Brust's JHEGAALA, smart, hard-boiled swords and sorcery with great poleconomy subtext

I've been reading Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos books since I was a boy, and nothing pleases me more than discovering a new one on the shelf, as I did this week, picking up the paperback of Jhegaala, the eleventh volume in the series.

For the uninitiated, Vlad Taltos is a human assassin in a strange world where humans occupy the eastern kingdoms and the rest is run by the Dragaereans, a long-lived elfin race whose sorcery is far more formalized than humanity's witchcraft (the human culture on Dragaera is based loosely on ancient Hungarian culture, and the magic is derived somewhat from Hungarian animist mysticism). Vlad lives among the Dragaera, pledged to the house of Jhereg, a mongrel house that you can buy your way into (the others are hereditary), whence come all the crime lords and assassins. In Vlad's storied, ten-volume adventures, he goes from street-punk to crime-boss to lordling to political operative, embroiled in a magnificently realized fantasy world that leaps off the page with a fascinating poleconomy, literary tradition, spirituality and history ancient and modern.

Vlad is a hard-boiled, wise-ass hero, whose narration is part of what makes the series so irresistible, laden as it is with deadpan humor, great observation, wicked emotional truths, and a keen gourmet sensibility (seriously: the food and drink in this book are so well described that I spent the entire time while reading it yearning for one of the marvellous cups of coffee or the hearty bowls of stew that Vlad subsists on through much of the tale).

The other thing about Vlad is that he grows, from an immature punk in the first couple volumes -- books that captivated the teen me perfectly -- into the rapidly wisening exile that we meet in Jhegala. In this volume, Vlad is on the run, driven from home by a political struggle that demands that he choose a side even though he strenuously resists it.

Now Vlad has come to the eastern lands, the human kingdoms that his family hailed from, which he has never seen before. He comes to Burz, an industrial town barely held in the balance between the mercantalists and the manufacturers and the peasantry who still work the land. Vlad's arrival shatters the uneasy peace and sets off a chain of terrible massacres that leave him trying to solve the town's mysteries before he becomes one of them.

This is Steve Brust doing Hammett's Red Harvest, the classic hardboiled novel that is the epitome of the "someone comes to town" kind of story. Brust's take on it is a tour-de-force of subtle characterization, mystery, mayhem, and a rare grasp of the invisible economic forces that shape our lives. Brust is one of the few fantasy writers in the history of the genre whose worlds have all the moving parts necessary to actually exist as economic realities, and here his virtuosity is right at the fore.

There are some spoilers in this volume if you haven't read the previous ones (and if you haven't, you ought to), but I don't think they're deal-breakers if you wanted to start here. If you've never read Brust, you're in for a treat. If you already follow the series, then you know why this is such great news.


All the Vlad Taltos books


  1. This was a nice surprise. I started reading Brust’s series in the mid-nineties so I guess I was a late-comer but I’ve never understood why it has received so little recognition. Brust is a great writer and Vlad is his greatest creation. Thanks for the heads-up, need to pick this up!

  2. And, of course, there’s a dragon on the cover :/

    There’s a bimbo on the cover of my book,
    There’s a bimbo on the cover of my book,
    She is blonde and she is sexy,
    She is nowhere in the text, She
    is the bimbo on the cover of my book

    There’s a dragon on the cover of my book,
    There’s a dragon on the cover of my book,
    He is big and green and scaly
    He is nowhere in the tale, he
    Is the dragon on the cover of my book.

    There’s a castle on the cover of my book,
    There’s a castle on the cover of my book,
    It is strong and fit for battle, though
    the settings in…..Seattle?
    There’s a castle on the cover of my book……

  3. I’m curious how fast Cory and others can read.

    I feel like I’m a fast reader, but there’s no way I could simply see a new book from a favorite series on the shelf, pick it up and read it ASAP. I have a 50 book backlog to work through first.

    I took an online reading speed test – Google for one, there are a million of them. It told me that I read in the 250 wpm “normal” range.

    I think the fact is that I *can* read faster, but I don’t absorb as much or enjoy it that much.

    Anyway – what’s normal for Cory and others here?

  4. People compare a lot of things to Red Harvest, but none of them — with the arguable exception of Yojimbo — measures up.

  5. I had the great good fortune to walk into a grocery store in the early 80s and pick up the original Jhereg book which started the series, and Brust’s career. I’ve been a fan ever since.

    My favorite author is Roger Zelazny, and Brust garnered Zelazny’s recommendation right out of the gate:

    “Watch Steven Brust. He’s good. He moves fast. He surprises you.” -Roger Zelazny

    I liked the sound of that, and Roger was right—Brust was all of those things, in spades.

    Brust has a unique way of looking at things, and I love his voice. He has an economy, a lyric intensity, that most reminds me of Roger. While Zelazny loved poetry, Brust loves song, but what are songs but poetry put to music?

    For my money, the two experimental novels that simulated and honored the Dumas Three Musketeers series are two of my all-time favorites. Based in the same Dragaeran world of Jhereg, “The Phoenix Guards” and “Five Hundred Years After,” the adventures of Khaavren, the D’Artagnan of Dragaera, are told with a signature voice and comprise some of the most interesting sequences and characters in my literary memory. The scene in which Pel, the clever Yendi, gets the attention of the royalty when our heroes are cast into a dank holding cell is just sublime and oh-so-very clever.

    If you haven’t yet been buying Steven Brust’s books, you are in a for a treat. He not only has great current releases, but a back-catalog which is a treasure trove of rollicking storytelling.

  6. More “Last Man Standing” than “Red Harvest”. Vlad doesn’t care one whit about saving the town. But you’re spot on about the Hammet references. The tone in this novel is noir. Which is no surprise, given that Brust loves to play around stylistically. He caries it off well.

  7. Robert @3: Actually, it’s a jhegaala. (There was a dragon on the cover of Dragon, though. And a jhereg on the cover of Jhereg.)

  8. Oooh, oooh, oooh… Fresh Brust, especially fresh Vlad Taltos story… Gottagettacopy!

    BTW, “There’s A Bimbo On The Cover Of My Book” should be credited to Maya Bonhoff, who performs with her husband Jeff when she isn’t writing books herself. (And there’s a lot more of it, finally reaching the conclusion that if they bring in the readers maybe those tenuously-connected covers are acceptable after all.)

  9. Cory, your point about Vlad’s growth is spot on. This is one of the few series I still like as much, if not more, than when I first started reading it in high school.

  10. Brust is awesome. Been a fan of his for years, and I made an explicit point of thanking him for creating Vlad and Kragar when I got the chance to meet him. I would have thanked him for Lady Teldra aswell, but she hadn’t been upgraded to major character status by that point.

    Also, don’t forget the other series that takes place in the same world – The Khavren Romances. Heavily (very, very heavily) inspired by Alexandre Dumas’s D’Artagnon series. It’s a very, very cool series.

  11. I got Jeghaala for my birthday the day after it hit Amazon (the wonders of pre-ordering!) and read it in two hours. That was a LONG time ago.

    Since yer askin.

  12. I dunno, Orca is still kinda my favorite of the series so far. But I also loved The Phoenix Guards and Five Hundred Years After, too.

  13. A note to anyone who wants to read the Vlad Taltos books in order — Brust likes to jump around in time, both from book to book and (occasionally) within one book. Because of this, there’s no real reason to try to read the books in a specific order (though you probably shouldn’t start with Teckla). That said, if you (like me) have an irrational need to read series like these in order, I recommend going chronologically by publication date rather than attempting to read them in the order they happened in Vlad’s world.

    I discovered Brust in the early 90s when my dad left a copy of Jhereg laying around our house, and I’ve been reading everything I could find by him ever since. Like some of the other commenters here, my favorites were The Phoenix Guards and Five Hundred Years After, but I also love the Vlad Taltos books.

  14. Brust still hasn’t managed to top the plot twists in Jhereg. Even after all these years, I’ll still pick that book up once in a while.

  15. I’d argue that Brust is a better writer than George Pretentious Two Initial Middle Name Martin, but Martin writes what sells better.

  16. Ahem. Isn’t esteemed moderator TNH Steven’s editor? If so, I would like to ask “Why do we have to wait until January for Iorich?!”

  17. After I recently finished reading Star Strike (7th book in the series, cant find 8th) from William H. Keith Jr, I’ve been looking for a new sci-fi or fantasy series to read and this looks like it will be very nice.

    So, thanks a lot for the recommendation :)

  18. JJasper — Last Man Standing, of course, was also a take on Red Harvest (and, iirc, The Op didn’t exactly do much to help the town as a whole beyond what he was paid for, and was definitely willing to grab a few bucks on the side for himself).

    And aside from Red Harvest, the opening excerpt for each chapter was a Dragaeran take on The Thin Man, one of Hammett’s other great works.

  19. I too am a Vlad fan, but those aren’t my favorite Brust work. My favorite is The Sun, The Moon, and The Stars. It isn’t even fantasy (although it does blend a fairy tale with the day to day story of a painter).

    Good words for Brokedown Palace and Agyar as well.

  20. #22, Ooh, that’s the one where he was painting The Monster. Great call. I loved the discussion of the artistic process interspersed with the trevails of the starting artist.

  21. Mr Brust’s work is wonderful in all respects. I am extremely picky about what I read and have been since I was a child. The Vlad series you just can’t put down. I remember my folks (who read novels like newspapers) agonized over my lack of reading commitment. Only such authors like Brust, Jose Farmer, Douglas Adams to name a few could garner my full attention.

    The Vlad series is plain great as is all Steven’s books, I especially like ‘To Reign in Hell’.

  22. Actually, the original “There’s a Bimbo on the Cover of the Book: or The Art Director’s Fight Song” should be credited to “Rowland Shew” who published it in ANALOG (July, 1992) It contained the “bimbo,” “monster,” “space ship,” and “ray gun” verses.

    The “dragon” and “castle” verses were Maya’s.

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