By the recommendation of a coworker, I started to read Steven Brusts’s series of fantasy novels, known either as the Jhereg series (from the first book and the mafia-like organization in the books), Vlad Taltos series (based on its protagonist), or The Dragaeran books, though that term encompasses some others as well.
The first thing I should mention is that I think this series absolutely deserves to be thought of as one of the major fantasy series helping to define the genre. The second is that in many aspects it’s a bit different from most other series I’ve read.
The books have been written over two decades and several more are planned. Wikipedia informs me that many aspects of the books have been influenced directly by events in the author’s own life; notably the storyline with Vlad’s wife, which I had been planning to mention as a wonderful example of a rich, complex relationship that does not feel like it follows the usual norm one expects in literature.
The setting is a fantasy world with magic, monsters, artifacts, gods and a typical low-technology idealized semi-feudal middle-ages social organization. The main character is, as far as we can tell, human. In a slight twist, the majority of characters however aren’t; as far as we can tell they’re close to the fantasy archetype of elves — who of course consider themselves “human” and the humans to be something lesser.
There are several houses or clans of elves, each of which has personality characteristic of an animal, either mythological or real — though almost all the “real” animals are still unique to this setting. In this respect it reminded me a bit of the Legend of the Five Rings role playing game.
The main character starts off as a minor boss / assassin in a criminal organization, though he also possesses some magic of his own. There is certainly moral ambiguity, and whether the protagonist is a good person or not is immediately apparent.
The series follows the same set of characters, but not in a strictly chronological order. Indeed one of the noteworthy aspects of the series is how skillfully Brust jumps around in Vlad’s timeline, filling in events hinted at in previous books, or surprising us with a setting far in the future, and making us wonder how he got there.
The same skill with jump-cuts is also applied within the books themselves, which tend to interleave events and scenes, but do them in such a way that it adds to the story rather than seeming like an artificial storytelling device. For example, in Dragon, a military battle, the events leading up to it, and the aftermath all alternate. In one of the books one of the alternating narratives switches to two of the women in Vlad’s life discussing his actions that are being covered in the book.
Finally, the style and approach varies from book to book. Sometimes the next book in the series picks up exactly from where the previous one left off, sometimes the next book jumps far away in time. Whether a book is high fantasy, a mystery story, military fantasy or something else also changes from book to book, as do the storytelling devices used. Not every book uses the same alternating narrative devices or the same way. As a consequence I like some books more than others; the aforementioned Dragon is likely my least favorite, but otherwise they’ve all been eminently readable and gripping.
The books are written from the narrative viewpoint of Vlad; he has a familiar with whom he is mentally linked, and aside from being amazingly useful, it affords a very powerful and constantly utilized way to add levity, exposition and and an excuse to voice Vlad’s thoughts.
What the series isn’t is high brow literature. There are aspects to the dialogue, plot and setting that clearly are intended to be humorous and almost meta, relying on our modern sensibilities and knowledge of our own world, rather than remaining an completely and utterly isolated treatment of a fantasy world. Perhaps this annoys some of you, for me it was sufficiently unobtrusive and worthwhile that it added to my enjoyment of the books. Brust also places some affectations on his character, primarily the indulgent descriptions and concentration on foods.
The prose is good; not amazing and lyrical like Patrick Rothfuss, but the vocabulary used is good and the use of language is skillful. The pacing of the plot is good, and while we obviously know some things ahead of time, I do not find the events predictable at all.
All of the books and stories seem to contribute to a coherent meta-plot and story. We see Vlad transform from the person we met at the first book; we learn what he was and how he got to that point, and we learn how he ends up changing with subsequent life events. Vlad’s relationships with people and increasing knowledge of the world he lives in shapes him, much the same way those things shape us. We learn more about the cosmology of the world, and about the deeper meanings of many people, events and threads that may not have seemed important in the past.
The books are self-contained. They do not end on cliffhangers. I suspect you could, mostly, pick up any of
them and start reading, though it certainly is helpful to be familiar with the world and characters.
In short, the series is on my awesome list and gets four and a half out of five; four for the books, and the extra half for managing to turn it all into a truly epic scope of a tale.
As a bonus, here’s Penny Arcade’s take.