Jhegaala is the 11th novel in the excellent VLAD TALTOS series by Steven Brust. In case you’re not familiar with the series, Vlad Taltos is a human assassin living in the Dragaeran empire. Dragaerans are human-like, but live for 1000 years or more and have a complex society divided into 17 Great Houses which all bear some resemblance to a real or mythical animal. So we have the Houses of the Orca and the Hawk, but also the Houses of the Dzur, Dragon, and Jhegaala. Since humans are not part of the Empire, Vlad’s father bought his son a title in the House of Jhereg — which is named after a reptilian scavenger and is basically the crime syndicate of the Empire.
Vlad is one of the most fascinating and entertaining protagonists in current fantasy: a smart-ass, bon-vivant assassin who enjoys good food and wine and has a great sarcastic sense of humor. A good part of the fun of reading this series is following the constant wise-cracks between Vlad and his reptilian familiar Loiosh (“You’re pretty smart for a mammal, boss”).
The series is incredibly complex in terms of plot, partly because the books aren’t written according to the internal chronology, e.g. the first book in the series (Jhereg) is actually placed very late in the over-all plot, and amazingly contains all kinds of spoilers for the next books — not that this affects how much you’ll enjoy reading and re-reading these books. (By the way, I recommend reading the series in order of publication, as we have them presented here.)
Steven Brust also has some interesting quirks when it comes to writing and structuring his books, not the least of which is his fixation on the number 17: not only are there 17 Great Houses in the Dragaeran Empire, but every book has 17 or 34 chapters, and 17 pops up literally all through the series. Every book barring one (Taltos) is named after one of the Great Houses, and in each of those books Vlad takes on the characteristics of the people in that House (e.g. in Issola, named after the courtly etiquette specialists, Vlad takes on some decidedly hyper-polite conversational quirks). Some of the books are structured according to odd little texts. One of them famously starts with the bill from Vlad’s tailor (“Fix hole in shirt. Remove stain from trousers.”). In every one of the 17 chapters, you’ll see what caused one of those items to appear on the tailor’s bill. Another novel’s structure follows the menu of a 17-course dinner in Vlad’s favorite restaurant. If all of this sounds overly contrived, you’ll barely notice it when reading the novels, which are always funny and fast-moving. (For more Steven Brust trivia, check the excellent Cracks and Shards website.)
Jhegaala is a great example of Steven Brust playing fast and loose with the internal chronology of his series, because this eleventh novel is actually a sequel to Phoenix (book 5 in the series and first published almost 20 years ago). However, if you don’t recall all the details of that novel, all you really need to know is that Vlad is on the run from… well, let’s just say some people who want his head. He heads to Fenario, the human lands outside of the Dragaeran Empire, which unfortunately means that Jhegaala doesn’t feature many of the recurring Dragaeran characters Kiera, Morrolan, Aliera, or Sethra. The book starts out fairly lighthearted but turns into what has to be one of the darkest installments in the series. I couldn’t put it down and tore through it in one sitting. And now we finally know what happened in the gap between Phoenix and Athyra!
Jhegaala is absolutely excellent and wholeheartedly recommended to any fans of the VLAD TALTOS series. However, if you’re new to the adventures of Vladimir Taltos, I recommend starting out with The Book of Jhereg, which bundles the first three books of the series (Jhereg, Yendi and Teckla) in one convenient omnibus. You’ll be hooked in no time. The next book in the series, Iorich, will be released by Tor in January 2010. Since I have an advanced copy, I’ll be reviewing it for you soon!