Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Donnerjack, part four: Verité

There is quite a bit of story left, but it all moves very briskly once our two protagonists are all grown up. They meet, they part ways, Jay keeps his father's bargain and all the separate threads are pulled together very neatly.

One of the things I like is that it is mentioned that the gods move slowly. In another work, that line would just be flavor, something mentioned to establish their character and quickly forgotten. But it takes them about twenty years to go from gathering their forces to open warfare (something that only works because of the generation sweep of the book) and I'm pleased that this glacial pace was something we got to see and not just hear described. Likewise, I enjoyed the depiction of the long game. Too often in popular fiction, long-term planning is simply magical, with the character in the Saw movies (for instance) predicting and planning around incredibly specific events several years after his death. Death has a general idea of the category of enemy that will be opposing him, and rather than make specific plans, he recruits an agent who can act in ways he cannot.

(Also, it's weird that Zelazny wrote two "Death takes a protégé" stories (Donnerjack and Godson) as it's not the most crowded field, but each of them manages to be entertaining and engaging in entirely different ways)

Another thing that I like is that authors never forget that Virtù is an artificial world. They manage to blend the mythic and the mechanical in a way that makes them both seem magical. When discussing ailments, Ambry observes that "reproduction proges are as old as the first simple copy programs." Skyga, Earthma and Seaga are the greatest gods on Mount Meru, but they are also programs. (I like that Seaga manifests in the form of a cuttlefish colored "as blue as a jazz musician's soul".) Skyga oversees the general power of the system's structure. Earthma is the aion of all aions, the base program for all loci. Seaga's domain is the vast tidal masses of data in Virtu. In order to destroy a proge, one must obliterate it utterly or create a new memory so powerful that it overwrites the existing one.

If I had to pick something I disliked about the book, it would be Alice Hazzard. Alice comes as close as possible to destroying Donnerjack. She's 16 years old,  but already an accomplished muckracker. (Her pseudonym comes from Lincoln Steffens) She reminds me of another muckraker with something of a gap between how is written and how he is perceived:  Buck Williams: "Greatest Investigative Reporter of All Time!"

Anyway, here's how the GIRAT reported, firsthand, from the scene of an all-out nuclear surprise attack:

To say the Israelis were caught off guard, Cameron Williams had written, was like saying the Great Wall of China was long.

Just remember, when L&J discuss good writing, this is what they mean.

That's from the slactivist's excellent ongoing takedown of the Left Behind series. Alice is a poor man's Buck. She manages to produce prose both purple and banal. She has such a tin ear it came to life and helped Dorothy find the Wizard.

On the other hand, Alice does have believable interactions with her mom.  Maybe Lindskold was responsible for them and, maybe not, but Zelazny was never great with his depiction of women, and, as shitty a character as Alice is, at least she passes the the bechdel test

Unfortunately, Alice gets the last word. She comes across Jay, who is, quite understandably, getting drunk, because he's absolutely devastated after  witnessing his childhood playmate and his mother murder each other right in front of him. She tells him to stop sulking, and the crusader ghost chimes in with a "You go, girl!"

It's called mourning! Jesus.

And to wrap up this review: I like the depiction of Death in the book, as I had previously mentioned. He reminds me of Hades as the Greeks understood him. With the exception of Persephone, Hades wasn’t really a bad guy. He was dark and unpitying, but fundamentally just.  He was probably better than most of his cohorts, because if you're a Greek peasant, things probably aren't going to end well for you if you attract the attention of a god, and Hades just mostly kept to himself.

I also couldn't help but think of Dream, from Neil Gaiman's Sandman series. Dream is the position held by Morpheus, and while there must always be a Dream, the Endless can be killed. In the course of the series, Morpheus dies and another rises to become Dream. Likewise, while there must always be a Death, it need not always be the same Death. Earthma seeks to supplant him, by having her child, Antaeus, seize his cowl and thus his station. 

Death says "If you were to disassemble everything of me that you see before you, yet would the forces of the universe bring back toogether their overseer of entropy - somewhere, somehow - and I would return. I am necessary to the proper functioning of things..." (The wording is also very reminiscent of how the Steel General is described in Creatures of Light and Darkness, which returns to my earlier point that there seem to be elements from many Zelazny stories in Donnerjack.) Adding to the similarities is that Gaiman says that Zelazny's death and subsequent wake informed Morpheus's.

Is Donnerjack perfect? Not at all. But much like Creatures of Light and Darkness, I like it because of, not in spite of its flaws. It might have been a more polished work had Zelazny survived to finish it and there are some interesting insights about the original direction for the story in the handwritten outline called Donnerjack, of Virtù: A Fable for the Machine Age. It shows that the story would have been somewhat different (and also that Zelazny had absolutely appalling handwriting.) It's an interesting look at an interesting book.


  1. "It shows that the story would have been somewhat different (and also that Zelazny had absolutely appalling handwriting.)"

    Yes, appalling. I'm used to interpreting dreadful handwriting (I'm a physician and have to interpreted scrawled notes and referral letters from other doctors, and occasionally I give up and insist on a typed note) but I found Zelazny's handwritten manuscripts to be probably the most difficult handwriting I've ever deciphered. It took many hours over two years and help from others to come up with what's printed in V6: The Road to Amber. On the other hand, his handwritten letters were easy to read. So I think the problem was that when he was writing outlines it was for his own use and, consequently, sloppy. He was probably sprawled in his easy chair when doing that. When he was writing to someone else, his cursive writing was just fine.

    By the way, you may be interested in THE IDES OF OCTEMBER: A PICTORIAL BIBLIOGRAPHY OF ROGER ZELAZNY. It's a companion volume to the six-book set, and although a trade paperback, its spine matches the first six books so that all seven together display the Michael Whelan artwork. In addition to being a comprehensive bibliography of all his works in English-language editions, and a comprehensive listing of essays about his works by others, it also shows thumbnail images of all of the English-language editions of his books, and of all first appearances of his short stories in magazines, fanzines, and anthologies. You've remarked before that you couldn't find a cover image that you'd remembered, but they're all in this book. The book was published in December by NESFA Press and is available to order through their website (see; it's also now a pre-order on Amazon and should be in stock within the next 2-3 weeks.

    Chris Kovacs

  2. CK: On the other hand, his handwritten letters were easy to read. So I think the problem was that when he was writing outlines it was for his own use and, consequently, sloppy. He was probably sprawled in his easy chair when doing that. When he was writing to someone else, his cursive writing was just fine.

    That makes sense, and I'm hardly one to talk. My penmanship is so atrocious I occasionally have difficulty reading something I've written in the past.

    Thanks for the heads up on Ides. I'm really looking forward to it.

  3. I’ve tried to read Donnerjack at least a dozen times, and just could never get into it. My latest attempt was my last: I got 80 or 90 pages in (a lot further than I’d ever gotten before) and finally gave up. I speed-read to the end of part one, and then skimmed the rest. Nothing made me want to slow down and get back into it. The writing varies from some halfway interesting dialog to inane chatter, with lots of plodding exposition that pads things out interminably. The characters are scattershot and range from unconvincing to outright cartoons. I felt no sense of depth or reality in either the “real world” or the computer fantasy-land. Zelazny’s usually rich visual imagery was virtually (so to say) absent -- at times I felt like I was watching an old episode of Dr. Who, when they didn’t actually have sets, just an empty, dark background behind the actors; in spots I felt like I was watching one of the lamer holodeck episodes of the old Star Trek The Next Regurgitation. Much of the book seemed like a pastiche of bits of Zelazny plucked from this book or that, thrown in a blender and then randomly strewn across the pages. Unconvincing, uninvolving, and ultimately, for me, unreadable.

    I need to re-read Lord of Light or A Night in the Lonesome October, wash the taste of Donnerjack off my brain.

    --Chris DeVito

  4. DeVito: Much of the book seemed like a pastiche of bits of Zelazny plucked from this book or that, thrown in a blender and then randomly strewn across the pages.

    I think there's a lot of truth in that statement, and I can understand why you don't like it. And yeah, I think I'm being overly sentimental about the book, and it probably doesn't deserve the high grade I gave it. For me, though, the pastiche seems like a goodbye, and I smiled whenever I recognized elements from another story.

  5. Like I said, I gave it a chance, multiple times -- but it finally just got to be a bummer. That's not how I want to remember Zelazny.


  6. Okay, so here are my final thoughts on DONNERJACK (whether you want 'em or not--feel free to ignore).

    As you know, I was displeased when I started reading stuff that was very clearly (to me) not written by Zelazny. (Chris K, don't jump all over me here--I'm not saying there's a point where Zelazny stops writing and never starts again. Just saying there's a part where we move primarily into Lindskold territory.) Unfortunately, I'm just not a big fan of a lot of Lindskold's decisions, in terms of her voice.

    Voice has always been one of the most important things to me in writing: if your prose is excellent, I might enjoy your story even if the characters and plot are lacking. Similarly, if your prose is not to my liking, I'm probably not going to enjoy your book no matter how good the characters and plot are. And, since so much of my stock as a reader lies in voice, this might explain why I had a more severe reaction to the voice change than either of you guys (Josh/Chris K) did.

    However, that being said, there are still several hundred pages of DONNERJACK that follow my perceived split in authorship, and that actually worked to the book's advantage--it gave me enough time to just accept that I was (mostly) going to be reading someone else's prose from a certain point on. Once that happened, I was able to enjoy the book again.

    As far as concepts go, I think you were right in the first part of your DONNERJACK commentary, Josh: this is a highly ambitious book with a lot going on. I really liked the world the authors created, not to mention the characters with which that world was populated. This story just seems like a 500-page exercise in maximum creativity, and that's a good thing.

    The ending seemed a little "meh" to me, though. For whatever reason, I just didn't feel much excitement/tension in any of the final battles. (In fact, I put the book down several times during the last 40 pages or so--not because I hated it, but because I just wasn't very into it.) Also, I'm not sure how I feel about Earthma's army being defeated by the power of song, but whatever.

    [NOTE: Apparently my post is too long, and needs to be split up; it's like I'm writing a Josh-esque DONNERJACK review over here!

    Part two, COMING UP!]

  7. Now, regarding some of your individual comments:

    "It's called mourning! Jesus."

    Obviously this is just speculation, but I have a feeling this scene was more a symptom of Linskold's writing (in general) than Alice's character (specifically). As I said before, voice is a big thing for me, and one of those quirks of Lindskold's that I don't much care for is how often she has her characters smile/laugh. (I vaguely recall the same thing happening in LORD DEMON, but I don't remember the writing enough to really stand behind that thought.) Zelazny's characters, you may have noticed, are often cool as cucumbers, even under pressure--they just seem *smooth.* Lindskold's, however, like to crack jokes and smile at the most inopportune times.

    (And no, I have no evidence that Lindskold wrote the parts I'm thinking of, other than the fact that they seemed very out of place in a Roger Zelazny novel--at least to me, anyway.)

    For a more specific example of what I'm talking about, consider the scene shortly after Ambry got taken away by Skyga (which happened somewhere around page 394, for reference). The very next time we see Lydia Hazzard (whose lover was *just kidnapped by a freakin' god*, remember), we get this exchange (from page 403):

    "Luck, Alice! Be careful. I don't consider switching you for Ambry a reasonable trade."
    "How about Drum?" Alice giggled.
    The wind blew them away before Lydia could answer, but when Alice looked back she could see that Dr. Hazzard was smiling.

    The father of your daughter was just taken away, and there are no guarantees you'll ever see him (or her!) again. WHY ARE YOU SMILING? Does this really seem like the time to be joking?!

    Sorry--I'll try to keep my frustrations in check. Moving right along . . .

    On a similar note, I have to disagree (somewhat) with your praise of Death, Josh. I agree that he was awesome when we first saw him (you accurately described him as "epic" in part one of your review), but--well, it's the same thing I just mentioned with Lydia Hazzard. I'm not saying Jane Lindskold is a bad writer, just that I (personally) don't agree with some of her decisions regarding how she makes her characters act. Death went from being this awesome, epic character, to smiling way too often and even acting against his previously established personality at times. (For an example of the latter, there are a few instances later in the book where Death says he's helping the team because he thinks he owes them a debt for their help in Deep Fields. Except, when you contrast this with his discussion with Donnerjack on pages 177-179, it sounds kind of silly. During that conversation, we'd established Death as a guy who basically says, "Tough shit, the world ain't fair." Maybe I'm crazy, but I don't really see him as citing "gratitude" as a motivation for his actions. He might (emphasis on “might”) *act* out of gratitude, but I would picture it being a silent gratitude, where he just pops in and saves the day, then doesn’t stick around to have a happy hug-time party after the battle’s over.)

    Long story short, DONNERJACK was okay. Concepts were great, the world was great. I'm just picky when it comes to voice, and I'm (unfortunately) not a big fan of Lindskold's. I still think the book is worth reading, though, and I'm glad you liked it as much as you did, Josh.

  8. I think it's been some 5 years since I last read DONNERJACK. One thing that I recall most vividly is that Death starts out as a slickly cool character on par with some of Zelazny's best, such as Kalifriki. He's also appropriately nasty and terrifying. But then Death loses much of that as the novel proceeds.

    1. I was thinking on this today, and I think you guys are right. Death is "All patience is but an imitation of my ways" in the beginning and he cracks a poop joke near the end.

  9. Side note: did anyone else realize Nazrat (who was a genius loci, if I recall correctly) is "Tarzan" backwards?

    1. Also, Markon is "No Kram" backwards, which I can only assume means he prefers Lembas.

    2. Ah, crap, I'm usually sharp with anagrams, but I missed that one completely.