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Thoughts on Jhegaala
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
Posted on the off-chance that at least one of my Friends is enough of a Steven Brust fanboy to enjoy this, but not enough of one to read the Dragaera mailing list (where I originally sent this).

In the course of taking notes for my Dragaera Timeline, I made lots of interesting observations. These start with fairly obvious things, but move into serious criticism and fan-wank territory near the end. Oh, and I hope to have an updated draft of the Timeline up sometime this weekend.

This story commences very soon after Phoenix. Vlad says "A few weeks ago, I'd been married. A few weeks before that, happily married" (Ja 23). This is clearly an understatement, as by the end of Phoenix his marriage had already been unhappy for at least eleven weeks. Possibly more accurate is Vlad's statement that "Two months ago" he still had Kragar's services (on day seven of this story, Ja 43). That leaves about 27 days, or 5 Dragaeran weeks, between the end of Phoenix and Vlad's arrival on Mount Saestara. We know he spent one week of that time at Lake Szurke visiting Noish-Pa (Ja 12). The rest of it would have been spent walking to and from there.

The reasons for the difference in where you threaten a Dragaeran and an Easterner with a knife -- Back of the neck vs. throat -- are actually pretty obvious when you think about it. It is much more difficult to sever a spine then it is to slit a throat. If you cut an Easterner's throat, he'll die in a minute or two, but if you chop at the back of his neck, there's a good chance the blow will glance off bone and do no lasting damage. While much of this remains true in a Dragaeran context, much is also different. A Dragaeran can use his few seconds of consciousness to psychically contact a friend or physicker, or maybe even teleport to one if he's skilled enough. Even if he passes out, there's a good chance he'll get medical help fast enough to survive, or failing that, get revivified from the dead. Contrariwise, if a Dragaeran's spine is severed, then they are dead dead dead with no hope of coming back. And while severing a spine is still non-trivial, a Dragaeran can expect to be threatened by someone with a very sharp knife, and who has studied his spinal anatomy.

Vlad's constant denials that witches can summon demons rings a little hollow. We know that at least one demon was present in Fenario between at least 204 PI (_Brokedown Palace_, page 28) and 218 PI (BP 218, 263). Given that, perhaps his relatives *did* summon demons. Possibly even the same one that fathered Brigitta (who is widely speculated to have been Cawti's mother).

A crack? Inchay's inn has mill workers in it on page 33. Two later references (125, 261-262) claim that mill workers do not frequent that establishment.

Vlad assumes throughout that the Coven is not a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Guild. I don't see much independent support for believing this. Although there is a lot of Witchcraft going on in this story, almost all of it seems designed to benefit the Guild (save for the killing of Chayoor). While there may have originally been a three-legged stool, it's already wobbly by the time Vlad arrives. It seems to me that the story makes more sense if you assume that the Coven is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Guild at this time. Or at least firmly under Chayoor's dominance. Vlad states that "the Guild had managed to discover at least some of the leaders of the Coven" (Ja 293). While this makes sense, Vlad seems to be speculating here; we didn't see him discover any facts about this. Vlad says that the Coven killed the Merss family (294), but emotionally identified Chayoor as responsible ("child-killing bastard" 276).

Vlad must not only have deduced this connection, he must also have convinced the Count of it, in some offstage scene. Otherwise, why would Vlad expect -- correctly -- that the Count would react to what looks like an attempted-murder-by-witchcraft by arresting Chayoor? Though that does beg the question of why the Count didn't immediately arrest Chayoor over the murder of Zollie, once he knew of the connection. Perhaps he planned to do a full investigation, but Vlad wasn't willing to wait for that and sped matters up.
Vlad thinks Zollie was not killed by witchcraft, because it was too un-subtle (286-287). But we know that the entire Merss family was killed by witchcraft on Chayoor's orders. There's no reason why he wouldn't also order Zollie's death by witchcraft. We know they are capable of killing in that manner, as that's how they kill Chayoor. The Coven remains safe (at least temporarily) due to their secrecy. The only outsider who knows their identity is both the one who ordered the crime, and the authority in charge of investigating it. Killing Chayoor was risky, but if Vlad had not interfered, they might well have maintained their secrecy through the ensuing investigation.

Vlad thinks Tereza was killed because she could have implicated the Guild (Ja 259). I'm not sure why, since it's not clear to me that she had any incriminating knowledge in the first place. And she did *say* she was leaving Burz for Fenario City (Ja 56). It would be amusing if Vlad ran across her during his year of recovery. If it was important that Tereza not be allowed to talk, why would Orbahn have been left alive?

Speaking of shaky stool-legs, there's another character who is conspicuous by his absence: an heir to Count Saekeresh. While there might be one offstage, there is no mention in the text of a Countess or a son. There is mention that the Count uses prostitutes, which suggests (weakly) that he has no current wife, nor is he actively seeking one. Eighty-Three is very old by Eastern standards. What happens to Burz -- and the mill -- if he dies with no heir? Or if he does have an heir, who is it, and how will they handle things differently? What does the Guild think about this situation? Perhaps the reason they think it likely that the King would send an investigator is that the King inherits the property in the absence of an heir. Is this what protects the Count from the Guild? Is Chayoor consolidating power in order to be able to deal with the Count's eventual successor from a position of strength?

The King, by the way, is probably still Miklos. He'd be about 46 years old.

How did the Jhereg locate Vlad? Three possibilities that I see:
* Removing his Gold Phoenix stone, even for a few moments, was enough to get a fix on him. This would imply that Gold Phoenix stone has a much smaller radius of effect than Black (which protects Vlad even when resting on his pillow). On my next reread, I must watch for evidence about this, one way or the other. I don't care for this answer, as it makes Vlad seem to be an idiot for leaving such an opening.
* They found him via witchcraft while he performed his Working. I liked this idea for a while, but after re-examining how Vlad pulled a similar trick in _Jhereg_, it seems less likely. That ritual took multiple highly skilled witches a long time to perform, whereas Vlad was only vulnerable for "an hour" (Ja 82). On the other hand, it's possible that someone else could refine the ritual Vlad came up with to be more efficient. At the very least, however, I believe that they must have been alerted that the window of opportunity was open by the removal of the gold stone; witchcraft just doesn't seem to operate on such an immediate basis. [And how would the Jhereg even think of such a ritual? That part's easy. Any assassin researching Vlad would have talked to Daymar under some pretense or other, and I find it entirely plausible that he would talk at length about this "fascinating problem in interdisciplinary magic" that he once had to solve.]
* Vlad believes that Orbahn (and thus both Guild and Coven?) can't contact the Jhereg (Ja 239). Given how many things he's been wrong about in the course of this story, he could easily be wrong about this as well. When some local witch got Vlad's name out of his head, she got a lot more also. At minimum, she got some knowledge about Vlad's amulet. It's not implausible that she also got some information on *why* he wears it. Since the Coven/Guild clearly fears Vlad, they might well try to summon that which Vlad himself fears, to counter him. I find this possibility the most satisfying of the three.

Vlad's jhereg are attacked "When they grabbed you, Boss. As soon as they grabbed you-" (Ja 180). How to pull off such precise timing? Psychic communication of some sort, presumably. The way most clearly available to the villagers is that between a witch and a familiar. Vlad spends much of this story sending his jhereg to spy on people unnoticed -- while neither he nor the jhereg ever noticed the small birds and cats which must have been spying on Vlad. This is how the witch who read his mind must have known when to strike.

This may also explain Vlad's failure to notice Dahni following him (Ja 153); maybe Dahni got his information in a more indirect manner. He might be a witch himself, and have had his familiar follow Vlad. He might have hired a witch to do the job. Heck, he might even be working with the Coven -- a man whose loyalties are split two ways might add a third. Then again, Vlad was not hiding his movements; simply listening to local gossip might suffice to "follow" him.

Dahni calls Vlad "Lord Taltos" (Ja 129). Who told him that name? Vlad appears to notice, but doesn't explicitly say so anywhere in the text. It's not clear whether Dahni dropped the name as a deliberate threat, or whether it was accidental. By this time Vlad knows that the Guild (and presumably the Coven) know his real name, so he may think Dahni may be working with them (which, perhaps, he is). Dahni later claims he didn't learn Vlad's real name from the Count (Ja 152).

Vlad says "Dahni said that talking to me in the dark like that would give him an edge." (Ja 199). What Dahni *actually* said was, "I saw you heading out there. I thought it might give me an edge." (Ja 153). Dahni makes no explicit mention of darkness, or of Vlad's poor night vision (unless it was lost somewhere in the chain of recollections and translations between the event and the text). Why doesn't Vlad mention Dahni's use of his real name at this juncture?

The more I think about it, the more I think that Dahni was collaborating with the Guild and Coven. This would explain all his knowledge about Vlad, as well as his connection with the Jhereg assassin. His account of Vlad's initial impact on Burz (Ja 151) sounds like he got it either directly from Orbahn, or from someone else who Orbahn was in confidence with. I say this not because of its accuracy, but due to the slant of its *in*accuracies.

Let's talk a bit about Orbahn. Practically everything the man says -- to anyone -- is a lie. He lies to Vlad when he says he doesn't know the Merss family (Ja 35, 50) and when he says that he isn't "involved" in the town very much (Ja 50). He lies to Dahni (or whoever Dahni heard it from) when he says that Vlad "...immediately found the representative of the Guild..." when in fact Orbahn approached Vlad; and again when he says Vlad "...as much as told him to his face you were going to break up the Guild" (Ja 151). And he lies to the Guild about what happened when he attacked Loiosh, leading them to believe "your familiars are no more" (Ja 181) -- when it sounds from Loiosh's account as if he got away clean (Ja 180). (Tereza may well have believed that her target was dead, since Rocza was apparently at least wounded. Ja 179.)

Orbahn and Dahni both seem willing to work with anyone, and say whatever they think will make them look best, regardless of truth or loyalty. Orbahn does seem more skilled at this behavior than Dahni, though. Vlad even thinks that Orbahn might see through Vlad's ruse (Ja 267).

The Count clearly has a strong sense of personal honor. Given his reaction when Vlad shows up post-torture, he clearly hadn't expected or condoned such... vigorous questioning. Vlad expected him to react that way, so it can't have been much of a surprise to the Guild either. Which makes it seem rather odd that they would choose to carry out that questioning inside the Count's own paper mill, where he might be expected to find out about it. On the other hand, they clearly would have wanted Vlad held somewhere both secure and soundproof, and a place the size of Burz probably doesn't have may of those.

A digression here. I found reading _Jhegaala_ for the first time immensely frustrating. Vlad deliberately withholds important information from the reader on at least ten different occasions. The first few are subtle, or have semi-plausible reasons, but by the second half of the book, they become quite blatant and without excuse -- nor any obvious motive for him to be so evasive. The first big questions of the story are raised within the first 67 pages: Why do people react to the name Merss as if it were a threat? And why were the Merss farmers killed? While these questions seem closely related, neither is really answered. Vlad's one "explanation" is as follows: "The Merss family, after all, had been, years and years ago, their [the Coven's] enemies, and now a man they couldn't touch or investigate with witchcraft was about to make contact with them. They didn't know what I had in mind, but it couldn't be good, and so they acted." (Ja 294). While this is probably true as far as it goes, it is, to say the least, woefully inadequate as a motive for mass murder.

On one level, I believe that Brust just lost control of the plot, and had Vlad keep information close to his vest to hide this fact. I was predisposed to think so by the plot failings of the previous book, _Dzur_. There, two important characters swapped names halfway through, and Vlad successfully made a deal with the Demon, despite having no apparent way to deliver what he was offering. When the plot of _Jhegaala_ appeared to have even larger holes in it, I was greatly disappointed. I set about to patch them to the best of my ability -- but I resent having to put so much work in to uncover/construct what should be straightforward narrative details. As James Nicoll once said, "I don't mind hidden depths but I insist that there be a surface." Steven used to sign himself PJF, but it seems as if he has forgotten those principles. This saddens me.

That said, I *did* still want to find the answers to those two big questions, despite my frustration at not being given them up front. On my second reading, while taking preliminary notes for The Dragaera Timeline, I also took note of all the places where I had questions about the plot, or where there were intriguing nuggets of data that might answer some questions. There were a *lot* of these. Taking Noish-Pa's advice to not be distracted by shadows, I pared them away one by one, resulting in the earlier paragraphs of this missive. I eventually arrived at a possible story structure that I found to be a more satisfying explanation of events. For simplicity's sake, I will state it as if it were fact, though it is all highly speculative.

Vlad spends much of this narrative withholding information from the reader, and occasionally outright lying -- in order to protect his family.

What family is that, you say? I thought they were all dead, you say? Nope. Though Vlad tried to hide all the clues he could, he was narrating to a linear recording device, and didn't have the luxury of carefully editing his words later. So while he does refuse to tell us the recent history of his family as recounted by Father Noij (Ja 71), certain facts slip through. While interrogating the unnamed witch woman, Vlad says of part of the Merss family, "I thought they had only left ten or fifteen years ago." And she replies, " Oh, them. I don't think they were witches. The just left because, well, because having the name Merss isn't easy around here. I think they went to the City." (Ja 137). And Zollie also said, "Unless you mean the cousins; they moved away some years ago. I don't know where, but probably to Fenario. The city, I mean." (Ja 58). So part of the Merss family moved away between about 229 and 234 PI. Vlad doesn't explicitly talk about them beyond these (accidental?) references, but at the end of the story he heads to Fenario City, where these cousins allegedly are.

Vaski also may be referencing these cousins when he says, "There were [other Merss] once; they've moved away to get away from -- from things." (Ja 72). What "things" were these?
Something Important happened around the time these cousins left town. I still don't know exactly what it was, but it had both a public and a secret aspect. Publicly, the Guild became enemies of the Merss family. This becomes widely enough known that almost no one will talk about them, for fear of angering the Guild (Ja 58). The Guild encourages the peasantry to believe that the Merss are evil witches, and have nothing to do with them. Although Vlad doesn't speak to anyone who actually does believes that, at least two people claim that others believe it (Ja 70, 151).

While the Guild hated the Merss family, they also clearly feared them (Ja 44). The Merss family had some sort of ability to harm the Guild, though they appear never to have exercised it. Most likely, given the corruption of the Guild, this power is in the form of a Big Secret that the Guild doesn't want known. (It's conceivable that their Big Secret actually *is* some sort of powerful Black Magic or demon summoning ability, but I doubt it.) I think the Merss family learned something 10-15 years ago, and the Guild doesn't want it known. Whatever this Big Secret is, it probably involves some sort of illegal profit, since the Guild is paranoid about the King discovering it. The Guild are worried about a traitor in their midst, who would sell them out to the King (Ja 188).

Having figured out this much, I had an epiphany. Maybe the significant question wasn't "Why were the Merss farmers killed?" Maybe the *real* question is, "Why were the Merss farmers *left alive* -- until Vlad appeared?" One presumes that the Guild didn't coincidentally acquire the ability to do the killing at the same time Vlad happened to show up. So why didn't they use it earlier? Because any such mass killing would lead to an investigation, and such an investigation would eventually lead to the Merss cousins in Fenario City -- who also know the Big Secret. The separation between the two branches of the family lets them each act as the other's backup.

The Guild only act when they think the Secret is about to come out anyways. They think Vlad has come to Burz on a mission from the King, specifically in order to find the Big Secret, and that that is why he is seeking the Merss farmers. Given how poorly they've treated the Merss family over the past few decades, they have no reason to think that the Merss won't cooperate with an investigation. So they have no choice but to act, and act fast. They need to kill all the Merss, as fast as possible. Not just the locals, but the ones in Fenario City as well. While they can't kill the city cousins immediately, if they can do it fast enough, then their Secret may remain safe. This is why Vlad is so concerned both with killing the Guild and Coven leaders as fast as possible, but in getting to Fenario City as soon as he can after that. His cousins are almost certainly in danger.

Whatever this Big Secret is, it remains dangerous to know, even with the leaders of the Burz Coven and Guild dead. It's entirely possible that the Merss cousins partook in the illegal profit, and would be implicated as well if the secret came out. And so, Vlad does his best to leave the cousins and their Secret entirely out of his narrative. Although he generally exhibits extraordinary trust for "The Box" (he's already narrated at least three books to it), that trust doesn't quite stretch to cover his Fenarian cousins. His lack of understanding the way things work in Fenario has already gotten seven of his kin murdered; he's going to be extra cautious about the few remaining survivors. By the time he narrates _Jhegaala_, he may have heard that the owner of "The Box" has been traveling around asking other people to talk into the box about Vlad (_Athyra_); Vlad would then preemptively narrate _Jhegaala_ in order to *prevent* any such investigation in Fenario, but he would bend the narrative to avoid drawing attention to the aspects he wished hidden. [So how did Vlad first meet the man with "The Box", and why does he trust him? My guess is that they were introduced by Sethra Lavode, which also helps explain where parts of the _Orca_ narrative came from.]

Does Vlad actually know the Big Secret himself? I think he does, and that he learned it from Zollie, very shortly before Zollie was murdered. Naturally, Vlad doesn't tell us of this conversation, instead inventing a scene of maudlin drunkenness (Ja 102-103). But the next day, speaking to Eelie, she says, "You talked to him last night" (Ja 119), and Vlad doesn't deny it. Alternatively (or additionally, if each had only part of the puzzle), he may have had an unrevealed conversation with Tereza. That would explain why Vlad thinks the Guild had to kill her. For that matter, Vlad probably got some pieces of the Secret from the questions he was asked under torture.

I hope Vlad got to meet some of his family and talk to them. Maybe one day he'll even feel safe enough to tell us about it.

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The plot holes annoyed me too much to put the effort you did into filling them in, but your version makes sense - thank you. I'd forgotten completely about brokedown palace being part of this universe. Toddles off to search for copy...

Posted on the off-chance that at least one of my Friends is enough of a Steven Brust fanboy to enjoy this, but not enough of one to read the Dragaera mailing list (where I originally sent this).

That would be me. But as I've not read the book (waiting for a friend to finish it and lend it) I'll not read this yet.

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