Friday, September 10, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: ...such have but a shadow's bliss.

The second part of a review of Jack of Shadows. The first can be found at this link and other Zelazny book reviews are at this one.

Be aware that these reviews have spoilers galore and are less reviews and more observations and commentary on the works of my favorite author.

To continue where we left off, I very much like the exchange between Jack and Evene, his former betrothed, shortly after Jack has taken High Dudgeon:
What power is it that you have?" she asked. "You could never do things like that when I- when I knew you."

"I hold The Key That Was Lost," he said, "Kolwynia."

"How did you come by it?"

"It does not matter. What does matter is that I can make the mountains walk and the ground burst open; I can call down bolts of lightning and summon spirits to aid me. I can destroy a Lord in his place of power. I have become the mightiest thing in the dark hemisphere."

"Yes," she said. "You have named yourself; you have become a thing."

Good God, I adore that last line. If I had to sum up the book in one sentence, that's the one I'd use.

Shortly after that, Evene asks for mercy for the inhabitants of the castle. This parallels Jack's own plea for mercy at the beginning of the book. He refuses, as he was refused by Benoni,

"If you will grant mercy to all who remain here," she finally said, "I will do whatever you say."

With his free hand, he reached out as if to touch her. He paused when he heard the scream from beyond the window. Smiling, he let his hand fall. The taste is too sweet, he decided.

I've read some essays on Zelazny that claim that suicide is often a secondary theme to his works, but I'm not convinced of this. I would say that his characters, Jack and Corwin leap immediately to mind, often rush towards their own destruction, but I would interpret this as desiring something (vengeance, here) more than the preservation of one's own life.

I mentioned the Borshin briefly in the first post, and it really is a fascinating thing, Jack's Jungian shadow, perhaps, an absolutely unrelenting nemesis that ensures that he can never rest easily:

It looked like something that had started out to be a man but had never quite made it. It had been stepped on, twisted, had holes poked into the sickly dough of its head-bulge. Bones showed through the transparent flesh of its torso and its short legs were thick as trees, terminating in disk-shaped pads from which dozens of long toes hung like roots or worms. Its arms were longer than its entire body. It was a crushed slug, a thing that had been frozen and thawed before it was fully baked.

It was-"It is the Borshin," said the Lord of Bats

and near the end:

Through the dust, the noise, the chill, it followed the trail. The flaring lights, the trembling land, the stalking storm meant nothing to it, for it had never known fear. It glided down hills like a ghost and slithered among rocks like a reptile. It leaped chasms, dodged falling stones, was singed once by lightning. It was a blob of protoplasm on a stick; it was a scarred hulk, and there was no real reason why it should be living and moving about. But perhaps it did not truly live-at least, not as other creatures, even dark-side creatures, lived. It had no name, only an appellation. Its mentality, presumably, was not great. It was a bundle of instincts and reflexes, some of them innate. It was lacking in emotions, save for one. It was incredibly strong, and capable of enduring extreme privation, great amounts of pain and excessive bodily damage. It spoke no language, and all creatures it encountered fled from it.

While the ground shook and the rocks rattled about it, it began its descent of the mountain-which-once-had-moved, currents of blazing cloud dropping fires along its way.

The landslide did not stop it any more than the tempest could.

It picked its way among the strewn boulders at the mountain's base and for a moment regarded the final ascent.

There led the trail; there must it follow.

High, high-set, walled and well guarded ...

But in addition to its strength it possessed a certain cunning.

...And its one emotion.

Below is another scene I like, where Jack goes seeking Rosalie at the tavern called The Sign of the Burning Pestle, which lay upon a coach road near the ocean.

Knowing Zelazny, it's probably named after an obscure 17th century play called the Knight of the Burning Pestle.

"My name is Jack, and I've traveled far to reach this place, Haric," he replied. "I seek an old woman who was coming here to spend her final days. Her name is Rosalie. Tell me what you know of her."

Haric creased his brow, lowered his head and squinted.

"Bide a moment," he said. "There was an old hag . . . Yes. She died some time ago."

"Oh," said Jack. "Tell me then where she is buried, that I might visit her grave."

Haric snorted and quaffed his wine. He then he began to laugh. He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, then raised it to wipe his eyes with his sleeve.

"Buried?" he said. "She was worthless. We only kept her here for charity's sake, and because she knew somewhat of healing."

Tiny bulges of muscle appeared at the hinges of Jack's jaws.

"Then what did you do with her?" he inquired.

"Why we threw her carcass into the ocean.- Small pickings there for fishes, though."

Jack left the Sign of the Burning Pestle burning at his back, there on the coach road by the ocean.

It's such a small thing, but I love that Zelazny refers back to the throwaway detail in the first chapter. Shortly before Jack was beheaded, he saw a bat that had come to observe his execution: "When he saw it, he lowered his head and the muscles at the hinges of his jaws tightened."

It's just something that adds more verisimilitude to the book. If you catch it, great. And if not, that's fine too.

I mentioned Morningstar briefly in the first post. He's the Promethean/Luciferian figure chained to the peak of Panicus

Indeed, he was more than half of stone, his cat-like torso a solid thing joined with the ridge. His wings lay folded flat upon his back, and Jack knew-though he approached him from the rear-that his arms would still be crossed upon his breast, left over right, that the breezes had not disturbed his wire-like hair and beard, that his lidless eyes would still be fixed upon the eastern horizon.

The impression I get is that he was so bound for giving mortals the gift of consciousness, so that each may understand the truth that underlies the world in his or her individual fashion.

Why is it," [Jack] asked, "that the Fallen Star who brought us knowledge of the Art, did not extend it to the daysiders as well?"

"Perhaps," said Morningstar, "the more theologically inclined among the lightlanders ask why he did not grant the boon of science to the darksiders. What difference does it make? I have heard the story that neither was the gift of the Fallen One, but both the inventions of man; that his gift, rather, was that of consciousness, which creates its own systems."

If you'll excuse a brief digression that ties into my larger point...

I played a lot of video games as a kid, and Phantasy Star II was my favorite, in no small part to how it ends. (I'm now a little embarrassed to say I liked it enough to write my college entrance essay about it.) If you're not familiar with the game, at the end you overthrow the malevolent supercomputer controlling the entire star system, and then learn that the people who built it are still on board the space station that housed it. There are hundred of them against the handful of you and when you confront them, they matter of factly tell you that they're going to kill you, and then build another computer.

The boss battle music (Called "Death Place" and really quite kickass) starts playing and the game cuts to images of the surviving characters one after one, each of them raging defiance in their own distinctive way, and then to the curve of the planet hanging in space with the cryptic statement, "I wonder what the people will see in the final days."

I could almost hear the music playing at the end of Jack of Shadows.

Falling, he saw a dark figure in the sky that grew even as his eyes passed over it.

Of course, he thought, he has finally looked upon the sunrise and been freed . . .

Wings folded, his great, horned countenance impassive, Morningstar dropped like a black meteor. As he drew near, he extended his arms full length and opened his massive hands.

Jack wondered whether he would arrive in time.

The ambiguity and the use of "wonder" made me think back to Phantasy Star, so the scene had special resonance for me then, and I still think it's a wonderful way to end a great story.


  1. I think Zelazny rushed things a bit too much resulting in a novel that was too short. The character has certainly been well loved and that prompted many requests for Zelazny to write a sequel, and he resisted. I wonder how many people were maddened by the unexpected, ambiguous ending, with Jack plummeting to his death and signs that he may or may not be rescued in time. It certainly was a different ending for its day. I can't recall what my own response was back then -- I first read it in 1985 -- but it was probably something like "Oh, wow. That's so cool. So appropriate."

    Come to think of it, there are probably parallels to be drawn with Hell Tanner from Damnation Alley, because these are both despicable anti-heroes. This is how Jack rapes the woman he once loved:

    "I will bend your will, and you will love me."
    "You will never touch me, body or will."
    "You will sleep now," [Jack] said, "and when you awaken we will be coupled. You will struggle briefly and you will yield to me - first your body, then your will. You will lie passive for a time, then I will come to you again and yet again. After that, it will be you who will come to me. Now you will sleep while I sacrifice Smage upon his Lord's altar and cleanse this place of all things which displease me. Dream well. A new life awaits you."
    And he departed, and these things were done as he had said.

    Chris Kovacs

  2. I'm not sure why I'm so fond of Jack when I have such a revulsion towards Hell, particularly, as you point out, Jack's crimes are orders of magnitude more monstrous than Hell's. Still, there's something of a grandeur to the tale.

    I thought the prequel was a rather weak offering, though, although I really enjoyed the outline featured in the Collected Stories that told how the world had come to stop turning.

  3. What you said. This book is awesome.

  4. I just finished my first read-through of Jack of Shadows, though it was the abridged version because my library/used book shop didn't have the novel, so I had to read it in its original Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction serialization (kinda weird that I happen to own those two issues, but at the same time, kinda awesome!).

    Anyway, first of all, I LOVED the ending. I think part of why it worked was because Jack's world was crumbling around him (literally), and he didn't necessarily care whether or not he lived anymore; thus, it makes sense that the reader not know whether or not he'd survived.

    And as far as Hell vs. Jack goes, there was definitely a point at which Jack got so evil that I disliked him for a few pages (which is weird, 'cause I normally love anti-heroes). I never got that feeling with Hell. I think the difference might be that Hell was a bad guy who was doing the right thing, whereas Jack was an (essentially) neutral guy who was doing the decidedly evil thing.

    So, once he got the key and started being a supervillain, I wasn't a big fan. But once his soul came into the picture and acted as his voice of reason, it softened his edges a bit and made him likable again.

    Overall, I loved the story. Though I kinda wish I knew what I was missing by reading the abridged version instead of the full novel.

  5. I love this story so much. I even picked up the D&D supplement that had stats for Jack(and Kolwynia!), but it was a piece of crap.