#1) Jhereg by Steven Brust
Somehow I’ve gone 25 years of genre without reading Steven Brust. I remember very distinctly buying The Phoenix Guards at a middle-school book fair, but found it not to my tastes at the time. Jhereg, Brust’s first novel, is nothing like how I remember that first foray. Stripped to the bare essentials, Jhereg is the story of a young human assassin named Vlad Taltos surviving in a criminal underworld populated by dragonpersons. Hired by an underworld boss to hunt down another underworld boss, Vlad becomes deeply entangled in a complex plot to overthrow the status quo. Wisecracks, complex plans, and a little blade work are the legs on which his success rests.
Jhereg is quite similar to Daniel Polansky’s Low Town series with its morally bankrupt protagonist in possession of a code of ethics unique to his situation. Obviously Low Town is some thirty years late to the party. Where Polansky offers a more robust reading experience, Jhereg contains little description, relying almost exclusively on dialogue to carry the narrative. It makes for a page turning experience that makes an already short book feel like a fifteen minute cat nap and leaves an immediate desire for a hundred more sleeps just like it. Apparently I just compared Brust’s novel to sleeping which is an odd analogy. It’s not boring. Go read it.
#2) A Dance of Blades by David Dalglish
David Dalglish pretty much jumped the shark on generic fantasy titles. Unfortunately, his second book does the same for the actual book. Where Dance of Cloaks, the first installment in the series, told a predictable assassin fantasy tale with a narrative that flowed, Dance of Blades is equally predictable, but foists on the reader a disjointed and unsupported narrative. Also, I feel like Dalglish is constantly trying to reach for grimdark. He never gets there. What he gets instead is a hyper violent novel whose violence has no purpose, a result I find in direct opposition to the subgenre.
#3) Dorsai! by Gordon Dickson
Dorsai! is a bit of an odd experience in 2013. Originally titled The Genetic General before being repackaged in 1976, Dickson’s novel was nominated for a Hugo Award in 1960 and is often referred to as one of the seminal military science fiction texts. It’s even been referred to as the novel for military command as Starship Troopers is to the grunt. That last statement is probably the most ridiculous statement I’ve ever typed.
Donal Graeme is Dorsai, taller and harder than any ordinary man, but somewhat less impressive physically for one of his race. He is, however, a unique intellectual, someone who sees connections that others do not. The result is a wish fulfilled mental superman, not unlike an Ender Wiggin, who comes off more a sociopath than anything. Given the era it should come as no surprise that wooden dialogue and rampant misogyny pervade the narrative. What bothers me most about the novel though is the complete and utter disregard for character growth. In Starship Troopers the reader watches Rico become something. In Dorsai! the reader is told Donal is becoming something.
It’s my contention that Dorsai! would have little chance in today’s marketplace. Not only for its lack of social grace, but because its narrative type has gone the way of the dinosaurs.
#4) Trading in Danger by Elizabeth Moon
Ky Vatta is the only child of prestigious Vatta Transport Ltd. to buck tradition and choose a military career over the family business. When she’s kicked out of the military academy, her family ships her out of the media firestorm as captain of a Vatta ship scheduled for decommission. Along the way she sniffs out an opportunity to make some money, maybe enough to retrofit the defunct freighter, and goes off script. Equipment failure, a regional war, and some tricky mercantile maneuvers, make Ky’s first voyage something to remember.
Where most space operas are predicated around the protagonist playing the hero in a war zone, Trading in Danger is all about skirting traditional conflicts. Ky has no interest in the war, only in surviving it to make repairs to her ship and fulfill the terms of her contract. She’s a merchant captain with a job to do. Trade and profit. Read Trading in Danger and you’ll definitely do the latter. I loved this novel.