Coming off of Jhereg, I had very high expectations for Yendi, the second book in the Adventures of Vlad Taltos. In fact, having finished Jhereg 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 and Phoenix (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 somewhat disappointed.
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.
In Jhereg, 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.
Yendi 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 with it?
In that sense, the part of the book I enjoyed the most 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 begins.)
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 before Jhereg, 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.
Cover Price: $7.99