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YENDI
1984

Book cover art by Stephen Hickman.
Review © 2002 by Thomas M. Wagner.
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Whereas Jhereg, Steven Brust's first novel of the resourceful assassin Vlad Taltos, was an elaborately constructed mystery, Yendi is a much tighter tale set several years prior to the events of the first book. It's a fantasy take on old-fashioned mob stories, about a gangland turf war in the Dragaeran city of Adrilankha between Vlad and a ruthless rival, Laris. The war escalates quickly and gets out of hand even more quickly. The stakes are raised about as high as they can go when Laris hires a formidable duo of female assassins who kill Vlad right in front of his own offices! (Never fear, this is no spoiler. Brust has Vlad talk all about it in Jhereg.)

Vlad is revived by his allies, Lord Morrolan and Aliera of the House of the Dragon. Immediately there is a palpable chemistry between Vlad and Cawti, the woman who dealt him his death blow. Some readers might think Vlad and Cawti fall into it a little too quickly, but I totally loved Brust's conceit here: that Vlad would feel an instant and irresistible attraction to the woman who had bettered him. In some ways it's as if Brust, in thrusting Vlad and Cawti into a whirlwind attraction (it's not really a romance, more a purely animal sexual desire), is literalizing the concept of sexual release as a "little death." It's a much smarter application of his wit as a writer than anything he managed in Jhereg.

Back to the synopsis. Upon his revival it occurs to Vlad that there may be more to this turf war than meets the eye. Where could Laris be getting his money to continue to afford sending assassins after Vlad? And what might all this have to do with an ancient controversy over the lineage of the House of the Dragon? As in the first novel, there are layers underneath the surface, but Brust does a much better job of managing his plot's increasing intricacy. Overall there is a sharper focus. Jhereg kept you guessing, but Yendi is better at the suspense. The final result is most satisfying.

Whereas Jhereg was sometimes too self-satisfied and glib for its own good, Brust's writing has improved markedly with Yendi. Smartass dialogue has been dialed down, though the series at this point is still crying out for the book that will make Loiosh, Vlad's jhereg familiar, a real character rather than just a snappy sidekick. Other characterizations do seem better fleshed out. The reader is better able to bond with Vlad this time, and there are chilling points in the story where Brust shows exactly how ruthless Vlad has to be in order to maintain his street cred.

Yendi is a short and sharp little tale that makes for a swell afternoon's reading. With entries like this in his series, Brust's fan following is thoroughly justified. And see if you can spot the Monty Python reference.

(In 1999, the complete novels Jhereg, Yendi, and Teckla were included in an omnibus trade paperback edition titled The Book of Jhereg.)