No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

#49: Jhegaala -- Steven Brust

I didn't think my people -- humans -- would be a serious threat. There is an entire family dead because I didn't start asking the right questions soon enough. I have to live with that. You think I'm bad because I killed those responsible. I think I'm bad because I didn't kill them earlier. (p. 295)

Jhegaala is the eleventh Vlad Taltos novel: chronologically, it comes after Phoenix and before Athyra. Vlad is on the run and heads east to the land of his ancestors (Fenario, setting of Brust's standalone novel Brokedown Palace), initially seeking his mother's family. He tracks them to the odorous paper-mill town of Burz, but whenever he mentions his mother's maiden name -- Merss -- people react oddly, either professing ignorance or reacting as though he's threatened them. (Since Vlad is a professional assassin and crime-lord, generally armed as well as being accompanied by two flying reptilian familiars, one can hardly blame them).

Then an entire family is murdered, burnt alive: and, despite the fact that the Jhereg organisation is tracking Vlad for a bloodthirsty vengeance, he decides to stick around and uncover the truth behind the deaths of his (probable) relatives. In the process, some pretty bad things happen to him: well, you do things and there are consequences; I ought to know. I can live with consequences. (p. 221)

Brust fans won't be surprised that there are seventeen chapters (plus a prologue) or that the chapters are headed by quotations from a play called 'Six Parts Water', apparently a comic murder mystery staged over several days; each section of the book is also introduced with an excerpt from a natural history text describing the life-cycle of the jhegaala, which is -- sadly -- as close as we get to seeing either the actual animal (a venomous winged toad-like amphibian) or any Dragaerans of that House. However, the jhegaala's decidedly unusual life-cycle makes an excellent Structural Metaphor for the development of the plot. ... as is the case with all organisms, it is never so much itself as when under intense pressure (p. 175)

I didn't enjoy this novel as much as some of the other Vlad Taltos books, and I think it's because Vlad is a stranger in a strange land: everyone looks odd to him, and that's because they're humans like Vlad himself, rather than Dragaerans (i.e. elves). None of the recurring characters from the other books make an appearance, save for Vlad's familiars, Loiosh and Rocza: much of the humour and character development is provided by Vlad's interaction with Loiosh (who thinks Vlad's 'pretty smart, for a mammal'). Perhaps I'm more fascinated by the Dragaerans, and Dragaeran society (an intriguing blend of courtly and sordid) than by Vlad himself, despite his edge and depth and instinct for survival, and his black humour. Without the Dragaerans to give context to the tale of a man living, surviving, thriving where he doesn't belong, Jhegaala seems just another thriller-with-magic.

Yes, there is Deverra.

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