Thursday, February 10, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Forever After

I'm not sure if I ever really considered this a Roger Zelazny book (though his contribution here is certainly greater than it was with Flare, where it seems he basically said to Thomas T. Thomas, "Hey, write a book about a solar flare.") The cover pages reads "created by" Roger Zelazny, which reminded me of something my high school sociology teacher said, "If the label on your spaghetti sauce reads 'flavored with meat', it just means they walked a cow past it." So I expected his involvement to be rather minimal.

I don't think that's the case, though. By page count, he wrote over half the book and provided the outlines for the other authors. All right. If it's not a Roger Zelazny book, it's certainly a Roger Zelazny creation, just as it says on the cover, and the prose is certainly influenced by his characteristic style.

This review will SPOIL a plot twist, so read further at your own risk.

I didn't know what to expect. On the inside cover it listed BAEN BOOKS by ROGER ZELAZNY

Forever After, creator
Wizard World
Mask of Loki

And I thought, "Ah, Baen only publishes the shitty ones."

I haven't been able to find a lot online about this book. It seems to have been largely ignored. It was his last project, by all accounts something he enjoyed, written by people who liked and respected him enormously. David Drake's afterward speaks fondly of the process and of Zelazny, saying that "...the real trouble with Forever After for me was that it called for whimsically funny fantasy with a serious core - the sort of thing that Roger Zelazny did better than anyone in the field..."

He used Zelazny's Furies as his stylistic model, saying "It's an extremely funny story on the surface and gut-wrenching just beneath below the surface. To my mind it's one of the best SF stories ever written."

That absolutely nails it. I wish I'd been the one to say that.

Forever After is the story of what happens after the end of the quest. It looks at the question of why the magical artifacts that allowed the heroes to overcome the demigod were always such a pain in the ass to reach, and I thought the answer it gave was reasonable. You don't want them too easily obtained and too many in too close a proximity has a distorting effect on reality itself. So the same heroes who slew Kalaran the demigod now undertake a reverse quest to put the artifacts back where they were found. They're saddled with useless sidekicks, and it's almost as if the prince wants them to fail. We get an account of each hero's quest, followed by a piece by Zelazny covering what's happening in the castle, which is mostly Prince Rango acting mysteriously evil.   Forever After was first published in December of 1995, though I'm pretty sure I didn't read it until after I had played Diablo 2, which had exactly the same plot twist, that of the the conquering hero taken over by the very dark power he had overcome.

The humor is kind of stupid, though I don't mean that as a pejorative. The puns are atrocious. Which is as they should be.

The first story is the longest and the best, Arts & Sciences, the Gar Quithnik story, by Michael Stackpole. Gar Quithnik is the absurdly competent master of hingu. Gar is what we kids growing up in the 80s imaged what ninja were like. He plucks arrows out of the air like summer plums and kills people with his Dim Mak-like kuo-tak death touch ("a touch kills but the death is delayed and can even be triggered by a sight or a sound or a scent.")

Stackpole's descriptions of Gar's prowess are intentionally and ridiculously florid and I thought they were just a riot. Gar was a lieutenant to the bad guy who defected to the side of the angels and was instrumental in their victory. His love for Domino Blaid is unrequited, and he throws himself into his mission with the passionless zeal of a true hingu master.

His companion in this quest is the roly-poly Spido, a specialized sorcerer and alleged hingu-kun himself. They take a detour through Spido's village and hilarity ensues. I think Stackpole does a better job than Drake in blending the serious and the absurd in his particular offering.  I like the passage where Gar kills a saurian "TerribleClaw Fasthunter" (I admit I chuckled at the that. A velociraptor by any other name... )

Gar brought the spear back. His pale eyes have closed and he nodded the salute to the sorian. He knew it would not understand the gesture, but made it because Tian-shi-sheqi demanded it. Then he threw the spear.

I like his description of how Udan Kunn "slithered" into the Viper stance. The story has a wealth of little details and Stackpole must have had a hell of a thesaurus because he always has exactly the right word ready.

The end of this story is moving. As Gar lies battered and broken, he recalls a poem:

Born out of time
to right an ancient wrong
I enter my father's future
familiar distance dawn.
My present become past
fading with the sky
Never to see her again
dead man pass by.

Gar Quithnick, the last Tian-shi-Grashanshao, did not know why those words came to him now or what they meant. He did not know if they were good poetry or bad, but he knew he liked them. As the sun set, and Gelfait faded from the world, he considered Jord's words and reclaimed the peace of Tian-shi-sheqi.

The next story is David Drake's A Very Offensive Weapon. I like Drake's military sci-fi enormously, but his story here  just didn't work for me.  It wasn't bad, it was just overshadowed by the other installments and Zelazny's preludes.

I wasn't looking forward to Robert Asprin's contribution. I really didn't like his Myth series. But Wanted: Guardian was excellent. The wordplay could have come right from Zelazny's pen itself. I don't know if he was making a deliberate attempt to ape Zelazny's style or if this is how he usually writes, but it was a really fun read. Spotty Gulick and his faithful dwarf companion are looking for a place to stash the magical sword Mothganger, and they entreat a dragon to keep it for them. The dragon refuses and they go back and forth until Spotty comes up with an inventive solution.

On page 176 Spotty says of Prince Rango, "He is rightful ruler of this land, both by bloodline and right of conquest."  That's similar enough to Dara's comment in Sign of the Unicorn ("I hold this throne by right of blood and conquest.") that I wonder if Asprin was making a shout out here.(I doubt it, as there are no other instances of dialogue-specific homage in the rest of the book, and the line, while catchy, is generic enough to make coincidence more likely.)

I thought the final story, Jane Lindskold's blandly titled Domino's Tale was the weakest of the lot. Like Gar, Domino is a collection of cliches, but Stackpole piled them on one on top of each other until Gar became something else entirely. Domino isn't written with that same level of ironic self-awareness. Gar is absurd and Stackpole knows it, but he revels in it. I hate to rag on Lindskold, because she's done a lot to get Zelazny's work out there and to shepherd his later projects to completion (and I really do like her work on Donnerjack. A lot.) but I feel that her  story was not very good here, neither especially compelling nor especially funny. On the other hand, you've got to be William Shakespeare to make a character named Dominic Blaid work.

The final part of the book is the Postlude, covering the royal wedding, by which point the four heroes have figured out what is going on and work to get Kalaran out of Prince Rango's body.

I like it. Humor books can be tricky. The author has to strike a balance between telling a story and getting a laugh, and I think they largely succeed here. . As far as comedy collaborations go, I think I rank it somewhere between Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming and A Faust to Be Reckoned With.  If At Faust You Don't Succeed.


  1. JOSH: "I'm not sure if I ever really considered this a Roger Zelazny book (though his contribution here is certainly greater than it was with Flare, where it seems he basically said to Thomas T. Thomas, "Hey, write a book about a solar flare.""

    Actually, if you read the section in the "...And Call Me Roger" biography where I discuss how FLARE came about, you'll see that it's more along the lines of Thomas saying, "Hey, rather than following your outline for this second book as the contract calls for, this time around I want to write a book about a solar flare." And Zelazny said, "OK, and I've got a poem about the Egyptian sun god that we can insert in pieces as section breaks." That about sums up the relative contributions for that book.

    Zelazny had a lot more creative involvement with FOREVER AFTER as you describe, and I think it got ignored because it came out after his death, because it was a "created by" thing which a lot of readers (like me) look at suspiciously if at all, and because it was from that publisher in question...

    We published Zelazny's pieces as one story within The Collected Stories as "Forever After: Preludes and Postludes." So readers don't have to find the original book in order to read his contribution.

    Oh, and it's A FARCE To Be Reckoned With, and If at FAUST You Don't Succeed. I think you're merging the two books into one!

    Chris Kovacs

  2. CK: Oh, and it's A FARCE To Be Reckoned With, and If at FAUST You Don't Succeed. I think you're merging the two books into one!

    Ooops, you're right. Thanks for catching that.

  3. I just finished Forever After, and I've got to agree: Asprin did a GREAT job with the dialogue between Schmirnov and Spotty. It really did sound like stuff Zelazny could have written, and I don't say that often. (As you may recall from my comments in the past, I can be overly sensitive to changes in voice during Zelazny's collaborations.)

    With that in mind, "Domino's Tale" is probably my favorite thing I've read by Jane Lindskold--not necessarily for the story's content, but because of the prose. I just liked the way she put together a sentence better here than I did in LORD DEMON or DONNERJACK, and I can't help but wonder if that's because I didn't have the same jarring juxtaposition with Zelazny's writing here that I did with those books. (There's something to be said for the fact that, in FOREVER AFTER, each author's work is decidedly discrete.)

    I agree that Gar's story was good, though I have to admit I didn't realize at first that this was supposed to be a humor book, which left me rolling my eyes a bit. (That happens to me a lot with fantasy/humor, actually, where I can't tell if the author is trying to make a joke or if they're just writing awful fantasy.) Once I figured things out, though, I quite enjoyed the story.

    The same can't be said for David Drake's "A Very Offensive Weapon," which is sad, because I quite enjoyed his afterword. He says there that he'd never tried doing humorous stuff before, and I think that's (unfortunately) evident in the story. The jokes fell flat for me (strictly a matter of opinion, of course), and it seemed like the story was wandering somewhat aimlessly. I ended up skipping the last 40 pages of it.

    Still, the book was good overall, and I could see myself reading it again some day.

    1. Seems like we're largely in agreement then. I'm really glad I gave this one a chance.

      Also, possibly of interest, Lindskold has another post up at her blog about Zelazny.

    2. On an unrelated note, happy Roger Zelazny Memorial Day. (And I guess Flag Day, too, if you're into that. But the first one is more important.)