Friday, October 29, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: And Call Me Conrad/This Immortal Part II

Welcome to the second half of my review of "...and Call Me Conrad". The first part is here.

This one will have spoilers, so continue at your own risk.

One thing I like about Roger Zelazny is how ably he subverts tired tropes. Something that I tend not to like in fiction is a protagonist bluffing outrageously credulous enemies on the flimsiest of pretenses.

Disguised Hero: "So, how is that thing we're working on coming along?"

Villain: "Oh, I'm glad you asked, fellow villain, let me explain, in exhaustive detail-"

Disguised Hero: "Great, but first, what are our weaknesses and how can our enemies best exploit them?"


I like that Conrad was more subtle and even has a few specifics to feed Myshtigo and still got caught: "No! It is obvious that you are trying to elicit more information, so I do not think you know very much. What I am doing is still confidential."

Our travelogue continues further into Greece, where Conrad briefly meets with his son Jason. It reminded me very strongly of the Sandman story in the Fables and Reflections TPB that featured his son Orpheus.  Hasan refuses to stand down on his contract against the Vegan, and is stopped only in the nick of time when Conrad dashes the shotgun he had been cleaning from Hasan's grip before it could "accidentally" discharge.

Hasan sat there cleaning his aluminum barreled shotgun. It had a plastic stock and it was real light and handy. As he worked on it, it tilted forward, moved slowly about, pointed itself right at Myshtigo.

He'd done it quite neatly, I must admit that. It was during a period of over half an hour, and he'd advanced the barrel with almost imperceptible movements.

I snarled, though, when its position registered in my cerebrum, and I was at his side in three steps. I struck it from his hands.

It clattered on some small stone about eight feet away. My hand was stinging from the slap I'd given it.

Hasan was on his feet, his teeth shuttling around inside his beard, clicking together like flint and steel. I could almost see the sparks.

"Say it!" I said. "Go ahead, say something! Anything! You know damn well what you were just doing!"

His hands twitched.

"Go ahead!" I said. "Hit me! Just touch me, even. Then what I do to you will be self-defense, provoked assault. Even George won't be able to put you back together again."

"I was only cleaning my shotgun. You've damaged it."

I like Hasan as the phlegmatic killer. He reminds me of Sam as the Buddha in the Lord of Light, when speaking to Yama atop the rock. He takes no offense when Yama calls him a false Buddha, because he knows what he is. Likewise, when Conrad seeks to provoke Hasan into a foolish confrontation by calling him a coward, Hasan answers calmly, "No, I am not."

If you'll forgive a momentary digression, I enjoy the work of Stephen King, but he's a very different writer than Roger Zelazny.  He tends to be more about expressing something so that you remember the scene as a whole, rather than getting you to dwell on the individual sentences that he uses to describe it. Not so with Zelazny. I love his concepts as much I love to the set pieces that illustrate them and the phrases  ("So long as we live there is the great peacock-tail of probability, growing from out of the next moment.") that compose those pieces.

I really enjoy the way Zelazny can distill the essence of a concept and then brew what remains into poetry. Consider this brief passage, especially the bolded part:

Everybody knows that there are some people with an aptitude for music. They can hear a piece once and sit down and play it on the piano or thelinstra. They can pick up a new instrument, and inside a few hours they can sound as if they've been playing it for years. They're good, very good at such things, because they have that talent—the ability to coordinate a special insight with a series of new actions. Hasan was that way with weapons.

Hasan continues to rock with a Princess Bride Shout Out!

"I do not want to kill you, Karagee," he said.

"I share this feeling. I do not wish to be killed.''

The incidental wordplay in the book is great. When Doctor Moreby, an anthropologist who had gone native when studying a cannibalistic tribe (It's a small part, but he's a great villain), captures Conrad's party, he says to them. "I wanted any prisoners whom they came upon brought back alive. Your identities are, shall we say, condiments."

Lorel Sands smokes a meerschaum pipe. That's not remarkable in itself, except for the fact that meerschaum pipes were a minor plot point in Isle of the Dead.  And as long as I'm discussing things that appear in other books, Diane quotes from Book of the Dead, which must have served as a specific inspiration  the Creatures of Light and Darkness, though I didn't realize that until now

" 'In the Great House and in the House of Fire, on that Great Day when all the days and years are numbered, oh let my name be given back to me,' " it said.

"Good for you," I said softly. "Appropriate quote. I recognize the Book of the Dead when I hear it taken in vain."

It's a very good book, right up there with Lord of Light. I can't think of anything I would change about it. I'll end with a passage from the book, because it fits.

"No. I told you that you were heading into danger before, and you were, but you didn't believe me then. This time I feel that things should go well. That's all."

"Granting your accuracy in the past, I still feel you are underestimating that which lies before us."

She rose and stamped her foot.

"You never believe me!"

"Of course I do. It just happens that this time you're wrong, dear."

She swam away then, my mad mermaid, out into the dark waters. After a time she came swimming back.

"Okay," she said, smiling, shaking down gentle rains from her hair.


I caught her ankle, pulled her down beside me and began tickling her.

"Stop that!"

"Hey, I believe you, Cassandra! Really! Hear that? Oh, how about that? I really believe you. Damn! You sure are right!"

"You are a smart-alecky kallikanz— Ouch!"

And she was lovely by the seaside, so I held her in the wet, till the day was all around us, feeling good.

Which is a nice place to end a story.

Isn't it?

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