Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Blog Fantastic 027: Jhereg review

Jhereg is a marvelous book. Vlad Taltos might be my new favourite fantasy series and, Steven Brust, my new favourite fantasy author. I have to say I’m astonished that more people do not talk about Brust and his work online. I can't remember when I first heard of him but there were a few people whose judgement I value and whose preferences in fiction usually match up with mine that have written a bit about the Vlad Taltos series. It's thanks to Jo Walton’s articles and reviews on that I found and read an interview someone did with Brust which finally convinced me to look for one of his books at my local used book store (Bay Used Books).

I thought he was completely unknown to me before I started to read Jhereg but it turns out I’ve read a short story by him in The Sandman: Book of Dreams, a collection of short stories set in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic book series. I remember absolutely nothing about Brust’s story titled “Valóság and Élet” and so I have no idea if I was unimpressed with his story thus explaining why I didn’t remember his name when I heard about his again. I’ll have to go reread it to find out.

You can summarize the story well enough, as long as you don’t go into too much detail. Vlad is a human living in one of the cities of the Dragaeran Empire. The Empire is ruled and mostly populated by people who are descendants of dragons (no, really). He is contacted by one of the crime lords of his House and asked to take on a contract to assassinate a man who has run off with the council’s gold. The novel is about Vlad working on his contract and assassinating his target. That might sound like a tired plot but Brust’s phenomenal world building and hybridization of genres make this novel a memorable read.

Right out of the gate, Steven Brust begins to build a unique series with the prologue of Jhereg. It’s quite wonderful. In fifteen pages he set up his main character, the world and customs of his story. Everything reads well and all of the pieces fall neatly together. It describes a fantasy setting that is a bit unusual but it’s also gripping. I was instantly fascinated with Vlad and his origins. It's a small tale in and of itself. It's about the making of an assassin but it's also more than that. It's also about introducing the world of Dragaera and setting up a few pieces for the rest of the novel. All of this is done, quite masterfully, before the start of the first chapter. 

As much as I want to continue boasting about Jhereg’s uniqueness, I have to admit that its hybrid fantasy as there are many elements from other genres that are a key component of the world Brust has built. You could easily and rather accurately describe this book as being noir-fantasy since, aside from fantasy, the book borrows most heavily from crime and detective novels. The first indication of this is the use of first person narration which is used to good effect for world building (as I’ll explain below) but also gives the book a different feel from most fantasy novels as of the first page. In Jhereg, Vlad narrates the events as they’re happening or shortly after they’ve taken place but he includes information from the past. Some of that helps explain the world and the story and some of it explains the characters and their relationships but it also provides the reader with information on characters who either don't show up at all or who only play a small role in the book.

You can also see strong influence from noir stories in the main plot of the book. The plot is constructed as a detective story in which Vlad is searching for clues and puzzling together the reason why Lord Mellar stole from the House of Jhereg. In doing so he’s uncovering other secrets about himself and the world he lives in. In the last few chapters of the book the assassination of Mellar is written in a way that reminded me of heist films. The assassination contract he accepted requires a very precise and complicated plan to be a successful assassination. Vlad, along with several other characters, plan the assassination meticulously by pooling together all of their information and personal skill. Naturally, this is followed by the execution of said plan and it’s all very satisfying: as a heist and the climax to a fantasy novel. Brust carefully planned the entire book in such a way that all of the elements work to reinforce each other. To understand the detective and heist plots of the book you first need to understand the world in which the story takes place. The catch is that you’re learning about the world at the same time that Vlad is discovering clues about his target and the role his assassination will play in the political setting of Adrilankha City. It’s a delightful cycle of plot, world building, informative narration, and character development which results in a powerhouse climax. Not a word is wasted.

World Building and Structure:
It’s difficult to recall a book in which the narrative and the plot were so intrinsically tied into the world building. They’re so intertwined as to be nearly inseparable. Brust uses first person narration to good effect. Vlad explains certain things to the reader and it works well as exposition because it’s not hiding it exclusively in dialogue or information dumps by an omniscient narrator. Sure, there are some information dumps in dialogue, one particular chapter where Vlad talks to Aliera e’Kieron and the history of Dragaera is presented to Vlad is a chapter devoted almost entirely to exposition and world building. However, for the rest of the novel it’s handled quite well. Brust also uses the first person narration as a way to give us better insight into Vlad’s character and personality. He’s a fascinating protagonist, capable but not invincible. His mind and abilities as a tactician are as important as his skills in sword fighting and witchcraft.

By informing us of the seemingly impossible assassination job the reader is also being informed of the world and the history of the Dragaeran Empire. Brust does this because of his fusion of the detective novel genre with fantasy. By uncovering clues on how to locate and kill his target, Vlad is also uncovering secrets of the world in which he lives. The fact that a lot of what Vlad discovers in the novel is equally new to him as it is to the reader, the reader is not only invested in the plot but is playing a similar role as Vlad. We’re being presented the pieces of the puzzle and we can make sense of it along with the novel’s protagonist. By better understanding the world you get better appreciate the severely difficult situation Vlad is in. The knowledge you gain of Dragaera throughout the book will also help you understand the villain’s motivations and the outcome of the story. In order for the world building to be effective (or for it to matter to the reader) and for the detective story to work, they need to work hand in hand. It’s a skilfully constructed novel but it never reads that way. Brust is quick and sneaky in his storytelling which worked superbly well with this book.  

Sorcery and Witchcraft:
There are two types of magic in the world of Dragaera: sorcery and witchcraft. There are quite a lot differences between the two arts along with a few similarities. For example, sorcery can only be done alone while witchcraft can be done alone or with more than one person. When it is done with more than one person their psionic strength is pooled together then shared equally amongst the participants in the magic. Being assisted by someone during a witchcraft spell can be as much of a hindrance as aid. If someone’s psionic abilities are too strong in comparison to the others involved, it can burn them out and cause serious harm.

Between the two, sorcery is the most familiar as it’s the kind of magic people typically imagine when they think of fantasy. Sorcery is used by tapping into a pool of Chaos, something all people of the Dragaeran Empire can tap into because of their link to the Imperial Orb. To do a spell you need to connect yourself to the Orb and use its chaos energy to fuel and direct your magic.

What’s really interesting though is witchcraft. Witchcraft gets its power from the psionic strength of the person practicing the spell. It’s often ritualistic and it can also be improvisational to a degree. It more closely resembles the kind of magic people discuss in the real world. I was reminded of the ritualistic and trance aspects of magic found in the writings of Grant Morrison, particularly in The Invisibles. It’s very different from the rigidity and detail of magic which you can find in the works of Brandon Sanderson. It’s refreshing and interesting because it’s not something we see often but more importantly it works well within the context of the story and the world Brust has thought up.

Before I wrap this up I want to point out the one element that I found frustrating. The Dragaran Empire is divided into 17 Great Houses of lords and ladies. They are all named after animals. Some are named after mythological creatures while others are named after animals found on Dragaera. J
hereg is one example (what’s a jhereg? It’s a small dragon-like creature with a venomous bite and the ability to speak psionically). Apparently a lot of those animals are based on real world animals but we’re never given a description of most of them! What’s a teckla? I have no fucking clue but it’s mentioned numerous times in this book. I might be a small lizard or something? Maybe a small rodent? I know it’s small. The lack of description of the House animals is frustrating because the members of those Houses embody characteristics of the animals after which their House is named. Brust side steps this a bit by having the book start with a poem that describes some of the qualities of those animals but I feel like there is still a component missing that could easily have been added to the books. It’s the one instance of ineffectual world building that stuck out.

There are many elements found in Jhereg that aren’t new to the fantasy genre or other genres, for that matter. Some of these elements weren’t even new at the time of the book’s original publication but Brust incorporates all of these elements with his own style and makes them sing. The pariticularly interesting world building has the effect of rounding out the book’s tone and style. Add to that Brust’s ability to be very precise with his words and you have a sweet, slim, book. It’s not just short by today’s standard 500+ fantasy novels. AT only 239 pages, Brust gets to the point without rushing anything and it makes for a very satisfying read. Published in 1983, Jhereg is Brust’s first published novel and his first published work, as far as I can tell from my research. That’s amazing! If someone has a list of impressive debut novels I would like to see where Jhereg ranks because I was immensely impressed by this book. There is just so much to love and even though I’ve spend quite a bit of time praising it I’ve also left out a very considerable amount of cool things but being such an incredible book I think you should find a copy for yourself and dig in.

Considered it Covered:
There are quite a few things to enjoy about Steve Hickman’s cover. The detail in the jhereg’s scales is particularly impressive. I also like the little horn he has, something he has on his snout for the purposes of breaking through his egg. The colouring is also very effective, including the use of a solid black background. It’s a simple image, yes, but striking nonetheless. There are only two things I’m not completely sold on though and they are the stripes on the tail and the overly stylized shape of the wings. I can’t help but feel that the tail shouldn’t be striped because it clashes with the solid coloured body of the rest of the jhereg. It also looks like the orange/gold colour of the rest of the body is absent in the tail but that could also be the shading playing tricks on my eyes. As for the wings, they’re aesthetically pleasing but come on, there is no way an animal would have wings like hta.t They don’t look very functional and their curvature is too exaggerated. It kind of looks like an animal that has long stopped using its wings for sustained flight and now only uses them on occasion. I guess I’m not sold on them because they look impractical as wings. Oh well, it’s actually a small complaint at this point because the rest of the cover, particularly the jhereg’s forelegs, neck and head, are just stunning and skilfully detailed. 

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