Friday, December 10, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Dilvish, the Damned

Today's Roger Zelazny book review will be Dilvish, the Damned.

I found a copy of Dilvish, the Damned shortly after high school, read the stories and enjoyed them in what I perceive to be the spirit in which they were written. My impression is that Zelazny wanted to do something along the lines of Robert E. Howard's Conan or Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. I enjoy both of them quite a bit (though it's my friend Tim who is the real Howard fan) and I was already kindly disposed towards the sword & sorcery pulp genre to which Dilvish belongs.

There are eleven short stories in this collection.

01 Passage to Dilfar
02 Thelinde's Song
03 The Bells of Shoredan
04 A Knight for Merytha
05 The Places of Aache
06 A City Divided
07 The White Beast
08 Tower of Ice
09 Devil and the Dancer
10 Garden of Blood
11 Dilvish, the Damned

Passage to Dilfar
begins in media res with Dilvish and his steed Black ("...not a horse, but a beast of steel in the likeness of a horse") running a blockade.

As Lord Borel knows, Zelazny heroes don't play fair:

"You must see now that my armor cannot be breached. It was forged by the Salamanders themselves and bathed in the blood of ten virgins…"

Dilvish cut at his head and as he had cut at him, Dilvish had circled slowly to his left, so that now Lance stood with his back to the horse of steel, called Black.

"Now, Black!" cried Dilvish.

Then did Black rear high up on his hind legs and fall forward, bringing his front hooves down toward Lance.

Thelinde's Song is my favorite of the collection. We get some background on Dilvish and his quest. He interrupted a human sacrifice by Jelerak two hundred years ago,  his body was turned to stone, and "his spirit was banished to one of the deepest pits of Hell the Dark One could manage." He bartered away a portion of his soul for his freedom and Black's services, and now he is back for revenge.

"Why must I not mention the name of Jelerak?"

"For so long has his name been used in the conjuring and compelling of fell spirits and dark wights that his has become a Name of Power. They rush to find the speaker, whenever they hear it uttered, lest it should be he and he should grow angry at their tardiness. If it is not he, they often seek vengeance upon the presumptuous speaker. It is also said, though, that if his name be pronounced too often by one person, then he himself becomes aware of this and sends a doom upon that person. Either way, it is not wise to go about singing such songs."

"I will not, ever. How can a sorcerer be that strong?"

"He is as old as the hills. He was once a white wizard and he fell into dark ways, which makes him particularly malicious—you know, they seldom ever change for the better—and he is now accounted to be one of the three most powerful, possibly the most powerful, of all the wizards in all the kingdoms of all the Earths.

I've mentioned previously that I think one of Zelazny's strengths is his ability to make exposition interesting. I liked this quite a bit, and he paints an interesting character in Mildin the Mistress of the Coven in comparatively few strokes.

In the The Bells of Shoredan, Dilvish walks the Paths of the Dead in an effort to summon the Shadow Host. Whoops, I mean he journeys to Rahoringhast in an effort to summon the Host of Shoredan.

Dilfar is under siege and unless they get some reinforcements, the city will fall. I like this one a lot too, but it really is pretty reminiscent of the part in Return of the King where Aragorn calls forth the Dead Men of Dunharrow.  Dilvish is dispatched because he is the only one who can call forth the Host of Shoredan, who were cursed in an earlier age.

Interestingly, this is our first mention of the keep of Mirata. In The Hand of Oberon, Corwin observes that Brand has painted a rather somber rendering of the well at Mirata. . It's probably just a coincidence, as plenty of towns have the same name after all, and if not, infinite shadows and all that, but I like the thought of an Amber/Dilvish crossover.

Black can't come with him into Rahoringhast . I like this passage:

Black nodded and touched the first stair with his hoof. Fire rose from the stone. He drew back his hoof and smoke curled about it. There was no mark upon the stair to indicate where he had touched.

"I fear I cannot enter this place and preserve my form," he stated. "At the least, my form."

"What compels thee?"

"An ancient enchantment to preserve this place against the assault of any such as I."

"Can it be undone?"

"Not by any creature which walks this world or flies above it or writhes beneath it or I'm a horse. Though the seas some day rise and cover the land, this place will exist at their bottom. This was torn from Chaos by Order in the days when those principles stalked the land, naked, just beyond the hills. Whoever compelled them was one of the First, and powerful even in terms of the Mighty."

We also learn a little more about Dilvish's nemesis, Jelerak:

"Many of his deeds do lie like stains upon the land," said the priest, "but he was not always such a one. He was a white wizard who matched his powers against the Dark One, in days when the world was young. He was not sufficient. He fell. He was taken as servant by the Maleficient. For centuries he endured this bondage, until it changed him, as such must. He, too, came to glory in the ways of darkness. But then, when Selar of the Unseen Blade bought the life of Hohorga with his own, Jel—he fell as if dead and lay as such for the space of a week. Near delirious, when he awakened, he worked with counterspell at one last act of undoing: to free the cursed legions of Shoredan. He essayed that thing. He did. He stood upon this very stairway for two days and two nights, until the blood mingled with perspiration on his brow, but he could not break the hold of Hohorga. Even dead, the dark strength was too great for him.

Because Dilvish is of the blood of Selar, ghosts re-enact Selar's death and the death of Hohorga when he enters the city.

[Hohorga] was fair to look upon and noble of feature; but so blindingly fair was he that all eyes were averted from that countenance now lined with pain. A faint bluish halo was diminishing about his shoulders. Even in the death pain he was as cold and perfect as a carved gem-stone, set upon the red-green cushion of his blood; his was the hypnotic perfection of a snake of many colors. It is said that eyes have no expression of their own, and that one could not reach into a barrel of eyes and separate out those of an angry man or those of one's beloved. Hohorga's eyes were the eyes of a ruined god: infinitely sad, as proud as an ocean of lions.

One look and Dilvish knew this thing, though he could not tell their color.

Hohorga was of the blood of the First.

The guards had cornered the slayer. He fought them, apparently empty-handed, but parrying and thrusting as though he gripped a blade. Wherever his hand moved, there were wounds. He wielded the only weapon that might have slain the King of the World, who permitted none to go armed in his presence save his own guard.

He bore the Invisible Blade...

And then Hohorga spoke, in a voice held firm though soft, without inflection, like the steady beating of surf or the hooves of horses: "I have outlived the one who presumed to lay hands upon me, which is as it must be. Know that it was written that eyes would never see the blade that could slay me. Thus do the powers have their jokes..."

That was a bit more literal than I like, but it's such a good story that I don't mind.

A Knight for Merytha is a shorter story. Dilvish is rather droll, as is illustrated by one of my all time favorite lines: "I find my position somewhat awkward, Merytha," Dilvish observed, "being guest to a vampire lord I've cuckolded. I don't quite know what one says on these occasions." It's not bad, and it has a nice plot twist I didn't see the first time around.

The Places of Aache is another short one that doesn't do much to advance the overall plot. I like it mostly for Dilvish's abundant snark.

A look of surprise crossed his face and he dropped his own weapon to clutch at the one that held him.

Dilvish wrenched it free and watched him fall.

"An unlucky day for both of us," Rogis muttered.

"More so for yourself, I'd say."

"You'll not escape this so easily, you know—I'm favored of the goddess—"

"She has peculiar tastes in favorites then."

I get the impression that Zelazny mostly kept Dilvish in reserve. If he had need for another story on short notice, he could always crank out a Dilvish tale. That's not to say that they're bad; they just don't deal with themes of profundity as do most of his other works.

A City Divided
gives us a little insight into why Dilvish thinks he's capable of killing one of the most powerful sorcerers who ever lived. We learn that he learned twelve "Awful Sayings" during his time in hell, spells unequaled by earthly magic, but which will destroy the caster if he makes the smallest error in their invocation.

I thought this was a neat concept, though Awful Sayings is an awful name. For my role playing campaign, I stole the concept but reframed them a bit as the Ruinous Names. Each was a syllable of the Deplorable Word from the Narnia series, a single word which, if spoken with the proper ceremonies, would destroy all life except the person who uttered it.

He's forced to run thorough a game by a set of twins, who must divide their power between them.  One of them would spend ten years exiled to an astral limbo while the other enjoyed full potency in the real world. At the end of that time, they would play the game to see who would enjoy the next ten years on earth. He uses his Awful Saying to demolish the city.

The White Beast
is just a couple of pages long, and it serves to bridge A City Divided and a Tower of Ice. Dilvish runs into a dude transformed into a monster by Jelerak on his way to the tower.

The Tower of Ice
is pretty long and very good. Ridley, one of Jelerak's apprentices, is the warden of the tower, and he dwells there with his sister Reena. Ridley has an alternate personality

"He was chosen as apprentice from among many candidates," she said, "because he possessed great natural aptitudes for the work. Are you aware that in its higher workings, sorcery requires the assumption of an artificially constructed personality—carefully trained, disciplined, worn like a glove when doing the work?"

"Yes," Dilvish replied.

She gave him a sidelong look and continued:

"But Ridley was always different from most other people, in that he already possessed two personalities. Most of the time he is amiable, witty, interesting. Occasionally his other nature would come over him, though, and it was just the opposite—cruel, violent, cunning. After he began his work with the higher magics, this other side of himself somehow merged with his magical personality. When he would assume the necessary mental and emotional stances for his workings, it would somehow be present. He was well on his way to becoming a fine sorcerer, but whenever he worked at it he changed into something—quite unlikable. Still, this would be no great handicap, if he could put it off again as easily as he took it on—with the ring he had made for this purpose. But after a time, this—other—began to resist such a restoration. Ridley came to believe that it was attempting to control him ."

which cut off Jelerak's access to the keep when it was in control.

As an aside, I really like how we're getting these periodic insights into how the magic system works in this world. Ridley is mostly out of the picture, Reena and Dilvish team up. Then Jelerak comes calling and begins the fight with Ridley.

"Doesn't it seem to you that the entire mountain is shaking?"

"Yes, it does," she replied. "Then it must be true."


"I'd heard it said that ages ago, at the height of his power, the ma—Jelerak—actually raised this mountain by his conjuring."


"If he is sufficiently taxed in this place, I suppose that he might have to draw upon those ancient spells of his for more power. In which case—"

"The mountain might collapse as well as the castle?"

"There is that possibility. Oh, Ridley! Good show!"

That was really cool, and it helps give an idea of the feats of which Jelerak is capable.

I don't have a lot to say about Devil and the Dancer. It's self-contained, though not as much as A Knight for Merytha or The Places of Aache because Reena is still with Dilvish and there are references to earlier stories. Reena is pretty cool, and she gets a little more development here. We also get an account of Ridley's fate. Jelerak defeated Ridley didn't have the strength to destroy him. So he imprisoned him beneath the fallen Tower of Ice, whence he planned to return when he regained his strength, there to finish the work. His return there is barred by certain powerful sorcerers, a point referenced in The Changing Land.

Garden of Blood is probably my least favorite of the series, though it did have an interesting exchange.

He began to hum as he rummaged in a saddlebag after a meal—a simple, repetitive tune.

"I've never before heard you sing, whistle, or hum," Black commented.

Blink and you'll miss it, but it speaks volumes about Dilvish's personality.

Dilvish, the Damned is the final story. It's not my favorite, but it's closest to the genre's roots. You can't have a proper sword & sorcery anthology without the plundering of a god's temple and subsequent flight from his vengeance!

I like the series. In a hundred years, people aren't going to remember Roger Zelazny for the Dilvish series, but it's addition to his armory of traits I'll not disparage.

Dilvish's saga is concluded in The Changing Land, which I'll be covering in a few days.


  1. To me, some of the Dilvish stories are almost impressionistic -- maybe Zelazny playing with word and rhythm and using the traditional S&S format to give him a framework. Some of them are a bit tossed off, you're right about that. "The Tower of Ice" is among his best, I think.

    My two cents' to add to yours. :)

  2. I remember having a lot of fun reading this but not one story stuck in my mind.

  3. Josh--You mentioned that "Mirata" is a name used both in Amber and "The Bells of Shoredan," but that's not the only name in Bells that shows up in another Zelazny story. I just finished re-reading Bells, and in doing so, I noticed that the king of Dilfar is named Malacar. You know, like Malacar Miles, from TO DIE IN ITALBAR.

    I smell a conspiracy.

    (Conan must be Elric's dad.)

  4. Oh, that's a neat catch. For a while, I had toyed with the idea of Roger Zelazny Concordance that would lay out all these connections.

    Unfortunately, while in my personal canon, the Keys to December, the Furies, Angel, Dark Angel and Isle of the Dead all take place in the continuity, there's nothing to suggest that this is actually the case.

    I didn't particularly care for Krulik's Complete Amber Sourcebook because I felt that he presented a great deal of speculation as fact, and any argument advancing the connections I imagine would likewise have to invent connections where none exist in the text to tie the stories together.

    (And I believe I recall that Krulik said that Zelazny approved everything in the book, but I'm not sure I believe that is actually the case.)

  5. The first time I read "Tower of Ice," I didn't much like it. I decided that this time--this SECOND READING--would be different.

    Alas, it was not. The story was a pain to get through, just like last time. The style just seems very atypical of Zelazny. Zelazny fans always talk about how amazing it was that he could pack so much punch into such a small word-count, but with "Tower of Ice," that's not the case at all. I really think he was actually padding the story to meet the 20,000-word assignment he'd received.

    If you want an example of what I'm talking about, check out the scene that starts on page 325 in Volume 4 of your Collected Stories. Reena spends an entire PAGE just packing her bag. A WHOLE PAGE! Just STUFFING ITEMS INTO A BAG! RARGH!

    And, a few pages later, Dilvish spends more than one page just climbing a stinkin' mountain.

    Blech. It feels wrong to be badmouthing Zelazny in such a way, but man, "Tower of Ice" was a serious chore. It didn't really get good until Jelerak showed up, I feel.

  6. Hey, I just realized I've never read D,tD! I don't even have the book. But since the stories are included in the Collected Stories, I can read them there. "New" Zelazny!

    --Chris DeVito

  7. Oh, man, you've got to read Dilvish! "Tower of Ice" is worth it for the packing scene alone!

  8. ...



    Just for that, Josh, I'm getting a tattoo of Merlin on my chest.

    (I'm not sure what that will accomplish, but it somehow feels right.)