Steven Brust's Yendi is an even shorter novel than his first Vlad Taltos book, Jhereg, but that doesn't harm it in the least. Brust has a way of economizing words so that his plots seem a lot larger than they are. Brust also manages to give us even more backstory on the Dragaeran Empire and its political workings, the House of Dragon, and its relationship with the House of Jhereg. How he manages to pack all of this into a book, along with the plot itself, is a mystery to me, but he does it very well.
This is a prequel to Jhereg, showing us, among other things, how Vlad met his wife, Cawti. It seems that a rival Jhereg boss, named Laris, is trying to move in on Vlad's territory. This basically sets up a war between the two of them, and things escalate to the point that the Empress sends in some of the Phoenix Guard to keep order. After being almost saved from one assassination attempt by his Dragon friends, Aliera and Morrolan, Aliera revives him as well as the two assassins (that's something that can often be done by the sorcery in the Empire) and Vlad learns that things are a lot more complicated than he had expected. Somebody's using Laris to further their own political ends, a conspiracy that could reach to the top of the Empire. And even worse, Vlad has fallen in love with the woman who killed him!
I began reading this before realizing that Jhereg was written first, and while Yendi is certainly understandable without having read the first book, a lot of the background of the series is revealed in it. I quickly read the first one before coming back to this one, and I was much happier. That being said, it is a prequel, so we get to see how he met Cawti, which was quite surprising. Brust does a wonderful job with this relationship, making it so it doesn't really seem unusual. They find that they have a lot in common, and we get some personal detail on Vlad that tells us why he became an assassin. We knew that he hated Dragaerans but the reasons he became an assassin drive this point home. It was a nice touch, and I loved the scenes between them when he revealed himself to her.
It amazes me how tight this novel is, considering the fact that it shifts gears in the middle to reveal the deeper and darker plot. The first part is basically concerned with the war between Vlad and Laris, and with the various assassination attempts. But when Vlad realizes that something else is going on, it really takes off and Vlad's mind is working faster than ours to figure out what is really happening, and who's behind it all. It's a tribute to Brust's characterizations that we can believe it when Vlad suspects that his Dragon friends may be behind some of it, because we can believe that they might be, even as we know they are Vlad's friends. As much loyalty as they have to Vlad, they are loyal to the Dragon House first, and when the plot quickly gets political, it wouldn't be that surprising to see them up to something.
In fact, this showcases even more Vlad's isolation and how much he needs Cawti. Loiosh, his Jhereg familiar and friend, is the only sentient being that he feels he can totally trust, and their relationship is also brilliantly portrayed. The psionic bond between them (even though psionics are common with these people, and Vlad can pretty much communicate with anybody using them, his bond with Loiosh seems more special) makes for some interesting dialogues during scenes, such as when Vlad is wondering if Aliera could be behind the whole thing, and Loiosh tells him he's being too paranoid. Brust manages to make Loiosh very likable, loyal to Vlad but not afraid to talk back to him if he feels it's necessary. He's also Vlad's personal protector, which comes in handy a few times too.
The plot is intricate (which isn't surprising, considering the ultimate plotter is a Yendi, and that's not a spoiler, because we don't find out who the Yendi is until Vlad does), but it does hang together. It seems to be a lot more convoluted than it needs to be, but evidently that's a trait of the Yendi, so it's not surprising. I'm glad that Vlad didn't figure out everything all at once, as I really don't like those mystery plots where one little piece of information all of a sudden brings the whole thing to light. Brust avoids that one, unlike the problem with Jhereg that I had. My only gripe with Yendi is that the Laris war almost becomes an afterthought, dealt with in a few pages at the end.
After two books, I've become a big fan of Steven Brust, and I can't wait to read more of his stuff. Yendi is another winning addition in the Vlad Taltos saga, and it's small enough that it's also a quick read. Good for those of you with large "to-be-read" piles, that it won't take you very long. This one should be added to it.