broke Down Palace.)

Brust is Hungarian by ancestry, and this also finds its way into the series. There's a bit in another book where the Dragons conduct one of their periodic campaigns of conquest of the East (because Dragons are the warrior caste, and that's what they do.) The Easterners affected by this campaign basically tell the Dragons "You can have the land. We have no need to own it. We just want access to what grows there." What grows there are peppers, which are critical components of Eastern cuisine. (Think paprikash...)

Vlad is able to become a very minor noble (a baronet with, IIRC, all of four folks living on his lands) because the Jhereg will accept an Easterner as a member of their house. Most Dragaerans look down on Easterners as inferior and unworthy. The Jhereg are the criminal house of the Dragaerans, and Vlad becomes quite successful as success is measured among the Jhereg. (A little too successful, in fact - in a later book he finds himself in a gang war which his superiors in the organization don't try to stop and may have instigated.)

The series is a lot of fun if you press on a bit. The first book is just that - a first book - and you need to read more before forming an opinion.
May 13th, 2017, 1:56 am
May 23rd, 2017, 11:38 pm
I would also suggest reading the series in chronological order rather than the order they were written in. I have read the series multiple times since I first read it in the 90s and after the first time I always read it in chronological order and it makes much more sense. Google will help you figure out the order if you are interested in going further.
May 23rd, 2017, 11:38 pm