Thursday, December 2, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: A Dark Traveling

Welcome back to my meandering Roger Zelazny commentaries

Today I'll be looking at A Dark Travelling/Traveling, the spelling of the title varying depending on which side of the Atlantic you happen to be on. (I happen to have the UK trade paperback (the double edition with To Die in Italbar), with an extra L in Traveling and with mom misspelled as "mum".)

I can't remember where I first read about this book, but I remember the teaser ("I'm a normal fourteen-year-old boy....My sister Becky is a witch, my older brother Dave lives in a castle, and our exchange student Barry is a trained assassin. I also have an uncle named George who is a werewolf") made it sound like a really fun read. I only got a hold of a copy after eBay and Amazon marketplace made tracking down obscure paperbacks trivially easy. Previously, I'd hit a used book store in whichever town I was in and make due with what they had. (Usually Doorways in the Sand and Blood of Amber) 

It's a kid's book. I was in my twenties (at least) when I read it for the first time, and it really wasn't meant for me. The Collected Works of Roger Zelazny explores the problems facing the book in greater detail than I will here, but I think it's decent for a Zelazny book and not bad at all for young adult fare.

It was dedicated to the teachers at Rio Grande School who taught his kids to enjoy reading. A friend of mine once mentioned that his mom was a teacher to one of Zelazny's children, and though he was prone to exageration, I don't doubt it, because, as far as brushes with greatness go, it's not all that impressive. I wonder if she's included in that dedication. 

One thing I liked about the Harry Potter books (the early ones at least) was that that they struck me more as books where the protagonists happened to be kids, rather than patronizing garbage that passes for "kids books" these days. Kids are generally pretty smart. They lack the breadth of experience of adults, but they're not that far behind when it comes to straight up reasoning ability. I found that here, and it let me enjoy it.If you're playing Zelazny bingo, "arroyo" appears on the second page, right there in the prologue.

The narrator, Jim, is a werewolf just entering puberty. As the teaser mentioned above, he lives with a sister and they're hosting an exchange student named Barry, from another band. He's an assassin, which I thought would be pretty neat, but because of the restrictions placed on Zelazny, he's an assassin who doesn't kill anybody.

I'm certainly not the first to observe that Zelazny's characters are cast from a similar mold, but Jim departs from that, and I really like the voice Zelazny gives him. His concerns are believably those of a 14-year-old boy.

The plot is that Jim's dad is the keeper of the local trascomp station. Technology exists for transfer across parallel worlds, but its knowledge is closely guarded and generally only one family per "band" (the name in this book for a particular world) knows about it. The book opens with Jim's father disappearing. ("Missing father figure", there's another one for your Zelazny bingo board)

The guardian golem Golly reminded me of Rolem, naturally. He is described as having a "new car smell" and I thought that was a memorable detail to include.

Barry and Becky and Jim try to track him down. Becky is a witch and she can send Barry and Jim to the bands where Jim's dad might be. She accidentally sends Jim to the wrong band...during the night of the full moon.

Again, Jim's concerns seem real. Even midtransformation, he observes, "If I were going to transform I wanted to get undressed in a hurry. I did not want to find myself a big doglike creature helplessly entangled in jeans, T-shirt and tennis shoes." He thinks briefly about gathering up his clothes, in case he reverts to human form in front of girls.

He also thinks that he could exert some control over the transformation, but decides not to, because: "A crippled werewolf struck me as a particularly pathetic creature."

So, he changes, and the passages where he describes his time as a wolf are beautiful. Vintage Zelazny. They would be exemplary even in an adult work, and I found them the high point of the book by a wide margin. Something I particularly enjoyed.

There is no time and as for space, it seems I move with such ease that the world rushes to meet me. I am suspended in the dark dream of the hunt, where reason sleeps as the scroll of sensation unwinds. I am dog-shaped death within the wood of the world, thing of fang and hunger. Beneath sky's eyes beast to fest blooding moon-turned hours...

His Uncle eventually finds him and helps him return to normal. He dreams about the experience, and likens it to dreams about a part-time job an older friend told him about.  I think most adults have or have had work anxiety dreams, and the fact the Jim is presenting this as something new to him really does make it seem like he's a 14-year-old. He does have a very vivid, distinct voice, and I think Jim's narration and werewolf experience are the high point of the book.

By now, Becky and Barry have found their way to this band, and they set off alone to stop the darkbanders and rescue Jim's parents. They find the dark haired darkband sorcerer within the enemy camp and (SPOILERS) save the day. The confronation at the end was...not very good. It was servicable, in that it related what happened, but it didn't make me care about it. The dark-haired sorcerer, whose hair was long and black (...) says at one point: "Not bad," he said, stepping forward, "But not good enough." and that's how I feel about this scene. That's an okay line, straight from The Beginner's Dictionary of Villain Clich├ęs for Any Occasion, but it's missing that characteristic Zelazny flare. I mean, Jim's chapter was poetry, and that was just dull and at the climax of the story, too. 

The denouement was neat, though. The final battle caused the band to split, creating one timeline where the darkbanders won and another where the lightbanders eked out a victory. I thought that was a nice note on which to end the story. 

Assessment? I liked it. It's very light reading, and aimed at a young audience. I wish it were longer and slightly cleaned up and fleshed out, but it's Proust compared to a lot of the young adult fantasy out there.

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