Wednesday, 16 September 2015

The Blog Fantastic 042: Yendi Review (Unread 024)

The main reason I started The Blog Fantastic project was to integrate my desire to read more fantasy books with my (then) new habit of blogging. Ever since reading Dragonlance by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman I’ve been a fan of the genre. As it happens, I’m also a very distracted reader, with bookshelves filled with various works, in many genres, and penned by many different authors. Some are familiar, often revisited, and some are still new to me. Because of this I tend to jump around, rather randomly, from series to series and from one genre to the other. I have no clear pattern. The Blog Fantastic was a way to give me a reason to focus my attention on fantasy titles, at least more than I had since my university days. As a whole, the project has been a success. Still, I’ve had a few disappointments, such as discovering the Redwall series by Brian Jacques no longer has any appeal to me and that while I can understand the appeal of other series, such as the successful Forgotten Realms novels of R. A. Salvatore, they just don’t impress me or entertain as well as I want them to (or as well as they used to).

It’s sometimes a bit of a bummer to realize you don’t like something anymore, but they’re good realization to make. Why continue reading a series of books you know you probably won’t enjoy?  Both of the above examples are series I first tried out a decade or more ago and knowing that they’re not my kind of thing anymore is helpful when I’m searching for other series and writers to discover. Besides, I like variety enough that I’m in no danger of reading through my entire pile of unread books.

That element of discovery is what I like the most about this project. When I take the time to look over the books I’ve read as part of the project it’s wonderful to see how many great new series and authors I’ve discovered.  Earthsea is a notable favourite. Its author, Ursula K. LeGuin, has also become one of my favourite writers in great part because of those books. I’ve also rediscovered The Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey. While I now notice the faults they have, something I didn’t notice at a younger age, I’m a bigger now than I ever was. It remains one of my favourite fictional settings of all time. Another great discovery is the writing of Steven Brust, author of Jhereg and its sequel, Yendi.

Jhereg was the best fantasy novel that I read in 2014. It’s like nothing I’ve ever read before. Not only did it make use of a unique combination of ideas, it had well-defined world-building, genuinely interesting characters, and played with genre conventions in a way that worked. There are a lot of details packed into that little novel and I was shocked it worked as effectively as it did. I had really big expectations for the second volume which takes place before the events of Jhereg. I wasn’t disappointed because Brust proves he’s a skilled storytelling but it’s pretty clear the book doesn’t reach the same heights as its predecessor. Even so, Yendi is a very good book.

The plot is centered around a Jhereg turf war. As a member of house Jhereg, Vlad Taltos oversees and administrates the gambling houses and other illicit goings-on of his territory which is a few blocks in size. When a neighbouring boss sets up a gambling room in one of Vlad’s buildings, a turf war begins. Since Vlad is new to his position he’s pretty low on funds and as everyone knows wars, even smalls wars, are expensive. It’s not long before Vlad asks his friends in the house of Dragon to help him out. They do so secretly because of house politics, but they have enough respect in Vlad to offer assistance. Even with additional financial backing, Vlad is losing the war. It’s not long before attempts are made on his life, one of which is by his future wife, Cawti, an Easterner like Vlad. As the story progresses the plot thickens and Brust manages to weave a pretty complicated plot surrounding the turf war and its true origins and meaning.

One of the things to be enjoyed in Yendi is that Brust fleshes out characters from his first book by providing the back story as to how they, mostly Vlad, got to be where he was at the beginning of Jhereg. He does so by focusing on the turf war plot and its connected sub-plots. His meeting Cawti and their relationship also adds depth of character, but the whole thing did feel pretty forced. At least it does until you consider how few Easterners live in Adrilankha and how even fewer of them are skilled in the arts of assassination as Vlad and Cawti. What’s truly enjoyable though is Brust’s writing style. His wit is a delight, and he crafts scenes that are a pleasure to read. I particularly enjoyed all of the dinner conversation scenes. His plotting, even for the simplest chapters, is tight. He’s also very good as peeling back the layers of the mysteries tied to the real reasons for the turf war. I enjoyed the mystery even if I think I wasn’t supposed to unravel it. The book is name after the house of Yendi which is known for its subtlety and misdirection. The book is filled with this very idea and even with the knowledge of the world I had from reading Jhereg, I really don’t think I had a fair chance of figuring out the true culprit at the heart of the turf war.

This is a good book but it also feels like it’s missing something. Vlad is a proactive main character and it’s great just to kick back and read about him working. He’s a very interesting guy. I like that he’s the underdog because it’s not an accident. All Dragaerans think of him as nothing but scum, but through hard work and perseverance he’s manages to prove his worth to even some of the most important members of house Dragon. This led to the development of some very useful friendships. It works because the whole thing feels earns. At least, it felt that way in Jhereg, less so in this book. However, it still holds true that Brust manages to convince his readers that Vlad is truly and exceptional person, even in the dangerous world of Dragaera.

Compared to the dense and complex plotting of the first novel, this one seems slight. Brust has mentioned his displeasure with this book. I can understand it, up to a point. The world and history of this series is still very, very fresh at the time this second volume was published, and he writes about it in a way that is very entertaining while also having a good amount of depth. His subtlety as a writer is impressive. I think Brust might be a little hard on himself. It’s not uncommon for writers or artists to look back on their previous work and find fault where there might not be any to be found. Then again, maybe Brust is right and this is his worst book. It’s only the second novel by him that I’ve read and it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s improved with his later work. Whether his worst book or not, it still manages to impress me and prove that he is a skilled storyteller. His writing is very stylish and makes for a satisfying read. It might be a bit premature to call myself a Brust fan for life. I’m more than willing to let the third book try and convince me that I am.

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