Jhereg by Steven Drust

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For those buckling against the epic plots, epic series, and epic stories of modern fantasy we have Vlad Taltos; assassin for hire. He’s just been approached by one of the most powerful members of one of the most powerful organisations; The ….

As I hinted at in the opening text there is very little world building going on here so for those fans of Dune or Lord of the Rings you may be kind of disappointed. That’s not to say that there isn’t a semi-original fantasy world on display here. Though they do seem to have paired down the races to two. The bog standard humans from out East and the western Dragaeran. Our hero is stuck out west and needs to make the best of things. Especially when his dad ups and dies. We find this out in two flashback scenes before the novel starts and I have miked feelings about them. They tell us how Vlad is able to get a start in the criminal world when everyone is so against such easterlings and they also tell us how he got his familiar. The one shown on the front cover. These aren’t bad and do help give a sense of the world we are in but as far as pot goes they are as important as knowing how Sherlock and Watson got to flat sharing together before you read Hound of the Baskervilles.

Now I mention Sherlock because this kind of reads like a murder mystery. Only in reverse. No this isn’t a fantasy version of Columbo starting with the murder and watching some guy in a dirty mac try to figure it out. Instead Vlad is an assassin and for a case, especially this one, he needs to know everything about his target. Who he is, who he has been, where he is, and where he is going. Thus the whole book is building to that final moment. Now there are some fight scenes and what not along the way but they are mostly short and sweet so if that’s your thing you may be somewhat disappointed here. Instead we follow Vlad through the clues needed to take the man down and a fair bit more beside.

Do you remember when I said there wasn’t too much world building in this one but instead a straight sword and sorcery slash-em-up? Well there is some. At least enough to make you think like Mr Burst has done the groud work and not just shoved you into a low fantasy world like Lankhmar. The thing is when this comes up it is often not major enough to affect the plot or call for a twenty page explanation but it is confusing and worded so that you get taken out of the story for a few paragraphs. And that’s not counting the big dumps of exposition that do affect the story and yet feel like we could have done without. The thing is that these could be done so that you can’t write every exposition dump as a crucial plot point but considering the nature of the exposition makes me think we could have done without the clever switcheroos.

What’s a cycle? Do they realise that every time they say someone is a dragon I assume they are a dragon? Especially when later on you tell me they are actually part dragon. Heck I was already picturing these guys as Dragonborn because you told me they were called Dragaera but now you want me to accept that there actually just Elves after telling me someone went Island of Doctor Moreau on them.

See the book is the tale of an assassin working for a crime syndicate. And it’s pretty good. You could probably go as far as to remove the fantasy from this and be left with a decent mafioso tale about a young kid making a name for himself amongst the families. Add in a few drops of fantasy and, personally, it gets a whole lot better as they deal with the reality of a killer in a world where you can bring people back from the dead. It’s not the end of an argument anymore but a good way to send a message or in the case of Vlad a way to meet your wife. However when the book got onto reincarnation and genetic tampering from extra-terrestrials it started to lose me. This wasn’t the only mark against the book.

Vlad is a fun and interesting character. A lot of the people he comes across are fun to read too; except for those close to him. His pet bird is a sarcastic quipping sidekick from a playstation game. His wife appears to be no deeper. The only one in his outfit I can muster any enthusiasm to see again is his partner but he’s not much different from the rest. I realise that I’m coming across rather negatively and I don’t mean to.

I enjoyed the book overall but it felt like it was stuck in a weird middle ground. Somewhere between the down and dirty low fantasy of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and the high fantasy epic of Rand Al Thor. I just wished the world building had followed the plot and kept itself low and out of the way so we can enjoy the action going on. Or connected the plot more to these big grand ideas. As it is the plot ends with thirty to forty pages to go and this end they have doesn’t land with the weight I think it’s supposed to. There is so much world building going on and so many terms thrown at the reader that the characters don’t seem smart for figuring out a way round the rules and honour that’s got them into this mess but instead like they just came up with it now because it’s the end of the book. It’s not a bad end to the book but as I said it doesn’t seem to land with the amount of weight I think they thought it would.

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