In the 1980’s there was really only one kind of fantasy to speak of. All of it was, almost universally, a Tolkien ripoff. Then Steven Brust entered the scene with something that came from so far to the left that to this day people don’t really know how to take it. Jhereg is about a man living in a kingdom of demigods who live hundreds of thousands of years. There is no quest, there is very little travel, Vlad is not an uneducated scullery boy (though he does start out waiting tables in his father’s restaurant) and there is no long lost discovery of innate magical ability (though Vlad is some kind of Dragon prince reborn as a human).
Vlad is an assassin who, through his own clever wit and sardonic style handily distracts the reader from the fact that he is, in fact, a bad guy. On the contrary he just does ‘work’ and he’s a pretty nice guy on the whole of it. He’s also funny. Those two things go a long way toward making him likable.
Brandon Sanderson talks about his three sliders for characters — sympathy, competence and initiative. Brust plays all three of those spectacularly, making Vlad seem more of each of those things than he really is.
An assassin is not a sympathetic character but Vlad is funny and sarcastic and just a little bit self aware of his own shortcomings — in short he’s kind of just like each of us would like to be. He’s also not really all that great at what he does, at least not compared to some others, and not to hear him tell it. But when he gets moving he doesn’t really make mistakes and all the stories he tells of his own incompetence start to sound exaggerated.
Vlad takes a job to kill a man who stole a bunch of money from his local corrupt government. He discovers that to do the job will start a war that may last thousands of years and destroy millions of lives. To not do the job will mean the end of his own life.
The rest of the book is the process that Vlad goes through as he figures out a way around both of those things so that he can get paid, stay alive and not start a conflict that will devastate most of the world. The best part is that a puzzle this complex and with this much buildup actually has a satisfying conclusion and Vlad uses all of his available resources so that every detail of the book comes back into play at the end.
Brust turned tropes upside down, seemingly, for breakfast. Vlad is happily married and neither he nor his wife engage in any extramarital thoughts or actions. This is so refreshingly rare in fantasy to this day that I almost had to read it twice when his wife would show up and not be jealous about who he was talking to.
Jhereg is a fascinating book and a fun read with wit and humor and a scarcity of verbiage that seems almost sparse in these days of one thousand page epics.