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