Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Changeling

Well, I've vowed to myself to cover all of Roger Zelazny's major works here, and that includes the few I don't especially like.

I'd kind of been dreading this one. Roger Zelazny is, by far, my favorite author, and I don't like having to say anything bad about his works. I think that Changeling is the worst story he wrote on his own. (A Farce to be Reckoned With edges it out for worst book period.) I think Pol Detson may be the only protagonist of his whom I really, actively dislike. Kai Wren was boring and Merlin was a bit of a douche, but Pol combines both of those traits in a really unappealing package.

It could have been great. Pol Detson, son of the evil overlord Det Morson is traded for a child of a world where technology, not magic is the paradigm. I loved this stuff! I had already played Final Fantasy 6 with its brilliant commingling of science and technology and I couldn't wait to see what new wrinkles the genius of Roger Zelazny would bring to the concept.

Answer: Not a damn thing.

Pol is a superpowered Mary Sue assisted by Mouseglove the thief, who reminds me of Philippe the Mouse from Ladyhawke, who of course owes a debt to Fritz Lieber's Grey Mouser. I bring up Ladyhawke, because upon showing the movie to my wife, she quipped "He killed a bishop in a church in the middle of Mass. How many Hail Mary's is that worth?"

That story doesn't have anything to do with the book, but it's certainly more entertaining.

I've noticed that when I cover stuff I don't really like, it tends to be just as long as when I cover stuff I do like, except that they don't really deal with what I'm supposedly talking about. I think this is going to be that kind of review.

Zelazny ticks off items on his checklist of fantasy cliches: A magical birthmark (dragon-shaped of course), talk of balance, white streak in his hair (*groan*), generational warfare, orphaned babies. To quote the review on wikipedia, he grows up a "poet, musician and singer", and he majors in Medieval Studies, all of which to serve to estrange him from his engineer father.  

There are several subtle hints scattered throughout the book for the careful reader.

He departed his office and walked back toward Dan’s room. As he went, he heard the sounds of a guitar being softly strummed. Now a D chord, now a G...Surprising, how quickly a kid that age had learned to handle the undersized instrument... Strange, too. No one else in either family had ever shown any musical aptitude.

 What could it mean?! (Or rather, who cares?)

A Dark Traveling was a book with kids as main characters, but it, generally didn't seem like a "kid's book". This does, even though the characters are young adults. I can't remember where I read it, but I seem to recall Zelazny referring obliquely to a movie project he was developing, and I think that that the two Wizard World books were developed as movies, which explains the vivid visuals. Unfortunately, they came at the expense of everything else.

A big part of the problem is that I find the antagonist much more appealing than the ostensible hero. Pol strikes me as the prototype for Merlin. Right up until the end, Mark seemed like a decent if misguided guy and Pol was a bit of a tool. I feel really badly for Mark.  I liked him a lot more than I liked Pol. He's emotionally immature, but he wants to make things better for his village.

“I have also fertilized, plowed, tilled and seeded one of the old fields there. I want you to see how smoothly and evenly this was done, and I want you to watch and see what the yield from that plot comes to. I believe that you will be impressed...”

Four men rushed forward and set hands upon the side of the car. They immediately leaped or fell back.

“That was an electrical shock,” he stated. “I am not foolish enough to give you the same opportunity to harm me twice. Damn it! We’re neighbors, and I want to help you! I want my town to be the center from which the entire country receives the benefits I wish to bring it! I have amazing things to teach you! This is only the beginning! Life is going to be better for everyone! I can build machines that fly and that travel under water! I can build weapons with which we can win any war! I have an army of mechanical servants! I—”

“All right! I’m going!” he cried. “All that I want you to do is to think about the things that I have said! They may seem a lot more reasonable later, when you have cooled off! Go and look at the Branson place! I’ll be back another time, when we can talk!”

He's wronged (cast out of his village, his adoptive father murdered by a superstitious mob) and he swears revenge. He seems to be saying "Isn't that what people do when they're wronged in a Zelazny story?"

(I also liked his base at Anvil Mountain. It had a very cool Gamma World feel.)

Later on, Pol learns that his father was also killed, perhaps even by the same villagers.  It sets up a false dichotomy, where he explicitly rejects the the path of revenge chosen by Mark. I think I'll tell a story so I get a little break from talking about this terrible book.

Around 1994, DC decided that nobody liked Hal Jordan, the Silver Age Green Lantern, so they decided to kill him off and replace him with a new creation. Hal's town of Coast City is wiped out, and when he can't bring them back to life, he suffers a psychotic break and murders his way through the Green Lantern Corps. He's replaced by a guy named Kyle Rayner. Right after he becomes the Green Lantern, Kyle's girlfriend is murdered and stuffed in his fridge. When he finds the supervillain who did it, he smacks him down,  shapes an electric chair with his power ring to execute him, but  can't go through with it because "Then I'd be no better than you, crying cakes, better man, blah blah blah."

Coming so recently after Hal's killing spree, this was clearly intended to show Kyle was the bigger hero.  And likewise, in Changeling, everything in the narrative conspires to make Pol's decisions the right ones and Mark's the wrong ones.

It reminds me of a book I read in High School or shortly thereafter, The Last of the Renshai. The author always took pains to show that Colbey (the world's most fearsome cheese) Calistinsson lived by his code of honor. He wouldn't use missile weapons, for instance, because that wouldn't be fair to the other dude, but he'd use his swords and he just so happened to be the greatest swordsman ever. Later in the series, he acquires psychic powers. He has the opportunity to use those powers to gets something he wants. He asks the wizard who's tagging along with the party if other people ever had these powers and would it therefore be in fitting with his code of honor to use them against another person.

I knew that the author would contort herself to justify whatever course of action Colbey decided on, so I just skipped the next two pages of justification. I thought of this when Pol confronts Mark at the end of the book. Pol wanted to reason with him, but Mark won't stand down and has to be put down, like the villain who pulls a concealed derringer at the end of the movie and leaving the hero no choice but to kill him in self defense.

In every other Zelazny book, there are internally consistent and believable magic systems. In Changeling, Roger Zelazny says he wanted to show the triumph of magic over science.  That's great, but in Changeling, he sets up  magic as "science but better", making the conflict something of a foregone conclusion.

I can't help but think that Mark would have been more reasonable if Pol weren't such a prick.

Pol dug in his hip pocket, withdrew his wallet. He opened it and flipped through the card case.

“Here,” he said, stepping forward, extending it. “These are pictures of Mother and Dad.”

Mark reached toward him, accepted the wallet, stared.

“These aren’t drawn!” he said. ‘”There’s a very sophisticated technology involved!”

“Photography’s been around for awhile,” Pol replied.

Pol is one condescending motherfucker.

[Mark] “I could kill you with one hand. I was a blacksmith.”

“Don’t try it,” Pol said. “I was a boxer.”

Also, Pol had two clowns at his birthday party.

Pol can shut down Mark's technology at will and also has a dragon bodyguard. After Mark has been beaten and humiliated by Pol's overwhelming superiority, at least Pol is a gracious winner.

“I feel your magic,” Mark said softly. “I will find a way to stop it. It must be a wave phenomenon, tuned by your nervous system—”

“Don’t lose any sleep over it.”

After that he goes off in search of the magical McGuffin, but not before taking a break to nail Mark's girlfriend. Stay classy, Pol. 

Since I never like my Zelazny reviews to be wholly negative, I'll point out stuff I liked. Big surprise, it's a scene with Mark. Plus one point for using "synesthesia", which is one of my favorite words.

“For want of a better name, I call it a jumble box. It smears your sensory inputs, mixes them. Instant synesthesia.”

The man gestured toward the huge unit to his right.

“That didn’t do it? Just the little one you’re holding?”

“That’s right. The other just recorded what was happening. If you didn’t hurt, tell me why you cried out

so much?”

“I—I couldn’t understand what was happening. Everything was still there, but it was changed...It
scared me.”

“No pain?”

“No one place that hurt. Just a—feeling that disaster was coming. Most of the time, it kept getting
worse. Sometimes, though—”


“There were moments of great pleasure.”

“You were able to count all right.”

“Yes...Most of the numbers were yellow. Some tasted sour.”

Unfortunately, the jumble box is Mark's doom. He turns it on when standing too close to a volcano and then falls in when Pol defeats him in a bass battle:

Pol: (Plays guitar)
Mark: The reverb is hurting my soul! *dies*

Pol's story is continued in Madwand, which isn't quite as bad. I'll get to that one a bit later.


  1. Changeling was originally commissioned as the treatment for an animated film. The project was later abandoned because the company didn't want it. Some time later Zelazny was asked by editor Jim Baen (then at Ace Books) to write a new fantasy novel, and he decided to use his film treatment as the basis for that novel. The novel actually sold really well and that prompted the request for a sequel, what became Madwand. And it was supposed to become a trilogy with the concluding volume Deathmask, but Zelazny never got around to writing it despite saying several times that he would. Madwand was certainly more mature and darker than Changeling.

    I know that there are many readers who say that Changeling/Madwand is their favorite of Zelazny's works, so opinions do vary widely. I consider these two books to be lighter fare and not his best.

    Zelazny's original film outline for Changeling is in Nine Black Doves: V5 of The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny. And the story of the genesis of Changeling and Madwand is described in the section of the biography that is within Last Exit to Babylon: V4 of The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny. Deathmask is described briefly in the biography contained within V5.

    Chris Kovacs

  2. CK: Changeling was originally commissioned as the treatment for an animated film.

    Thanks for clearing that up. I'm pretty sure I recall knowing that prior to reading it in the Collected Works. I think it must have been mentioned as a then-current project in the "About the Author" section in one of his books.

    CK: I know that there are many readers who say that Changeling/Madwand is their favorite of Zelazny's works, so opinions do vary widely.

    Indeed. And these commentaries are simply opinion pieces at their core.

    CK: Zelazny's original film outline for Changeling is in Nine Black Doves: V5 of The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny. And the story of the genesis of Changeling and Madwand is described in the section of the biography that is within Last Exit to Babylon: V4 of The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny. Deathmask is described briefly in the biography contained within V5.

    Wow, somehow I missed all of those. I'll have to go back and read them. Thanks for the tip!

  3. By the "then-current project" mentioned in one of his books, you may be thinking of the dust jacket flap of ROADMARKS, which mentioned that Zelazny was then working on an animated film which involved American Indian mythology. That was a different project, and it also fell through, as most motion picture projects seem fated to end. But his work on that project may have inspired him to write EYE OF CAT.

    Chris Kovacs

  4. Yup, you're of course correct. I knew I wasn't recalling the details of that exactly, and as soon as you mentioned it, I remembered. You continue to impress me with the depth of your knowledge.

  5. When Changeling was first published I really hated it, probably even more than you do now, JJ -- all those dragons and wizards and some dude with a magic tattoo who periodically pulls out his guitar for a strum-a-long, and all that kind of crap. It was one of the books that put me off Zelazny for a long time.

    Now, having just reread it for the first time in 30 years, I don't dislike it nearly as much. Maybe I've just mellowed over the decades. I still find the characters annoying and the plot kind of silly, but it's a very visual story with lots of nice imagery. And Mousehead, or whatever his name is -- the thief -- gives some nice advice about the downside of seeking revenge and almost approaches being an interesting character. I may never crack this one open again, but I don't regret rereading it.

    Not exactly a ringing endorsement I guess . . . moderately entertaining minor Zelazny.

    --Chris DeVito

  6. Yeah, I'll agree with that. The imagery is very vivid and quite evocative.

  7. By the way, the end of your review, with the link to the bass battle, is hilarious.

    --Chris DeVito

  8. just discovered these reviews as i've been re-reading a lot of zelazny stuff myself and wanted to comment on this book. i loved this book when i was a kid but it really hasn't held up as well as his other stuff. namely i think this is his worst written book that i've read. his minimalistic style feels like a huge detraction in this book.
    Meanwhile the most interesting thing it does in the beginning is set up both Mark and Pol as possible heroes, and yet Mark seems to turn on a dime once the book starts following Pol more closely, and Mark just becomes a classic villain.
    Really though the book collapses once it gets to the quest because its obvious it just didnt know what else to do.
    All that said, i read Madwand as well and that book i still liked a lot. It is so much better and contains so much more despite being the same length as Changling.

  9. I would agree with that. Mark descends from fundamentally decent guy to all-but tying villagers to the railroad tracks in very short order.

  10. Just finished reading this book for the first time, and I'm not entirely sure what to think about it. For the first third of it or so, I was REALLY into it. I loved the setup and liked seeing how both Pol and Mark dealt with growing up in worlds not meant for them.

    Then the middle happened, and my reading slowed a lot. I generally use that as a gauge to understand how much I'm liking a book.

    I agree that Mark was more interesting, and for me, I don't think it was because of his character traits that you've pointed out so much as his situation: he was the tech-guy in the fantasy world. That's interesting. When Pol came over to fantasy-land, he quickly dropped his modern-world roots and became the fantasy-guy in the fantasy-world. This, unfortunately, was not as interesting as Mark's contrast; and, even more unfortunately, it became the focus of the book and resulted in a large portion of the text becoming "standard fantasy novel" (instead of "fantasy novel with awesome sci-fi mix).

    That being said, overall, I actually enjoyed the book quite a bit. The middle was slow, for sure, but that first third and the last few chapters were enough to leave me with pleasant memories.

  11. Don't forget young readers ! I read this book when I was a boy (in French), and I just loved it as my favorite fantasy book. I preferred this book far more than the "Amber" serie for instance, probably because it was more adapted to my age at that time. Now, 30 years later, it's still marvelous in my memory - and I think it's probably best if I don't reread it, as I don't want to be disappointed. That story might (in part) be the reason why I kept up reading fantasy for so long. So I think it's important not to forget the context when you're reading: your age, emotional state, background, previous readings... A book is never good or bad in the absolute, but it's good or bad relatively to a given context. And I do believe this one is so great for young boys like I was, which might actually well be much more important than pleasing adults, isn't it ?

  12. I'm sorry it took so long to get back to you. Yesterday was my birthday and I was celebrating.

    Anon: "A book is never good or bad in the absolute, but it's good or bad relatively to a given context. And I do believe this one is so great for young boys like I was, which might actually well be much more important than pleasing adults, isn't it ?"

    I absolutely agree with what you are saying here. I judged the book harshly because I had come to it with such high expectations. I think Zelazny was a prodigiously talented author, but never cultivated the particular set of skills to be an equally compelling children's/young adult author.

    However, as you say, there is considerable merit in cultivating a child's love for these things when they are young. I think it's a kind of funny coincidence that you mentioned that you read it in French as a kid, because I've heard this school of thought referred to as the "French Pastry Philosophy".

    When my daughter was four years old, we took her to a puppet show where the marionettes performed the motions to classical pieces while an orchestra in the background played the music. After the show, the director described it as a "French Pastry" school of thought, meaning that if you give a kid a French pastry when he or she is young, the kid will think, "Hey, maybe the French are kind of cool," and likewise, if you expose them at an early age to Classical music in a really engaging fashion, they'll have that spark of interest as they get older and may be more receptive to it as they get older.

    To conclude, I don't think that I could have appreciated the book, being where I was in my life when I read it, but I'm glad that someone else could.

  13. Long time RZ fan here. I just read this for the first time. Definitely lightweight—reading that it originated as a treatment for an animated movie makes me view it as appropriate for that context.

    Am I the only one who noticed that Pol Detson’s father Det Morson was defeated by a sorcerer named Mor? In other words, Mor was Pol’s grandfather?

    Lastly, I read the same used paperback edition that Josh took the cover art from. And I was walloped with nostalgia by the typeface. It’s the same typeface as an Ace Books omnibus edition of Fred Saberhagen’s Empire of the East that I reread multiple times as a teen.

  14. Another point: the battle between Pol and Mark is another example of RZ’s common motif of battling twins. (I emailed Josh a couple of years ago with a list of other examples for possible inclusion in the drinking game page).