Monday, December 13, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: The Changing Land

I liked the original collection of Dilvish stories, but I figured that's all I was going to see of him. It wasn't my favorite of Zelazny's worlds, but I didn't hate it like I did  Lord Demon or  A Farce to be Reckoned With. I gave it a B- on the page with all my rankings.

I've mentioned in the past that I would buy Zelazny books without even reading the cover, on the strength of his name alone. Consequently, when I started the Changing Land, I didn't know I was reading the follow up to the Dilvish anthology until I was underway.

In my earlier review, I had likened Dilvish to the pulp sword & sorcery characters. I had a vague recollection of there being some cross-pollination between Robert E. Howard's work and H.P. Lovecraft's Mythos stories. I checked with my friend Tim, who is something of an authority on Robert E. Howard and he got back to me with this helpful link and the information that Howard's non-Conan stuff has way more Cthulhu/Mythos-related stuff.  So that's cool.

I bring this up because but the plot centers around Tualua, (" of the Old Ones—the ancient, tentacled kin of the Elder Gods...") who is an expy of  Cthulhu (he's identified as Cthulhu in the A Cthulhu Mythos Bibliography & Concordance, which was written by a guy from my wife's church. No lie.) (They're Unitarians, so they worship Cthulhu already) I would assume the slight change is not due to copyright issues but just because the name Cthulhu is so overused that it's distracting.

The story seems to take place not all that long after the last of the short stories in the previous collection. Jelerak is still weak from his earlier confrontation.  The Society (they used to be called the Brotherhood, but the Circle of Sorceresses, Enchantresses, and Wizardresses raised a fuss, and finally got it changed) believes that Jelerak might flee to Castle Timeless, so they have stationed wardens to dissuade visitors from intruding. The warden speaks to those who arrive on the day the story begins and we discover that Arlata of Marinta, Weleand of Murcave and Dilvish all seek to enter Castle Timeless, each for his or her own reason. I though this was a cool way to get a lot of information in a hurry. (It certainly worked better than the infodump about each of the psychics in Eye of Cat.)

It had a nice supporting cast. Semirama was an interesting character. Arlata was neat too, and so was Baran of the Extra Hand. I liked most of minor characters, with the exception of the bunch of sorcerers chained up in the dungeon. They were boring and I found myself skimming their interludes.

Arlata is an elf maiden. It's worth noting that the elves in the Dilvish series are mostly human in appearance, i.e. they don't have pointy ears. (Though, if I recall  Tolkien's elves, the progenitor of the archetype, are described as having leaf-shaped ears only once, and that's ambiguous enough to be open to interpretation.) Arlata is a dead ringer for her grandmother—Fevera of Mirata, whom Dilvish loved. Dilvish, we learn resembles his illustrious forebear Selar very strongly. Semirama, the queen resurrected by Jelerak in order to speak with Tualua, once loved Selar. I don't think this is all that realistic, (whatever that means in this context), but it's a trope of the pulp genre, so I'll go with it.

We get some memorable passages.

Melbriniononsadsazzersteldregandishfeltselior had seldom been exploited by terrestrial adepts, inasmuch as the use of a demon's name was necessary in those rites binding him to servitude. One missed syllable and the conjurer would step from the circle smiling, to discover that the demon was smiling also.

Then, leaving the remains artistically disposed about the conjuring area, the demon would return to the infernal regions, perhaps bearing with him some small souvenir of an amusing interlude.

It was Melbriniononsadsazzersteldregandishfeltselior's misfortune, however, that Baran of the Extra Hand hailed from Blackwold, where a complex, agglutinative language was spoken.

Could anyone in the world but Roger Zelazny have written that?

A sorcerer named Holrun examines the spell blocking the transport mirror:

One line was thinner than the other, indicating a high pitch to the sorcerer's voice as he had uttered that sound. Normally, a spell commenced on a lower note than it ended, though this was not always the case. Either line, for that matter, could also represent a preliminary gesture. He moved nearer and made momentary contact with the heavier line. The blue coil flashed toward him, but he had already withdrawn by the time it arrived, bearing one piece of information away with him: the line echoed on contact! Therefore, it was a word, not a gesture... The seventh term ended with a hard consonant and the eighth began with one. The same applied to the twenty-third and twenty-fourth words. He ran by them again. The caesura between the seven-eight pair was slightly longer.

I commented in the earlier Dilvish review that I like that we get bits and pieces of how magic is put together in this world and I'm glad that this practice continues in this book. This in particular reminds me of logic puzzles I did as a kid. "If Sue is two thirds as old as Steve will be in three years, and Jim is the oldest and Jane is half as old as Sue was two years ago..."

Another very Zelazny passage:

Monstrously ancient structures of an imposing nature are not in the habit of having been constructed by men. Nor was the Castle Timeless an exception, as most venerable cities trace their origins to the architectural enterprise of gods and demigods, so the heavy structure in the Kannais which predated them all, and which had over the ages served every conceivable function from royal palace to prison, brothel to university, monastery to abandoned haunt of ghouls—changing even its shape, it was said, to accommodate its users' needs —so it informed with the echoes of all the ages, was muttered by some (with averted eyes and evil-forfending gesture) to be a relic of the days when the Elder Gods walked the earth, a point of their contact with it, a toy, a machine, or perhaps even a strangely living entity, fashioned by those higher powers whose vision transcended that of mankind—whom they had blessed or cursed with the spark of selfconsciousness and the ache of curiosity that was the beginning of soul—as mankind's surpassed that of the hairy tree-dwellers counted by some as his kin, for purposes best known only to those shining folk whom it at least served somewhere, somehow as an interdimensional clubhouse before those beings absented themselves to felicity of a higher order, leaving behind the unripened fruits of their meddling in the affairs of otherwise satisfied simians; fashioned, in the opinion of some metaphysicians, on a timeless plane out of spiritual substances and, hence, not truly a part of this grosser world to which it had been transported, consisting as it did of equal measures of good and evil and their more interesting counterparts, love and hate, compounded with a beauty, therefore, that was both sinister and beatific, possessed of an aura as absorbent as a psychic sponge and as discriminating, alive in the sense that a man with only a functioning portion of his right hemisphere might be said to live, and anchored in space and time by an act of will imperfect because divided, yet superior to normal earthly vicissitudes for all the unearthly reasons the metaphysician would not care to recite a second time

The book gets a bit silly near the end, but I don't mind, because a little silliness is in keeping with the genre:

"Oh, it's going to take a tedious human sacrifice to straighten out our Old One. It wouldn't if I were in better form, but that's the way it is just now. Don't worry, I've a virgin locater spell I can use."

Of course you do.

"There you are, Jelerak, as I should have guessed I'd find you—surrounded by toads, bats, snakes, spiders, rats and noxious fumes, next to a big pool of shit, about to tear out a girl's heart!"

Jelerak lowered the blade.

"These are a few of my favorite things," he said, smiling,

We learn that Black is not quite a demon. Tualua to Black:

The man thinks you a demon, little brother.

Let him. We've other problems.

That reminds me of one of the (very few) cool things from the Merlin books, the hints that Greyswandir was "something else" before it was a sword.

Dilvish is captured and thrown in with the boring captured sorcerers. They escape and there is a bit of wandering around in the castle. Eventually the maintenance spell is disrupted and the castle becomes unmoored in time.

"It has decided upon a smaller scale this time around. But the main reason is that the Great Flash will soon occur, for we left at a very fast pace, as the house requested—"

"Excuse me, Dark One," Hodgson shouted as they passed through the alcove and started down upon the stair, "but this Great Flash—are you referring to… ?"

"The creation of the universe," Black finished. "Yes. We are going all the way around. At any rate, after the flash we will be passing through a dangerous belt inhabited by beings which would do us the worst sort of harm."

Squee! It's the Hounds of Tindalos, all lean and athirst!  (The book calls them the Hounds of Thandolos, and I don't know if Zelazny felt obligated to change the name slightly or if he just got it wrong)

Black references the Garden of Blood from the first book. I'm a sucker for continuity porn.

The Bells of Shoredan story in the Dilvish, the Damned collection has two references to black doves:

In the sky then he saw the shapes of the nine black doves that must circle the world forever, never to land, seeing all things on the earth and on the sea, and passing all things by.


"There!" [Dilvish] said, gesturing. "There is your sign of his goodness and light!"

Nine black doves circled in the heavens.

The Changing Land concludes with this quote:  Somewhere in the world the black doves were singing as they headed for their landing and their rest.

It was neat to get some resolution, though, all things considered,  I'd have preferred a sequel to Roadmarks or A Night in the Lonesome October, but it was nice to see Dilvish one last time.


  1. When I first read this novel I was quite confused by it. Who is Dilvish? What is going on? Why should I care about anyone in this book? In retrospect it's because I'd never read any of the Dilvish short stories (and some of them hadn't even been published by then), and you really need to have read them in order to understand this novel. It's a continuous story from the first Dilvish tale through to the end of this novel. And when you read it that way you can see how the character of Dilvish changes with time. Reading The Changing Land first is rather like watching Return of the Jedi as your first entry into the Star Wars trilogy.

    I later learned (and it's explained in the various Notes accompanying the Dilvish tales within The Collected Stories, and in the Zelazny biography), that the problem was the fault of the publisher, Ballantine. They wanted Zelazny's novel and weren't interested in publishing the short stories. So the novel came out without most readers knowing Dilvish's backstory. And the novel suffers as a result. It was another publisher, Underwood-Miller, who made the effort to put together the Dilvish, the Damned collection as a limited edition hardcover, and then Ballantine published it after the fact as a paperback. So that's why the conclusion of the tale (The Changing Land) was published before the first half of the tale (Dilvish, the Damned).

    I think the stories and novel should really be re-issued in one volume.

    Chris Kovacs

  2. My only problem with a collected edition is that the obvious title, Nine Black Doves, has already been used.