Friday, October 8, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Lord of Light, Part VI - The Lokapalas are never defeated

This is the sixth and final part of a lengthy review of Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light. Had I planned it out properly from the beginning, I think I would have done it as a seven part review and given Chapter Two its own discrete entry, rather than bundling it inartfully with Chapter Three. Live and learn, I suppose.

Part One:Overview and Chapter One
Part Two: Chapters Two and Three (Death & the Executioner)
Part Three:Chapter Four (Hellwell)
Part Four: Chapter Five (Sam's time in Heaven)
Part Five: Chapter Six (Flight from Heaven and the War against Heaven)

All my Zelazny reviews at this link.

I never knew how Lokapalas was pronounced, but Victor Bevine says it "Low-ka Pay-Lahs". I always figured it was "Lokka Palace". His reading is very, very good. I don't know where you can find a copy of it any more, as no longer seems to offer it, but it really is worth tracking down.

Sam has returned and he calls his allies to him and pulls his loose ends together. His enemies do likewise. I think the slow build really works, especially when juxtaposed against what has gone before. The marshaling of forces, and the diplomatic wranglings makes me think, of all things, the endgame of a Sid Meier-style computer game, like Civilization (or more likely, Alpha Centauri). (I would play the hell out of a Lord of Light Alpha Centauri mod, by the way)

Ganesha and Brahma refer to a mushroom cloud as a tall man of smoke twice ("I think the tall man of smoke who wears a wide hat shall bend above Nirriti's palace." and "If we cannot reclaim it, then let the man of smoke nod his wide white hat, over Mahartha.") and I can't help but think of Planet Busters.

There are a lot of short but rich exchanges.I don't want to quote every one of them because then my review would be nothing but "This was awesome!" - (Extended quote from the book), "This was awesome!" - (Extended quote from the book) "This was awesome!" - (Extended quote from the book) "This was awesome!" - (Extended quote from the book).

(Sadly, some of my reviews already look like that.)

That said, I do really like the way Taraka has been developed. I don't know why I like the following exchange as much as I do:

Taraka wavered. His face and left arm became smoke.

"Sam ... "


"Which one is the right way?"

"Huh? You're asking me that? How should I know?"

"Mortals call you Buddha."

"That is only because they are afflicted with language and ignorance."

"No. I have looked upon your flames and name you Lord of Light. You bind them as you bound us, you loose them as you loosed us. Yours was the power to lay a belief upon them. You are what you claimed to be."

"I lied. I never believed in it myself, and I still don't. I could just as easily have chosen another way, say, Nirriti's religion, only crucifixion hurts. I might have chosen one called Islam, only I know too well how it mixes with Hinduism. My choice was based upon calculation, not inspiration, and I am nothing."

"You are the Lord of Light."

I appreciate the maturity (for lack of a better word) in Sam's approach.  This contributes to the "Civilization" vibe.

"So we are in the middle and we have several choices before us. We could not make a deal with Nirriti. Do you think we could make one with Heaven?"

"No!" said Yama, slamming his fist upon the table. "Which side are you on, Sam?"

"Acceleration," he replied. "If it can be procured through negotiation, rather than unnecessary bloodshed, so much the better."

As we near the end, the chapter has some very vividly imaged battles, perhaps my very favorites in Zelazny's entire body of work.  I love the Amber books but the descriptions of fights ("a feint in quarte, a feint in sixte") are not easy to follow and I even have the advantage of having fenced for a couple years in college. It's strange to think of the Amber books as being any way more "grounded" in reality, but Corwin and Eric weren't throwing fireballs at each other when they were fighting.

Indra dropped Thunderbolt and struck Yama in the jaw. Yama fell, but he swept Indra's legs out from under him, carrying him to the ground.

His Aspect possessed him completely then, and as he glared Indra seemed to wither beneath his gaze. Taraka leapt upon his back just as Indra died. Yama tried to free himself, but it felt as if a mountain lay across his shoulders.

Brahma, who lay beside Nirriti, tore off his harness, which had been soaked with demon repellant. With his right hand he cast it across the space that separated them, so that it fell beside Yama.

Taraka withdrew, and Yama turned and gazed upon him. Thunderbolt then leapt up from where it had fallen upon the ground and sped toward Yama's breast.

Yama seized the blade with both hands, its point inches away from his heart. It began to move forward and the blood dripped from the palms of his hands and fell upon the ground.

Brahma turned a death-gaze upon the Lord of Hellwell, a gaze that drew now upon the force of life itself within him.

Our heroes win the day, but Kali (Brahma) is mortally wounded and while Yama is able to transfer her mind to a new body, she suffers significant brain damage as a result. Kubera comes seeking him some time after the battle. This is certainly my favorite scene in the book, and it may be my favorite scene that Zelazny ever wrote, period.

The innkeeper told Kubera that they did have a guest who fit that description, second floor, rear room, but that perhaps he  should not be disturbed.

Kubera climbed to the second floor.

No one answered his knocking, so he tried the door.

It was bolted within, so he pounded upon it.

Finally, he heard Yama's voice:

"Who is it?"


"Go away, Kubera."

"No. Open up, or I'll wait here till you do."

"Bide a moment, then."

After a time, he heard a bar lifted and the door swung several inches inward.

"No liquor on your breath, so I'd say it's a wench," he stated.

"No," said Yama, looking out at him. "What do you want?"

"To find out what's wrong. To help you, if I can."

"You can't, Kubera."

"How do you know? I, too, am an artificer-- of a different sort, of course."

Yama appeared to consider this, then he opened the door and stepped aside. "Come in," he said.

The girl sat on the floor, a heap of various objects before her. She was scarcely more than a child, and she hugged a brown and white puppy and looked at Kubera  with wide, frightened eyes, until he gestured and she smiled.

"Kubera," said Yama.

"Koo-bra," said the girl.

"She is my daughter," said Yama. "Her name is Murga."

"I never knew you had a daughter."

"She is retarded. She suffered some brain damage."

"Congenital, or transfer effect?" asked Kubera.

"Transfer effect."

"I see."

"She is my daughter," repeated Yama, "Murga."

"Yes," said Kubera.

Yama dropped to his knees at her side and picked up a block.

"Block," he said.

"Block," said the girl.

He held up a spoon. "Spoon," he said.

"Spoon," said the girl.

He picked up a ball and held it before her. "Ball," he said.

"Ball," said the girl.

He picked up the block and held it before her again. "Ball,"  she repeated.

Yama dropped it.

"Help me, Kubera," he said.

"I will, Yama. If there is a way, we will find it."

He sat down beside him and raised  his hands. The spoon came alive with spoon-ness and the ball with ball-ness and the block with block-ness, and the girl laughed. Even the puppy seemed to study the objects.

"The Lokapalas are never defeated," said Kubera, and the girl picked up the block and stared at it for a long time before she named it.

It's just a short vignette about decency and brotherhood, but it always makes me happy. I always remember this as the real ending of the story.

It's not though. Zelazny wrote that he came up with four endings and thought, "What the heck, why not use them all?" I like the ambiguity. Is Sam living the life of an anonymous monk or the invisible guardian of mankind's eternal underclass? Has he returned to Nirvana or has he journeyed to the East to deliver Parvati? Pick whichever one you like, for Sam's part in the story has ended.

This is the real ending.

[Yama] left his daughter Murga in the care of Ratri and Kubera and she grew into a strikingly beautiful woman. He may have ridden into the east, possibly even crossing over the sea. For there is a legend in another place of how One in Red went up against the power of the Seven Lords of Komlat in the land of the witches. Of this, we cannot be certain, any more than we can know the real end of the Lord of Light.

But look around you...

Death and Light are everywhere, always, and they begin, end, strive, attend, into and upon the Dream of the Nameless that is the world, burning words within Samsara, perhaps to create a thing of beauty.

As the wearers of the saffron robe still meditate upon the Way of Light, and the girl who is named Murga visits the Temple daily, to place before her dark one in his shrine the only devotion he receives, of flowers.

So ends Lord of Light and with it, my review. I don't know if it's my favorite Zelazny work, but I do consider it his best. So, what do you folks think? I see that I get the occasional returning visitor, so I'd like to hear some other opinions on this. What do you think of the books? Of the characters? Of the review? Please post your comments. I'd love to hear what other people have to say.


  1. Hey JJ, for once we're on the same page -- I pretty much agree with everything in your Lord of Light reviews, and have no disagreements worth mentioning. I especially like your singling out the "real ending," with Yama and his daughter, and Kubera. The ugliest thing about the society Zelazny creates here is the so-called "gods' " virtually complete denial of, and almost cannibalistic attitude toward, their own children. That little vignette at the end, showing Yama's near-despair over his brain-damaged daughter, shows us more than anything else that this society really is, finally, on the right track.

    --Chris DeVito

    P.S.: When "Dawn" (chapter 2 of Lord of Light) was published in the April 1967 issue of F&SF, it got a really great cover -- if you don't have the issue, see

  2. That's a really interesting insight, and I like the way you phrased it, "cannibalistic attitude toward, their own children." I think that phrase is very apt and it sums up the situation very concisely.

    Sam says: "I felt that we of the crew should be assisting them, granting them the benefits of the technology we had preserved, rather than building ourselves an impregnable paradise and treating the world as a combination game preserve and whorehouse." but I think I like your description even more.

  3. One of my favorite scenes in this chapter is Nirriti donning his armor while the first city comes under attack. It has a very classic "confident-with-good-reason" bad guy feel to it, and every time I read it I think it'd make a great movie scene.

  4. Ah, I love this book.

    One little point - I suspect when Yama kills Rild it's a Zelaznian riff on 'If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him'.

    Plus, no mention of 'then the fit hit the Shan'? For shame ;-)

    Enjoying the blog, keep it up.


  5. re: I suspect when Yama kills Rild it's a Zelaznian riff on 'If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him'.

    I like that sentiment, and I also like the word "Zelaznian" and will hereafter strive to incorporate it into casual conversation.

    re: Plus, no mention of 'then the fit hit the Shan'? For shame ;-)

    I mention it briefly in this post. I kind of skimmed over that chapter very briefly.

  6. Hey, if you want to vote for Lord of Light as one of the 100 best sf/fantasy novels (and how could you not?), go to:

    And of course you can vote for a lot of other Zelazny books too (five nominations per post). Vote early, vote often!

    --Chris DeVito

  7. I love this book because it's one of the very few works of speculative fiction that actually explore the mythos of Indian religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, and the dialogue is wonderful.

  8. I love it. I'm only superficially familiar with the tenets of Hinduism and Buddhism, so I can't say how accurate they are in the story, but they *feel* authentic to me. And I agree about the dialogue. The exchange between Sam and Yama on the way to Heaven may be my favorite piece of dialogue that Zelazny has ever written.

  9. I just finished my second read-through of Lord of Light, and I came here specifically to comment on the dialogue (only to find that you guys were already talking about it). However, I don't intend to discuss the content of the dialogue so much as the mechanics of it--have you ever noticed that there are *huge* sections of dialogue in this book with absolutely no breaks?

    And by "breaks," I mean both dialogue tags ("Sam said," "Kubera asked," etc.) and actions (like, say, adjusting one's cloak or lighting a cigarette just for the sake of doing it).

    A lot of times, authors use tags and actions like these to get a pause in the dialogue, because it just sounds better to have a hesitation there. And yet, Zelazny went on for pages and pages at a time without any of these breaks, all throughout the book. And you know what?

    It WORKED. Like, remarkably well. I know that in all of Zelazny's works, he does a pretty good job of keeping a snappy pace to his dialogue (which is great), but I've never seen it as evident (and frequent) as I just did in Lord of Light--it seems like the dialogue is hardly *ever* interrupted, which could be a disastrous thing to attempt for most writers, but Zelazny manages to pull it off.

    All that being said, this is a fantastic book, for sure. It was even better the second time around!

  10. Zach, you make me want to read LoL again, starting right now. Think I will...

    --Chris DeVito

  11. Chris, I recently bought a lot of old SF magazines with Zelazny covers on Ebay, and one of them was the F&SF with "Dawn" that you mentioned earlier here. It was actually that cover art that inspired me to re-read Lord of Light; I'd been thinking about doing it for a while, but seeing those guys line up at the prayer machine was what kicked me into action.

    And speaking of art, I know that most of these aren't accurate based on the descriptions given in the book, but I still think they're pretty darn cool:

  12. I have to agree with you, Zach. Proficiency with dialogue isn't the *first* thing that comes to mind when I think of Roger Zelazny's work, but as you point out, he was really amazingly adept with it, to the extent that I didn't even notice what you observed until you pointed it out. And going back and reading it, there it is. I think it's testament to his mastery of the craft how *invisible* this all was.

  13. The voices of the characters are very distinct from each other, and that's why Zelazny was able to pull off long stretches of dialogue without the need to clarify who was talking.

  14. That's a good point too. When I first read JACK OF SHADOWS and I came to the point in the dialogue between Jack and Morningstar where one of Morningstar's lines was attributed to Jack by mistake, they each were distinct enough in their manner of speaking that it was immediately apparent that this was an error.

  15. Oh yeah, the voices are definitely distinct. But still, what I meant to say was that writers don't always use dialogue tags or actions JUST to indicate who's speaking--they also sometimes use them to put a hesitation into the speech. Zelazny very rarely does that here, and I was just fascinated by how natural the conversation sounded even without the pauses that most writers would use in order to make things sound more "real."

  16. Here's an interesting essay/review:

  17. An excellent set of reviews. Thanks for writing them.
    This book is RZ's masterpiece IMO. But like you, I'm not sure it is my favorite of his books. I wonder why that is.

    Anyway, I am going to make time and re-read LoL in the near future. But October is coming and I have a date with ANITLO to keep. ;-)

    -Brent Jablonski

    1. If you're not already aware, the Lovecraft eZine is having their second annual Lonesome October tribute issue.

  18. You mention that Yama cares for his daughter Murge indicating "mankind is finally on he right track." I think Murga is a failed reincarnation of Durga/Kali whom Yama exclusively and always cared for. After making sure what is left of her is in good hands, he walks away. Kubera's nurturing of Kali/Murga is more indicative of your point.

  19. In enjoy this site. Zelazny had a unique voice and I miss it.

    1. I know what you mean. I've given up on looking for writers like Zelazny, because there are none.