Coming off of Jhereg, I
had very high expectations for Yendi,
the second book in the Adventures of Vlad Taltos. In fact, having
in a late night bout of reading (inspired entirely by the fact
that I could
not put the book down), I promptly went out the next day
to track down the next book in the series.
This actually proved surprisingly difficult. The
early books in the series apparently went out of print a few years ago
and were recently released in a series of trade paperback omnibus
editions, starting with The Book of Jhereg
(which actually collects the first three Vlad Taltos books -- Jhereg, Yendi, and Teckla).
But I'm not a big fan of trade paperbacks (which lack the durability of
hardcovers and the convenient size of paperbacks), and it didn't make
much sense to spend $16 on a collection when I already owned a third of
it. (My decision was also being heavily influenced because I already
had a used copy of Teckla
for $2.50 in my other hand.)
So I ended up picking up the third and fifth books
in the series from Uncle Hugo's (the local used SF bookshop), and then
hit up Amazon for used copies of Yendi
(the second and fourth books in the series).
Long story short, I was pumped up and ready to go
by the time Yendi
arrived in my mailbox.
In terms of the actual book itself, however, I
ended up being somewhat disappointed. Not hugely disappointed, but
Most of my disappointment, I suspect, stems from
the fact that the plot of Yendi
is not terribly dissimilar from that of Jhereg: Vlad Taltos
gets a case at street level that leaves him perplexed and fearing for
his life. He bums around with his friends in high society for a bit and
hears some interesting gossip about world-shattering events and
historical trivia that appears to be inconsequential... until it turns
out that his case, the world-shattering events, and the historical
trivia are all intimately connected!
It's a solid formula, but it ends up being like
the magician who performs the same trick twice in a row: The second
time he does it, it's pretty easy to figure out how you're being fooled.
Brust had me fooled: The high-society gossip and historical trivia all
looked like the type of background world-building detail that you find
strewn around the better fantasy novels. My brain promptly filed them
as such and, as a result, I was completely surprised when Brust pulled
back the curtain and showed how everything was interconnected.
When he tries to pull the exact same trick in Yendi, however, I
can spot it coming from a mile away. And since I can clearly see the
information he doesn't want me paying attention to, it's far too easy
to figure out what's coming long before it arrives.
One of the mistakes Brust makes is in
his conservation of characters. In most fiction, you don't
want any spare characters just wandering around filling up space. Those
spare characters just become needless bloat.
But in a mystery, those "spare characters" have
another name: Suspects.
If you're reading a mystery and you can clearly
see why all the characters are in the story... except for this one lady
who just wanders through and says "Hello" every so often. Well, it
doesn't exactly take a genius to figure out whose guilty.
(The better mystery authors will avoid the "spare
character" problem by making sure that all of their characters have at
least one legitimate and obvious reason for being in the story. That
way you don't just have faceless names wandering around, but you're
also not tipping your hand.)
In Brust's case he kind of ends up with the worst
of both worlds: He has lots of spare characters wandering around in a
perpetual state of name-bloat... but they're all part of Taltos'
criminal organization. In the circles of high society, on the other
hand, Brust has an austere conservation of characters... except for the
guilty party, who really does
just wander by and say "Hello" every few dozen pages.
The other shortcoming of Yendi, in my
opinion, is Brust's failure to raise the stakes. Jhereg gave us a
really nifty and multi-layered setting with lots of interesting and
original characters. And the unique magical physics of the Dragaeran
setting let Brust create entirely unique methods for conducting both
crime and politics. There's a definite sensawunda at work.
gives us a second dose of the same stuff... but not much notably new or
different. The first time you show me a rocketship? Awesome. The second
time you show me a rocketship? Nifty. Now, what are you going to do
In that sense, the part of the book I enjoyed the
was probably the first few chapters: A young Taltos is running a small
gang in the slums of Adrilankha when another crime boss decides to make
a play for his territory. The evolving battle of sorcerous gang
warfare, which lasts for several chapters, is frankly enthralling.
Brust does a really slick job of taking a familiar archetype ("gang
war") and running it through the unique characteristics of his fantasy
world to give something refreshingly unique and entertaining.
(In fact, I would have been perfectly happy if the
entire book had stayed at that level of petty gang politics. But once
the story moves into high society, the gang war pretty much disappears
from the narrative and the cloning of Jhereg's plot
With all these negative things being said, I think
it's important to make this point: I still had a rapacious appetite for
this book. I would frequently find myself fighting off sleep in order
to squeeze in a few more pages.
That's the unmistakable sign of a book that,
despite it's shortcomings, is still extremely entertaining.
I should also note that Yendi takes place
telling the story of a younger Vlad Taltos at the beginning of his
career. I find Brust's decision to tell these stories out of
chronological order very intriguing. It appears to be a very deliberate
choice, and not one structured in quite the traditional roles of
"prequel" and "sequel". Just off of these two books, I'm left with the
impression of listening to an old warrior telling tales of his youth in
whatever order strikes his fancy at the moment. (An impression somewhat
spoilt by the last few paragraphs of this book, but more strongly
supported by the opening of Jhereg.)
I'm looking forward to seeing what happens next.