Jhereg by Steven Brust is the first book in Brust’s Vlad Taltos series of which there are now 12 published out of a planned 19 total. It was published in 1983 and I first read it in 1984, picking it up at the Campus Book Store in Ames, Iowa. Interestingly, while it is the first book published, it is the fourth book in chronological order. There are endless debates on whether to read books in published order or internal chronological order. I pretty much always go with published order.
Jhereg, the book, is a lot of fun. It introduces us to Vlad, the narrator. Vlad is a human (like us) living in the city of Adrilankha. Humans (like us) are a minority in Adrilankha and are referred to as Easterners by the native Dragaeran’s (who think of themselves as human) and who make up the Dragaeran empire. There are 17 “Great Houses” of Dragaeran’s–each of which has different traits and are named after native animals. Vlad’s father had bought them a title into House Jhereg–the only house that allows such an action. The animal Jhereg is a poisonous sentient flying reptile (they’re also fun). The members of House Jhereg are basically the criminal element of the Dragaeran empire.
Vlad, being a member of House Jhereg, has his own territory as essentially a mob boss. Vlad also does “work” as an assassin.
In Jhereg we find out that Vlad is also a witch (kind of a psionic “magic”) and we see how he acquired Loiosh, his Jhereg familiar, sidekick and companion (“Shut up Loiosh” is a running internal dialog as Loiosh communicates mentally to Vlad.)
While his profession of assassin is not a particularly nice thing, Vlad himself quickly becomes very likable. He is the narrator, so we see things from his point of view, but it is a fun point of view–full of wisecracking detail. Vlad’s voice is has echo’s of some of Zelazny’s characters, but it is wholly his own.
The main thrust of the story begins when the Demon (a higher figure in the Jhereg) schedules a meeting with Vlad and hires him to kill another Jhereg crime lord, Mellar, who has stolen the Jhereg treasury. The Demon offers Vlad a very large amount to do this with the understanding that it has to be done quickly since, if word leeks out, every two bit thug in the Empire will be trying the same thing from here on.
Vlad agrees and uses his acquaintance Daymar to psionically locate Mellar. That’s when the real complications set in.
Mellar has managed to make himself a guest of Morrolan e’Drien at his home, Castle Black. Castle Black is a floating castle (like a mile up). Morrolan is a friend of Vlad’s and Vlad happens to be head of security for Castle Black. Should make thing easy right? Nope, Morrolan has gone to great lengths to make Castle Black a place where guests can not be harmed. He’s quite serious about this. Morrolan is a lord of the Dragon house and is quite serious about his honor. It turns out the last time a Jhereg assassin killed a guest of a Dragonlord, a war started between the two houses that nearly destroyed both of the houses. Thus, it would seem that Mellar has found a great place to hide in plain site.
It is up to Vlad (with a little help from his friends) to figure out how to kill Mellar, restore the Jhereg treasury, maintain Morrolan’s honor and keep his own skin intact.
While the main plot proceeds, we also learn a few things about the history of Dragaera and the complex society that exists there. For example, each of the 17 houses takes their turn as ruler of the empire as their place in the Cycle occurs. The actual fortunes of the houses are tied to this as their influence waxes and wanes through time. The Emperor/Empress wields the Imperial Orb. Every citizen of the Empire has a link through the Orb and can draw power through the Orb to perform what they refer to as sorcery. Sorcery is distinct from witchcraft and is also distinct from mental psionic disciplines. Sorcery allows a skilled user to do many things, like teleport. Vlad, being a citizen also has access to sorcery. Teleporting makes Vlad want to throw up.
So, there is a lot going on in Jhereg. Brust keeps it moving along very nicely. An excellent read.