Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Madwand

It had been a while since I read Madwand and I couldn't really remember anything specific about it. I can imagine that I wasn't enthused going in, because it was the same setting as Changeling, but without the few things I liked about Changeling.


It's a better book than Changeling, that's for sure. (Though that's not setting the bar very high.) It works best, for me when it stands on its own, without references to the earlier book. Changeling, for whatever reason, didn't read like a Zelazny book at all. The prose reminded me of Flare or The Mask of Loki, which were ostensibly collaborations, but where I got the distinct impression that Zelazny provided the concept, and let the junior writer do the bulk of the actual writing.

Early on, some random dude shows up and tries to kill Pol.

"Good evening, Pol Detson," he stated, raising his left hand and jerking it through a series of quick movements, "and good-bye."

I like him already! That's something the first book was missing. Pol Detson getting his ass kicked.  I could have overlooked the flat prose and the tired cliches of Changeling if not for the fact that our douchebag of a protagonist smugly overcomes every obstacle with contemptuous ease. He's never challenged by anything he faces.  Unfortunately, Pol survives through intervention of a Deus Ex Machina (or more accurately, a Phasmatis Ex Statua) and decides to attend a wizard convention.

Belphanior, the mostly nameless narrator adds significantly to the story,  It's a small thing, but makes it feel more like a Roger Zelazny story. I didn't realize until it was missing, but I really consider first person narration as central to Zelazny's work as I do the mythology or the wordplay.

The book gives us a better feel for the functioning of the magic.

"I fail to observe the phenomenon myself. ..."

"Most certainly," the other replied, "for it has doubtless been constantly with you--and it would of course seem different to you than it does to me, anyway, if you could detect it at all. You know how sorcerers' perceptions vary, and their emphasis upon different things."

Pol frowned.

"Or do you?" Ibal asked.


Does someone know something that Pol doesn't?! Is it possible that he's not the most awesomest guy ever in every arena?!

I kind of like his ignorance, because it's a believable way to get a lot of exposition across. Also, Madwand is a pretty cool word.

The book actually had some neat details:

The man grew almost apologetic then as he asked them to drop their payment through a small hoop into a basket.

"All the others are starting it, too," he said. "Too many enchanted pebbles going around. You might even have some without knowing it."

But their coins remained coins as they passed through the charmed circle.

"We just arrived," Pol told him.

"Well, keep an eye out for stones."

As written in the first book, Pol reminded me of Poochie. If you're not familiar, Poochie  was a character added to the Itchy & Scratchy cartoons on the Simpsons. The market research groups took everything that kids found "cool" and threw it all together in one character. ("Kids, always recycle... to the extreme!") Everything about Pol is "edgy" just for the sake of being edgy and the attitude just gets tedious after a time. ("The name's Poochie D./And I rock the telly./I'm half Joe Camel and a third Fonzarelli./I'm the Kung-Fu hippie,/from Gangsta City./I'm a rappin' surfer./You the fool I pity...") He moves away from this characterization in Madwand, but never fully.

"I suppose that you had some interesting experiences once you discovered your abilities?" he said hurriedly.

"Yes, many," Pol replied. "They might fill a book."

Okay, that's actually mildly funny, but I just hate Pol so much.

The series suffers from the same problem as the Merlin books. Pol blunders blindly from one crisis to another surviving (thriving, really) with the assistance of one powerful patron after another, who arrive Fairy Godmother-like to shower gifts and blessings upon him just in time to get him out of his latest crisis. Also like Merlin, he's childlike in his obstinance, so disliking being told what to do that I have to assume it would be trivially easy to manipulate him by telling him to do the opposite of what you really want him to do.

"I do not believe that you like this," he went on, ignoring the response, "because, for all your talk of determinism, I was raised on another world about which you know little or nothing, and you cannot account for me as you might someone who'd spent his life in this land. I am more of a random factor than you would like me to be, but you have to deal with me anyway. Tonight you will attempt to impress me in some fashion so that I will be more amenable to your purposes. I tell you now that I have seen things beside which the display at Anvil Mountain was very small beer. I am prepared to be unimpressed by any efforts on your part."

I said in my Bridge of Ashes piece that Zelazny had never set up a straw man, but I see I was mistaken. Pol's got an answer for everything,

"You're right. But humor me with one more question, if you will. Would the two of you have fought one another eventually, for hegemony in this new land?"

Spier's face reddened.

Oh, Lord. I guess there are people who blush readily. I don't know any, but sure, I guess they're out there. But if you're flustered by a predictable softball from a 23 year old kid, maybe you're really not cut out for this whole evil wizard bit.

Despite all my bitching, the cool moments are actually fairly frequent and Henry Spier really is pretty neat.

Pol hit him. He summoned up every bit of the power he could muster, backed it with all of his will and hurled it at the man.

Very slowly, Henry Spier unscrewed the cigarette from its holder, dropped it upon the floor and stepped on it. He replaced the holder in some hidden pocket beneath his cloak. It had to be sheer bravado. Pol knew that the man must be feeling the force of his attack. But the display was effective. Pol felt a tremor of fear at Spier's power, but he maintained the siege and reached for even more force to back it. He was committed now, and he felt as if he were sliding down a long tunnel which ended in blackness.

It's called style, Pol. Make a note of it.

Changeling didn't read like a Zelazny book at all. Madwand reads like a weak Zelazny book, and while that's something, it still doesn't make it a book I would recommend to my friends. Chris observed in the other thread that Changeling was enough of a commercial success to justify a sequel. I don't have a lot of trouble understanding why. What I call stereotypical or generic, another person might call traditional. There is a reason why fantasy fiction tropes are used and reused, after all. People keep reading them.  My bug is someone else's feature.

 Faulkner wrote "In writing, you must kill all your darlings."  I've made this criticism elsewhere of the later Harry Potter books, but there is a point where an author falls in love with his or her creations and fails to be objective about them. I think that happened after Book four or five with Harry Potter and unfortunately, was in place from the beginning with the Wizard World Books.

Later, invisible and drifting, I was the only audience save for a drowsing dragon, when Pol sat upon the ramparts of Avinconet and played his guitar, slowly, with bandaged hands. I counted myself fortunate to have gained my name and found my calling in life that day. As I listened to his song, I decided that he must not be too bad, as accursed masters go. I rather liked his music.

Of course you like his music, Belphanior. If you don't love everything about Pol there's something wrong with you.

I know from the Collected Works of Roger Zelazny that he was planning a third book in the series (Deathmask), and while I quipped in an earlier review that I thought that the series had already gone on for two books too long, I think  Madwand ends on a strong enough note that I think I would have read a third one.

1 comment:

  1. So . . . am I the only one who noticed that one of Ibal's apprentices is named Suhuy? As in, Suhuy of Chaos?

    And, being that all realities exist in the Amber books, it's not only *reasonable* that Amber and Madwand took place in the same universe, it's *necessary*.