Thinking About Dragaera: Jhereg

Jhereg was the first Dragaera novel to be published, in 1983.  Jhereg is the House of Vlad Taltos, the series’ primary protagonist, so it is naturally a good place to start.

This post will follow a format I intend to use, to some extent, for all of these posts.  I’ll provide some background information on the novel’s namesake (both animal and House), and then a synopsis of the story.  Most of the analysis will be around the thesis/antithesis/synthesis structure I outlined in the introductory post, but there will usually be some other things I think are interesting to note as well.

About jheregs

The jhereg is a small, winged reptile with two legs and a venomous bite. Despite their size, jheregs are about as intelligent as humans, thanks to some experimentation in the species’ past.  They are capable of doing their own hunting but prefer to scavenge when possible.

About Jheregs

Jhereg feeds on others’ kills…

The House of the Jhereg is practically synonymous with the criminal underworld of Dragaera.  The “Right Hand of the Jhereg”, or simply “The Organization”, is a criminal organization akin to the Mafia or Yakuza, and it is led by a small Council of about five people.  The Council oversees not only the House itself but also a wide variety of illegal activities – gambling, unlicensed prostitution, fencing stolen goods, and assassination being their primary trades.  In other books, the Organization’s scope of activities has been described as anything that the Empire either outlaws or taxes heavily.  They are also the only House in Dragaera in which a noble title can be purchased for money.

Accordingly, most Dragaerans’ opinions of Jheregs are low, stereotyping them (not unjustly) as untrustworthy criminals who thrive on illicit activity.  The House’s connection to their namesake animal is straightforward; jhereg are small but venomous reptiles largely surviving on the edges of other predators’ domains by feeding off carrion, while Jhereg are similarly lowly and also make their living by taking advantage of the waste and weakness of others.  Reptiles, and snakes in particular, are often seen to be metaphors for untrustworthiness, and the Jheregs’ connection to what is essentially a winged, legged snake is no exception.

The “Left Hand of the Jhereg” is the other primary organization within the House, and consists primarily (if not solely) of women who practice sorcery on a freelance or contract basis.  Contrary to the saying, the Left Hand often knows what the Right Hand is doing, because members of the Right Hand frequently hire members of the Left Hand as magical support staff for their various activities.

Just about every Jhereg we see in the series works for one of these two organizations, at least to some extent, with the majority of them belonging to the Right Hand1If there are Jhereg that aren’t at least somewhat involved with either the Right or Left Hand, I don’t remember them..  This does not prevent conflict within the House, though; while they all report up to the same people in the end, the lower-level members of the Organization are frequently engaged in turf wars or intrigue of one kind or another, each seeking to increase his scope of control in both territory and personnel.  Most of the Jheregs’ assassinations are in fact carried out against other Jheregs as part of those internal conflicts.

While criminal activity exists throughout the Dragaeran Empire, the bulk of the Jheregs’ activities (that we’re aware of so far) are focused on the Empire’s capital and largest city, Adrilankha.

About Jhereg

In Jhereg, we meet our protagonist for the first time.  Vlad Taltos is an Easterner living among Dragaerans; he is a Baronet of the House of the Jhereg, his father having purchased the title with forty years’ worth of savings from his restaurant.  Vlad despises Dragaerans both because of years of abuse at their hands as a child, and because he hated seeing his father wanting to become a Dragaeran despite the way they usually treated Easterners.

The prologue of Jhereg is the earliest narrative we have in Vlad’s life to date; it shows him venturing into the jungle west of Adrilankha to perform a ritual of witchcraft to summon a familiar.  Witchcraft is an Eastern form of magic, and Vlad learned it from his grandfather, despite his father’s disdain of anything to do with their homeland.  As a result of the ritual, Vlad acquires a jhereg egg from its mother, promising to provide the jhereg-to-be with fresh meat and friendship in exchange for its aid and wisdom.  That egg hatches into Loiosh, Vlad’s constant, wisecracking companion.

From there, we jump into the middle of Vlad’s career among the Jhereg.  He has a small criminal organization built up and has acquired a reputation as an assassin – and it is in that capacity that his services are requested in this book.  “The Demon”, one of the leaders of the Jhereg, hires Vlad to track down and kill another member of the Council, who recently took the Organization’s entire treasury of nine million gold Imperials2To put that number in perspective, in Taltos Vlad mentions that six Imperials is more than he would make in several weeks at the restaurant.  Another comparison that highlights the magnitude of the crime is the fee the Demon offers to Vlad for the assassination; while most hired killings cost somewhere from 1,500 to 4,000 gold, Vlad is paid 65,000 to take the job on..

It turns out that the thief, Mellar, has taken refuge in Castle Black – a floating castle and round-the-clock party owned and hosted respectively by Morrolan, a noble of the House of the Dragon (and a friend and employer of Vlad’s).  Mellar secured an invitation from Morrolan in exchange for the recovery of a stolen book.  Morrolan takes hospitality very seriously, and refuses to allow permanent harm3Thanks to the existence of sorcery that can resurrect the recently dead, Morrolan’s rules of hospitality does not forbid all violence, nor even all fatal violence.  But death can be made permanent either through fatal damage to the brain or spinal cord, or through the use of a soul-killing “Morganti” weapon, and it is such unrevivifiable murder that Morrolan will not permit to happen to his guests.  Uninvited guests, on the other hand, are fair game. to come to his guests while they are under his roof.

The bulk of the novel’s plot is occupied by figuring out how and why Mellar has committed this crime in the first place, and devising various schemes by which Vlad can enact Mellar’s death without violating Morrolan’s rules of hospitality.  Along the way, Vlad and his allies – and he has a surprising number of allies for the first book of a series – discover just how deep Mellar’s plot runs, and for how long he has been putting the pieces in place; Vlad also learns some disquieting things about himself.  Meanwhile, the Jhereg Organization, aware that Vlad’s friendship with Morrolan might prevent him from carrying out the job, attempts to murder Morrolan themselves to obviate the conflict of interest.

The Question

In my introductory post, I discussed the notion of a House’s “thesis” independently of any specific prompt.  There was an implicit question being asked, of course: “What does it mean to be a member of this House?”  We can ask more specific questions as well, though.  In this case, one particular question runs through the text: What is the proper way to kill someone?  This contains component questions of both motivation (why?) and method (how?).

The Jhereg Thesis

The Jhereg are not an entirely amoral group – they have a certain sense of propriety that forbids things like assassinating someone in their own home, involving the Empire in Jhereg activities (whether it’s reporting a crime or giving testimony), and so forth.  But beyond that, power among the Jhereg flows from the end of a sharp knife in a dark alley – or from a purse full of gold Imperials.  They have little use for the law, except to the extent that the criminalization of things like gambling and prostitution enables the Jhereg to profit off of them.

The Jhereg disdain for law and order, and their extralegal approach to problem-solving, comes through particularly strongly in Jhereg.  The Organization is a group of criminals who have become victims of a crime committed by one of their own, and to address it they turn to another of their own to commit another crime in turn.

Life is cheap among the Jhereg, but not completely valueless.  The Jhereg rarely kill someone – or pay for someone to be killed – for no reason at all, but acceptable reasons can include disputes over territory, being late with one’s loan payments, or simply disrespecting someone who is powerful enough to not fear retribution for the murder.  They’re flexible on method as well; the Jhereg rarely go in for poison or magic as an instrument of death, but that has more to do with pragmatism than philosophy.  A Jhereg assassin prefers their target’s first awareness of lethal danger to be the arrival of the killing blow – face-to-face fights are much less likely to get the job done.

The Jhereg Antithesis

The antithesis of the Jhereg viewpoint is essentially that of the House of the Dragon.  Law, honor, and traditions are paramount among Dragons, and of those three honor is the most important.

A Dragon would never stoop to killing someone for money – though disputes over honor are a perfectly valid reason to end someone’s life.  Still, Dragons have no particular qualms about conscripting an army of Teckla (and the occasional glory-seeking Dzur) and marching them against an enemy to die by the thousands, as long as there is some plausible military pretext4Analogies to modern-day geopolitics are completely warranted, but that’s a topic better addressed when we talk about Yendi.  On a strict numerical basis, Dragons are probably responsible for tens or even hundreds of times as many deaths as Jheregs are.

In addition to the difference in opinion around which motivations for killing someone are appropriate, Dragons also strongly disapprove of how Jheregs carry out their killings.  The notion of a knife in the dark is anathema to your typical Dragon; if a Dragon wants you dead, you’ll see them coming and you’ll at least have an opportunity to get a weapon into your hand.

The conflicts between the Jhereg and Dragon modes have caused wars between the two Houses in the past, and Morrolan’s refusal to violate his rules of hospitality to allow Vlad to kill Mellar nearly causes another one.  In fact, Morrolan is only convinced to help Vlad with his assignment at all when he understands the extent to which Mellar is taking advantage of him – and even then, he requires that Mellar’s murder be carried out without violating the hospitality he still extends to the thief.

Synthesis

In the end, the murder of Mellar is accomplished with both application of Jhereg subterfuge and adherence to Dragon rules.  The elaborate plan concocted by Vlad and his allies takes the Dragon hospitality rules within which Mellar is hiding and turns them back on him.  With a couple Morganti weapons and some sleight-of-hand, they trick him into believing that he has broken those rules himself.  Mellar attempts to flee, via teleport, with his two bodyguards – one of whom has, through the use of illusion, been replaced with Vlad himself.

Though this takes Mellar out of Morrolan’s protections and makes him fair game for the unrevivifiable assassination that the Organization has demanded, Vlad’s job isn’t easy from here.  Vlad takes out the other bodyguard, but Mellar recognizes Vlad for the threat he is, which leads them into a straight-up fight – hardly the preferred Jhereg approach.  Vlad is forced back into the Dragon mode again, fighting Mellar face-to-face in deadly combat, and Vlad cannot win that fight.

So instead, Vlad falls back on his House’s, and the novel’s, namesake animal.  Loiosh was left behind by the teleport, but Vlad performs an impromptu, modified version of the ritual with which he first bonded with Loiosh at the beginning of the book, casting his mind out again – and he is able to finish Mellar off thanks to the distraction provided by another jhereg5This jhereg, Rocza, is female, and becomes Loiosh’s mate at the end of the book after a brief, sibilant courtship.  It’s quite cute, really..

This synthesis of the Jhereg thesis and the Dragon antithesis doesn’t provide a definitive answer to the general question of the appropriate way to kill someone.  But for this particular case, it combines the Jhereg and Dragon opinions on the subject in a way that successfully navigates the perilous gap between the two Houses.

Other interesting notes

There are several other things I want to touch on briefly about Jhereg that don’t necessarily fit into the main synthesis discussion…

Chapter quotations

Each of the seventeen chapters is prefaced with a brief quotation.  I did not realize it at the time, but each of the quotations alludes somewhat to one of the seventeen Houses, this time in Cycle order.  In addition, the Epilogue also has a second Phoenix quotation, bookending Chapter 1’s “Success leads to stagnation, stagnation leads to failure” with “Failure leads to maturity, maturity leads to success” and reflecting the particular role that House has in the Dragaeran Cycle.

The Jhereg quote is “One man’s mistake is another man’s opportunity”, describing both the House’s general approach to profiting off the vices of others and the way in which Vlad is finally able to carry out his mission.

The Dragon quote is “There is no substitute for good manners – except fast reflexes”, reflecting both the House’s interest in propriety and honor and the speed with which they answer slights against said honor.

Chronology and overall plot arc

As mentioned previously, the book takes place somewhere in the middle of Vlad’s career in the Jhereg Organization (excluding the Prologue).  Despite being the first novel published, Jhereg feels much more like a mid-series novel, despite the time that it necessarily has to take setting up parts of the world that an actual mid-series novel can take for granted.  By this point in his life Vlad has many friends and allies, even beyond his Organization subordinates, his wife Cawti, and his familiar Loiosh.  Among them we see two highly-ranked Dragonlords (Aliera and Morrolan), a preternaturally talented sorcerer (Daymar), a gifted thief (Kiera), and the undead/immortal Enchantress of Dzur Mountain, Sethra Lavode.  We know little at this point about how an Easterner and a Jhereg came to have favorable relationships with such illustrious Dragaerans, though Vlad does allude to some previous exploits that we learn about in more detail in later books.  He also has a magical artifact of some uniqueness – Spellbreaker, an eighteen-inch length of gold chain that cancels any sorcery it comes into contact with.

Despite all of those benefits with which Vlad begins the story, the thing that jumped out at me the most as a “middle-of-the-series” plot point was the revelation Aliera makes about Vlad’s soul.  She states that reincarnation of Dragaeran souls is known to be a fact.  She then explains that in her past life, some two hundred thousand years ago, she was a sibling of Kieron the Conqueror, founder of the Dragaeran Empire.  Further, she and Kieron had another brother, Dolivar, who betrayed Kieron and also founded the House of the Jhereg – and she reveals that Vlad is the reincarnation of that soul.  This throws Vlad into a considerable amount of turmoil, as the course of his life up to this point had been based on his hatred of Dragaerans (stemming from repeated abuse from Dragaerans when he was younger); to discover now that he is in some ways Dragaeran himself is not easy for him to handle.

In most long-running fantasy series, this would be the sort of shocking discovery that a character would make as a turning point of a later book in the series.  I had forgotten that particular plot point after nearly a decade away from Dragaera – though I hadn’t forgotten Vlad’s general hatred of Dragaerans – and both the impact of it to Vlad’s character and the timing of the revelation were surprising to me.  With what I do recall of later books, though, I recognize this as one of the early indications we readers get of the extent to which Brust will challenge expectations and play with fantasy tropes throughout the series.

Next time

Coming up next is the second book in the series: Yendi. Plots within plots…

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. If there are Jhereg that aren’t at least somewhat involved with either the Right or Left Hand, I don’t remember them.
2. To put that number in perspective, in Taltos Vlad mentions that six Imperials is more than he would make in several weeks at the restaurant.  Another comparison that highlights the magnitude of the crime is the fee the Demon offers to Vlad for the assassination; while most hired killings cost somewhere from 1,500 to 4,000 gold, Vlad is paid 65,000 to take the job on.
3. Thanks to the existence of sorcery that can resurrect the recently dead, Morrolan’s rules of hospitality does not forbid all violence, nor even all fatal violence.  But death can be made permanent either through fatal damage to the brain or spinal cord, or through the use of a soul-killing “Morganti” weapon, and it is such unrevivifiable murder that Morrolan will not permit to happen to his guests.  Uninvited guests, on the other hand, are fair game.
4. Analogies to modern-day geopolitics are completely warranted, but that’s a topic better addressed when we talk about Yendi
5. This jhereg, Rocza, is female, and becomes Loiosh’s mate at the end of the book after a brief, sibilant courtship.  It’s quite cute, really.

2 comments ↓

#1 Natalie Lias on 08.26.16 at 1:35 pm

I think it’s a stretch to claim that Vlad’s father was involved with the Right Hand, maybe?

#2 Chris Battey on 08.26.16 at 2:11 pm

That’s an excellent point; despite mentioning Vlad’s father I didn’t really think about him in that statement as he never appears “on screen”. I suspect that paying protection money was the extent of his involvement with the Right Hand.

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