Once upon a time Steven Brust wrote Jhereg, a lighthearted adventure starring Vlad Taltos, a human assassin and organized criminal living among the Dragaerans (basically long lived elves). Some of that book’s fans would have been perfectly happy to watch Vlad smart-assedly knife his way through a whole series of cookie-cutter sequels.
Luckily for the rest of us Brust was up to something more interesting. A couple of volumes later, in Teckla, the situation set up in Jhereg got knocked down and Vlad started asking himself the kind of hard questions fantasy crime lords can’t ask themselves and still end a long day of organizing crime with an untroubled night’s sleep.
If you haven’t read Brust, Jhereg and Teckla may look like nonsense words. They’re three of the seventeen houses of which all Dragaerans are members. The houses are a kind of caste system: every house’s culture embodies a piece of Dragaeran society (including pieces, like the criminal Jhereg, they’d rather do without) and every house gets a turn running the empire according to its own principles. The houses are named after Dragaeran animals, and the Vlad Taltos books are named after the houses1, and in each book Vlad has to think like a member of that house to solve a problem, and sees the world from its point of view. Vlad is touring the empire house by house, and his moral education progresses through what he learns along the way. (Jo Walton has written good introductions to the Taltos series and Dragaera in general at Tor.com.)
Iorich is the twelfth book in the series. The house of the Iorich provides Dragaera with its lawyers and judges, so here Vlad’s immersed in the legal system. He’s investigating why a friend of his has been arrested under one of those “technically on the books, but it’s not enforced unless you’re really obvious about it” type laws. Except she wasn’t obvious about it; she’s been arrested for reasons that are too complicated to explain in a book review, and are in any case spoilers.
When Vlad was a criminal, he saw the law as a barrier to evade. Now he discovers his enemies using the law as a tool to get what they want–even if what they want is contrary to the purpose of the law.
Let’s take a little side trip back to the real world. You often hear people complain that the law isn’t written in plain english. Why are the bills creeping through Congress a thousand pages long? Why do lawyers and legislators spend paragraph upon droning paragraph defining, in minute detail, the meaning of everyday words like “vehicle?” Everybody knows what a vehicle is, so why not just say “vehicle?”
Because it’s difficult to get people to understand what “vehicle” means when their self-interest depends on not understanding it. If the law did not carefully and precisely define what it meant by “vehicle” then every idiot hauled into court over a vehicle-related dispute would have their own argument as to why, in the case of their own personal vehicle-like object, the law didn’t apply.
Language is messy. Dry and convoluted legal language is a linguistic junk drawer organizer. It sorts the mess into neat little cubbyholes and reduces the wiseguys’ ability to interpret the document however they like.
But no matter how detailed and orderly you get, language is not computer code and people are not functions. It’s impossible to write a law so perfect that somebody can’t misuse or misinterpret it. Outlaw torture and sooner or later someone will write a legal opinion pretending that when they torture somebody it’s somehow okay. The law doesn’t prevent injustice; it just makes injustice harder to pull off. Which is why we need courts and lawyers and judges to keep an eye on each other. As Vlad’s lawyer puts it:
But, you know, there is making the law, and enforcing the law, and interpreting the law, and they all mix up together, and it’s people who do those things, and the people all mix up together. You can’t separate them.
Which is not to say that Iorich is a heavy tome. Like almost all this series, it’s written in First Person Smartass. (The source of this term is not clear, but it seems to be everybody’s first description for this series, and it’s useful for all kinds of books besides.) Vlad’s voice reminds me of Archie Goodwin’s from the Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout. (The family resemblance is enhanced by the loving attention with which Brust writes about food. Dzur, for instance, is organized around a meal at the most kickass restaurant in Adrilankha.) Iorich, like every other book in this series, is a just-one-more-chapter novel. I’m always disappointed when the chapters run out.
I’m not loving the cover, though. It kind of looks like a box of Dragaeran Frosted Flakes.
Mostly. The book that takes place earliest in Vlad’s life is Taltos, and the word is that Brust plans a final, nineteenth, volume called The Final Contract. ↩