Jhereg is the first book in Steven Brust’s Taltos Cycle, the story of Vlad Taltos, human, as opposed to Dragaeran (also “Easterner”, the East being inhabited by humans), crime boss, assassin. Note: That’s first in order publication, not first chronologically — but more on that later.
We start off with a Prologue that gives some of Vlad’s history, in particular how he got his familiar, Loiosh – not surprisingly, a jhereg. (Yes, Vlad is a witch, among other things.) Brust makes good use of prologues in the series, as well as digressions, and is quite adroit in their use – they always add a dimension to the main narrative without hampering the momentum of the story.
The story itself opens with Vlad and his lieutenant, Kragar, sitting in his office. Kragar remarks that it’s been a year since anyone has tried to kill Vlad, which he takes as a sign that they are moving to slowly in expanding and solidifying their business. Vlad finally asks “What’s up?”, at which point Kragar tells him that the Demon, number two man in the Jhereg Council, has requested a meeting. Vlad’s paranoia kicks in full force, but it turns out that the Demon merely wants to hire him to assassinate a member of the Council, one Mellar, who has absconded with nine million in Council funds. The kicker is that there’s a time limit – if the news gets out, the Jhereg Council is in for millennia of grief.
After much investigation, Vlad learns that Mellar has fled to the one place where he is untouchable.
There are layers of misdirection here, which is not unusual for this series. It’s not a constant – some of the books are fairly straightforward, particularly later in the series — but it’s not rare, either. Vlad has to unravel all of this, and find a way to fulfill his mission before the top blows off.
We are introduced to the ongoing characters who appear pretty much throughout the series. Kragar, of course; Vlad’s wife, Cawti (they met when she killed him – she was at the time one of a team of much sought-after assassins); Morrolan, Dragaeran, a Dragon lord, and lord of Castle Black, the only floating castle still in existence; Aliera, Morrolan’s cousin and Dragon heir to the throne; and Sethra Lavode, an undead sorceress whose was alive before the Empire was created. Each has his or her quirks, some of them quite extreme.
I’ve deliberately not included a lot of detail in my description of the story: Brust engages in some deft and subtle universe-building here, not through exposition but by references, such as Aliera’s offhand remark about the Empress Zerika emerging from the Paths of the Dead with the Orb (that story is related in the Khaavren Romances). There are other passing references to the Orb and what it does, which serves to build a full picture of that particular aspect of the book. And he does it again and again, until Dragaera becomes a fully developed place.
As for the tone: Jhereg, as are the majority of books in the series, is told in the first person; the story’s related by Vlad, with his own someone ironic worldview in full evidence. I’m always reminded of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries, with swords and sorcery, although Vlad is not a pure example of Wolfe: he does leave his home, quite often. Kragar, though, is a good take on Archie Goodwin.
Oh, and about the order: Brust has a habit of referring to events in the past, with a comment on the order of “But that’s another story.” And then he goes back and writes those other stories, so that the order of publication is not the chronological order. At one point I actually developed a list of the chronological order of the books, but then I thought, “Why bother?” Reading them in order of publication is more fun. And no matter its place in the chronological order, Jhereg is the set-up for the whole series.
If you haven’t already been reading the Taltos Cycle, you’re short-changing yourself. It’s one of the reasons that Brust is on my list of Top Five Fantasy Writers.
(Ace Books, 1983; issued in a three-book omnibus, The Book of Jhereg, 1999)