Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: The Black Throne

I meant to review The Black Throne earlier, but I had a hard time finding the copy I was annotating on my trip back from Florida. I made some notes, and then I promptly misplaced the book. I did a little brushing up on Poe (My knowledge of his works is sadly limited to some long ago AP English classes.) I found the book a couple days ago and then lost it almost immediately thereafter.

Zelazny clearly liked Poe enough to take a line from one of his poem for one of his stories. (A Night in the Lonesome October. It's taken from Poe's Ulalume). Poe also appears as a character in Psychoshop, but in the part that Bester wrote.

At its heart, it's the story of three friends who meet as children - Annie, a girl possessed of powerful mesmeric abilities  and two versions of the same boy,  Edgar Allan Poe and Edgar Perry. I thought that was kind of clever, because though I'm by no means any kind of Poe expert, I knew enough that he had used the name Edgar Perry when enlisting in the Army.

Years, later when all three are adults, Annie is kidnapped. In order to take her from her world,  Poe and Perry must be exchanged in accordance with a Changeling-like cosmic balance.

There are some notable differences between the two worlds. The first is that people from our world have profound resistance to the intoxicating effects of alcohol and the mesmeric forces that exist in the other world. I liked this. It's not a trope often used in SF, where our world is clearly the stronger one, and it's a consistantly maintained theme throughout the book, which serves greatly to enhance the sense of place.

Perry is by now a a sergeant in the Army and he is recruited by a man with the awesome name of Seabright Harrison. It's a shame that I don't have the book handy, because Harrison's explanation of his motives is a scene I really enjoyed. Perry notices that Harrison is clearly very wealthy and observes that his motivation must be love or revenge. Harrison corrects him, saying that with Annie, the kidnappers can generate enough gold to devalue his investments, and that his financial interests dovetail neatly with Perry's own personal ones.

Perry is an enjoyable protagonist, and I think it's the presence of Saberhagen that prevents him from becoming as sardonic as most of Zelazny's characters. And I like the Zelazny Archetype, but it's a nice change of pace to see someone a little different in what's otherwise a Zelazny story.

Several of Poe's better known characters assist him in this quest, among them the dead man M. Ernest Valdema, the enchanting Ligeia, who has mesmeric powers of her own, the gentleman detective C. Auguste Dupin, a certain orangutan, a certain raven and Marie Roget. And this is both the book's strength and its weakness. We occasionally switch over to Poe's perspective in our world. He has taken Perry's place, and as he has the sensitive constitution of those of the other earth, he quickly succumbs to alcoholism. He is still linked to Perry in some manner, however, and has dreams of his counterpart's adventures and writes them down, thereby producing the stories for which Poe is known.

I liked Coils, their earlier collaboration. The Black Throne starts out promising, but then it just seems to descend into a mishmash of Poe's greatest hits. I'm certainly guilty of this. For my online RPG, I stole just about every element of Zelazny that wasn't bolted down. (We had a story arc where the reinforcements from Avalon were instrumental in closing the Gateway in the Great Game. And it was AWESOME!)

My big complaint about it is that the authors don't make much of an attempt to provide a framework for the story. First we're swimming in allusions to Poe; then we're drowning in them. After a clever gambit to get him there, the authors just have Perry lurch from one Poe story to the next. Valdemar was a unique character quite unlike anything else in fiction...unless you count his earlier appearance in "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar". The ending is not great. (Rocks Fall, just about everybody dies. Ooops, spoilers.)

It has its moments. The use of the language of the time, specifically,  "incarnadined" does an excellent job as establishing it as a period piece. I knew enough about Poe's works to have some fun playing, "Hey, identify that reference!" I think the best thing about the story is that it inspired me to read more of Poe's works.


  1. I've always found Zelazny's collaborations to be hugely hit or miss, often erring towards the latter, so for me Black Throne is a standout. (I much prefer it to Coils). I'll grant that it's only fully enjoyable if you've read a LOT of Poe, but with that caveat, the sea of references actually becomes its most engaging feature, a la the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Kim Newman's unfairly obscure Anno Dracula series. The high point is definitely the Red Death / Amontillado / King Pest sequence. As a very literal swashbuckler, it's enormous fun... though admittedly, the ending doesn't amount to much more than a quick wrap up.

  2. I find it interesting how fans of one authors work can completely disagree about which are the better or more enjoyable works. It's all subjective. For my part, I tend to agree with Josh on this one. I liked Coils and found The Black Throne to be a disappointing mishmash of Poe references and plot fragments. But as I've found with other books by other authors, sometimes a book I disliked on first reading is actually very enjoyable on second reading. Yet in the case of The Black Throne I've read it two or three times and still don't like it.

    Chris Kovacs

  3. Chris DeVito sez . . .

    I haven't read Black Throne yet so can't compare it to the other Saberhagen collaboration, but it's not surprising that fans have their favorites. The most obvious example with Zelazny is the Amberphiles, at least some of whom don't seem to have much use for anything else Zelazny wrote (judging from the reviews on Amazon).