Jhereg by Steven Brust. ★★★ 1/2
Vlad Taltos is a human assassin working for the House of Jhereg. Near the start of the book, he receives a very difficult and unusual contract for a former member of the Jhereg Council who ran off with nine million of the House’s funds. What follows is a twisty puzzle set in a strange and sometimes confusing world.
Overall, I enjoyed Jhereg, but I had real trouble getting into it. For one thing, I wasn’t expecting the sort of story I got. The cover and blurb make it out to be what I think of as “boy finds dragon book.” In fact, the dragon (well, dragon like creature), Loiosh, plays a relatively small role in the story, and I didn’t care for his voice. Chirpy side-kicks who refer to the main character as “boss” tend to get on my nerves.
However, my main problem was adjusting to the world itself. The book drops the reader into a completely different setting with little to no information. Early on, I figured out that there were two species: humans (referred to as Easterners) and Dragaerans, but I knew little else until after the first half of the book.
The biggest difficulty I had was picturing the Dragaerans and understanding the house system. From the beginning, the only physical description of the Dragaerans is “tall,” which doesn’t tell me how much they differ from humans. It doesn’t give a complete reference to how they compare to humans til after page hundred. They’re basically elves – tall, no facial hair, pointed ears, long lived, otherwise look like humans.
Pretty much all the other animals are fictional species as well, and descriptions of them are usually not given. In addition, characters are described in connection to the fictional animals. E.g. “She moved as gracefully as a dzur” or “her eyes were as soft as an iorich’s wing.” Labeled illustrations of all the animal life and characters or a guide at the beginning would have helped a lot. About midway through, I posted some questions about the animals on my reading journal in the Green Dragon on LibraryThing and was directed towards this immensely helpful guide which outlines what each animal is and what is associated with them. If you plan on reading Jhereg, I highly recommend taking a look at the guide.
Then there was the house system itself. By page hundred, I had an inkling that houses were connected to professions, but I still didn’t really understand the system. Again, I probably wouldn’t have figured it out if it hadn’t been explained to be by someone familiar with the series (of which this is the first book…).
As it turns out, all Dragaerans are titled nobility who belong to one of the twelve houses, which are all named after the animals found in the guide above. Different houses have different associations. The Jhereg are criminals who run gambling rings and brothels. The Dragons are soldiers and place a huge emphasis on honor. The Teckla are peasants and lowly regarded by the majority of characters. A cycle exists whereby each house has control of the empire for a certain period of time before conceding it to another, and the house in charge controls the source of the Dragaeran’s magic.
It’s obvious that Steven Brust took a lot of thought and care into building this world. From the fauna to the history, the details are astounding, but they can also be confusing and are not well explained. However, I’d guess that all sequential books will be easier reading since I’ve already adjusted to the world.
I didn’t feel any great connections to the characters, but they were passable. Going in, I was worried about the depictions of female characters – fantasy books of the early 80’s don’t have so great of a track record – but I had no reason to be worried. The gender divide of the book is roughly equal, and female characters play as important a role in the plot as male characters. When I read the author bio at the end, I realized that he’d named one of them after his daughter Aliera, which I find sweet.
I would only recommend this book to veterans of fantasy literature. The confusion of the first hundred pages was frustrating enough for me, and I’m familiar with strange fantasy names and settings. But if you can make it through the confusing beginning, the story proves worth it.