Thursday, September 9, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Some there be that shadows kiss...

This is the latest in a series of reviews of Roger Zelazny books.

I'm not sure that "review" is exactly right for what these are, but I don't think they're sufficiently scholarly to call them critiques or deconstructions. I jokingly referred to them as "What Roger Zelazny means to me" and I'm not sure that's far off the mark, as peppered as they are with so many personal anecdotes. I mostly write them for myself, because I enjoy the process of rereading something I enjoy and reflecting on it, and for the handful of friends of like-minded friends who read them. So, while "review" is not the ideal word, it's the best one I've got, so I'll stick with that.

As an aside, most of the people who read this do so on my Facebook page, where it is mirrored, but if you like it, hate it, disagree with it or want to discuss it, I'd welcome the exchange.

I wanted to talk about something I really enjoyed, because my coverage of the cruddy Merlin series has just left a bad taste in my mouth. I first read Jack of Shadows shortly after the Amber books. I had become a fan at about the time I entered high school and he remains my favorite author to this day. During the summer, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, and they had a wonderful hobby store within walking distance. I had a part time job and disposable income for the first time, so one of the first things I did that summer was walk to the Imagination Workshop and buy up every Roger Zelazny book they had. Good God, I devoured them.

I sometimes say that Lord of Light is Zelazny's best work, Roadmarks his most cinematic and A Night in the Lonesome October the most fun. Along these lines, I think Jack of Shadows is the most immersive.

Even when compared against the work of an author distinguished by brilliant details, Jack of Shadows is remarkable. The writing is so profoundly evocative with the world it spins. If I had used every vivid description or clever piece of dialogue I found when flipping through the first chapter, I would have wound up reproducing it in its entirety.

I'm not into revenge porn but there is something about Jack of Shadow's disproportionate vengeance that makes it appealing. The introduction describes him as "a wrongfully punished man whose character was twisted by the act." Zelazny has has spoken eloquently of "A hate so big it would burn the innocent to reach the guilty" and it is that such a force that moves our Jack.

In the first part of my Guns of Avalon review, I spoke of Akrasia, the act of choosing an action against one's own better judgment. Rosalie warns him against seeking such power: "Do not let your hatred lead you to the machine that thinks like a man, only faster. There is too much power involved, and such power and hatred would not go well together." But his hatred and his pride are too strong for it to be otherwise.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I tend to borrow liberally (shamelessly) from Zelazny to populate my role-playing games. The main villain of our campaign is the Lord of Bats, as he was for Jack.

Zelazny describes him thusly:

[Jack] occasionally caught a glimpse of that dark, handsome face, half-touched by starlight, half-hidden by the high, curved collar of the cloak he wore; the eyes within it were like the pools that form about the wicks of black candles: hot, dark and liquid. Bats kept dropping from out of the sky and vanishing within his cloak.
I always imagined him as looking like Antonio Banderas with the voice of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter. His place of power is the keep of High Dudgeon, a phrase I had never heard before reading it in the book, and which I half wondered if it was not a typo for "High Dungeon".

I like the Lord of Bats a lot. He's ruthless to his enemies and he has cause to hate Jack, but he seems like an okay guy for a darksider. He's kind to Evene, seems like a decent boss to his minions. His vengeance against Jack is out of proportion to the slight that prompted it, but that's the theme of the work, isn't it? It's just quicker to destroy him than Jack's quest is.

In the Dung Pits:

The cloven hooves of the seven black riders struck sparks from the stones. Their eyes, high above the ground, were like a handful of glowing embers buried in his direction. Wisps of smoke emerged from their nostrils, and occasionally they emitted high-pitched whistling sounds. A silent, wolf-like creature ran with them, head near the ground, tail streaming. It changed direction at every point where Jack had turned while approaching the stone.

What a facinating little detail to include.

I also like Morningstar.

"Then tell me some things. I have heard daysiders say that the core of the world is a molten demon, that the temperature increases as one descends toward it, that if the crust of the world be pierced then fires leap forth and melted minerals build volcanoes. Yet I know that volcanoes are the doings of fire elementals who, if disturbed, melt the ground about them and hurl it upward. They exist in small pockets. One may descend far past them without the temperature increasing. Traveling far enough, one comes to the center of the world, which is not molten- which contains the Machine, with great springs, as in a clock, and gears and pulleys and counterbalances. I know this to be true, for I have journeyed that way and been near to the Machine itself. Still, the daysiders have ways of demonstrating that their view is the correct one. I was almost convinced by the way one man explained it, though I knew better. How can this be?"

"You were both correct," said Morningstar. "It is the same thing that you both describe, although neither of you sees it as it really is. Each of you colors reality in keeping with your means of controlling it. For if it is uncontrollable, you fear it. Sometimes then, you color it incomprehensible. In your case, a machine; in theirs, a demon."

"The stars I know to be the houses of spirits and deities-some friendly, some unfriendly and many not caring. All are near at hand and can be reached. They will respond when properly invoked. Yet the daysiders say that they are vast distances away and that there is no intelligence there. Again...?"

"It is again but two ways of regarding reality, both of them correct."

"If there can be two ways, may there not be a third? Or a fourth? Or as many as there are people, for that matter?"

"Yes," said Morningstar.

"Then which one is correct?"

"They all are."

"But to see it as it is, beneath it all! Is this possible?"

Morningstar did not reply.

Looking back and rereading these books as adult, I find it pretty amazing to see how much they shaped my way of perceiving the world. I had never encountered this idea put this way previously, but it dovetailed with concepts on which I was then ruminating. I suppose they had their genesis with Heretics of Dune, which had the claim: "Forces that we cannot understand permeate our universe. We see the shadows of those forces when they are projected upon a screen available to our senses, but understand them we do not."

This is getting long enough to justify a two-part post (the second part is here), so I'll leave you with the signature quote of the work.
"I am Jack of Shadows!" he cried out. "Lord of Shadow Guard! I am Shadowjack, the thief who walks in silence and in shadows! I was beheaded in Igles and rose again from the Dung Pits of Glyve. I drank the blood of a vampire and ate a stone. I am the breaker of the Compact. I am he who forged a name in the Red Book of Ells. I am the prisoner in the jewel. I duped the Lord of High Dudgeon once, and I will return for vengeance upon him. I am the enemy of my enemies. Come take me, filth, if you love the Lord of Bats or despise me, for I have named myself Jack of Shadows!"

Quilian's face showed puzzlement at this outburst, and though he opened his mouth and tried to speak, his words were drowned out by the other's cries.

Then the window shattered, the candle died, and the Borshin sprang into the room.

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