The opening lines grabbed me right away:
This is the story of Kalifriki of the Thread, the Kife and the toymaker's daughter - in the days of the shifter's flight from the Assassin's Garden . wherefrom it bore a treasure almost without price.
I read that and thought, "I don't know who this Kalifriki is, but apparently she's something called a Kife, and her dad used to make toys!" Then I read a little more and figured out, "Oh, those are all different things." Heh.
(I also really like the cadence. I reminds me both of the rhythm in The Furies and how we are introduced to John Donnerjack: John D'Arcy Donnerjack loved but once and when he saw the moiré he knew it was over. It just kind of has a fairy tale meter to it.)
Also, let's look at those concepts in order:
Who is Kalifriki? The Kife describes him as "Hammer jawed, high of cheek, dark eyed beneath an oddly sensitive brow, dark hair tied back with a strip of blue cloth." It noted a "slight irregularity to his lower teeth, a small scar beside his right eye, piece of red cloth wrapped about his left wrist." He's strong enough to heft and hurl boulders.
The Thread is a neat concept and a pretty distinctive signature weapon. I like the description we get for it in the beginning of the story.
For the Thread may wander anywhere and need not have an end; the thread has more sides than a sword; the Thread is subtle in its turnings, perhaps infinite in the variations it may play in the labyrinths of doom, destiny, desire. No one, however, can regard every turning of fate from the Valley of Frozen Time. Attempts to do so tend to terminate in madness.
We learn a little more about the Thread in the second story, but I'm going to address it based strictly on what we know from this one.
The impression that immediately sprang to mind, and which I think Zelazny was trying to evoke, is that of the superstring, an object that exists in more dimensions than those the observer is capable of perceiving.
What's a Kife? The Kife is Kalifriki's quarry, a shifter capable of inhabiting other bodies and traversing the side-by-side space, very alien in some ways, but which I found to be very human in its reasoning.
The man, Kalifriki was a hunter, a killer, with the ability to traverse the side-by-side lands. It struck the Kife that the two of them had much in common. But it did not believe the man was of his own kind. That is, he shifted, but the means he employed bore no resemblance to the Kife's own methods.
I liked the flow of the story. Kalifriki completely outclassed the Kife. A Kife has to be killed five times within a year and the first couple of pages are just Kalifriki showing up and killing the shit out of it repeatedly. In Kalifriki, we see an assassin equally at home with dragons as he is with robots.
He follows it to the castle of the Toymakers, where he is hurt in an accident and tended to by the clockwork automata there. Jerobee Clockman is the Master Toymaker, and, while I do find the name a little bit silly, I think it's silly in a way that adds to the fairy tale ambiance of the story.
The whole second half of the story reminds me of something out of Ravenloft, something benign given a 90 degrees twist into the sinister. No point in spoiling the ending, since the story is so short, but I'll say that I really enjoyed it and it left me wanting more.
I mentioned in the beginning of this review that reading it always leaves me feeling a little melancholy. It just feels like Zelazny wasn't done with Kalifriki yet. (He did get a sequel, which I'll be covering next, but that only serves to reinforce the feeling.) I think that if he had had more time, Kalifriki would have grown to be one of his iconic characters, maybe not a Corwin or a Sam, but one of those beloved second-stringers like Dilvish or Nameless, who go on to have a life among fans beyond that which they are given on the page.