Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Knight of Shadows

Whatever problems the I have with the Merlin books, it's not with how they begin.  They generally start off well, and I have to admit, I think that the first couple chapters of this book are really good. Jasra's enslavement of Sharu was vividly described and plenty neat. The meal with Merlin, Mandor and Jasra is moves briskly and is as entertaining as anything else in the Corwin series.  And it even does a convincing job of selling the illusion that everything that had gone before was more than stuff happening for no reason; that events really were part of a coherent narrative if you knew what was going on behind the scenes. For the record, I don't think that's the case; but this exposition is a serviceable fig leaf and I'm willing to buy into it.

It introduces some neat stuff to the mythology of Amber. Take the Broken Pattern, for instance. Zelazny tells us enough to intrigue, but not so much as to spoil the magic.

"In the Way of the Broken Pattern," she explained, "you enter through the imperfection and make your way to the center."

"How can you follow the lines if they are broken or imperfect? The real Pattern would destroy you if you departed the design."

"You don't follow the lines. You follow the interstices," she said.

"And when you emerge . . . wherever?" I asked.

"You bear the image of the Broken Pattern within you."

"And how do you conjure with this?"

"Through the imperfection. You summon the image, and it is like a dark well from which you draw power."

Probably the real reason that I like it is that Merlin doesn't talk all that much. But the exchange below is pretty neat, and it's nice to read some dialogue that really sounds like it was written by Roger Zelazny.

"Basing my conclusions concerning this remarkable tale solely upon my experience of human nature," Mandor suddenly observed, "I would say that she wished to test her talons as well as her wings. I'd guess she went back and challenged her former master-this Victor Melman-and fought a sorcerous duel with him."

I heard Jasra's intake of breath.

"Is that truly only a guess?" she asked.

"Truly," he answered, swirling his wine in his goblet.

"And I would guess further that you had  once done something  similar with your own teacher."

"What devil told you that?" she asked.

"It  is  only a guess that Sharu was your teacher-and perhaps more than that," he said. "But it would explain both your acquisition of  this  place and  your ability to catch its former lord off guard. He might even have had a stray moment before his defeat for a wishful curse that the  same fate attend you one day. And even if not, these things do sometimes have a way of running full circle with people in our trade."

She chuckled.

"The  devil called Reason, then," she said, a note of admiration in her voice. "Yet you summon him by intuition, which makes it an art."

Unfortunately, after this section, the story segues directly into undershadow, which, for my money is the worst part of the Amber books. And it goes on FOREVER!

While in undershadow, Merlin outwits Brand and outfights Lord Borel. He intimidates the Pattern. If the series had gone on much longer, I'm sure he would have outwrestled Gerard while being more beautiful than Flora. Ghost Jurt sacrifices himself to save Merlin, making him the second person to do this in the series (though he still got a better deal than the "Just-let me-sink here. G'bye..."  woman back in Trumps of Doom, some totally innocent women bodyjacked by the ty'iga to save Merlin from his own stupidity,  which has to be one of the all time shitty ways to go)

And don't get me started on Coral. Apparently her fondest wish was to have sex with Merlin. Women want him, men want to be him!

"Coral?" I tried again.

"Mm," she said.

"Seems the only way we can get out of here is by making love."

"Thought you'd never ask," she mumbled, eyes still closed.

After Merlin does the deed WITH HIS AUNT, he returns to the castle in Amber, where Nayda steals the Jewel of Judgment, which she refers to as the Eye of the Serpent.

I was the next thing out into the hallway. I turned  left  and  started running. A ty'iga may be fast, but so am I.

"I thought you were supposed to be protecting me!" I shouted after her.

"This takes precedence," she answered, "over your mother's binding."

"What?" I said. "My mother?"

"She placed me under a geas to take care of you when you went off to school," she replied. "This breaks it! Free at last!"

I kind of like this. It's left vague, but the way I chose to interpret it is that the caster who lays a geas upon a demon must offer it a way to abrogate the contract, even if the likelihood of fulfilling the alternate condition is vanishingly small. (I suppose I got the idea from A Night in the Lonesome October, where Jack says "There must always be a small, even if only symbolic, exit open to a sacrifice in this.") Nothing in the text really supports this interpretation, but nor is there anything to contradict it, so I'm going with that as my personal canon, because I think it makes the story slightly cooler. And unfortunately, by this point, the story is in desperate need of something to make it cooler. Take, for instance, this standoff between Ghostwheel, the Pattern and the Logrus:

"But neither of you will  do  it,"  Ghost  answered,  "because  such a focusing of your attention and energies would leave either of you vulnerable to the other."

In my mind, I heard Dworkin chuckle.

"Tell me why this confrontation need take place at all," Ghost went on, "after all this time."

"The balance was tipped against me by recent actions of this turncoat," the Logrus  replied-a  burst  of fire occurring above my head, presumably to demonstrate the identity of the turncoat in question.

I smelled burning hair, and I warded the flame.

"Just a minute!" I cried. "I wasn't given much choice in the matter!"

"But there was a choice," wailed the Logrus, "and you made it."

"Indeed, he did," responded the Pattern. "But it served only to redress the balance you'd tipped in your own favor."

"Redress? You overcompensated! Now it's tipped in your favor!  Besides, it  was  accidentally  tipped  my  way,  by  the  traitor's father." Another fireball followed, and I warded again. "It was not my doing."

Good Lord. Is that the best voice he could come up for these ancient, alien things? They predate most of reality and they talk like bickering five-year-olds. Sounds like somebody's getting a Time Out when this is all through, that's for sure!

(On the other hand, as much as I dislike the book, I think it's awesome that Zelazny said that he demolished the bedrooms because he didn't feel like being constrained by the maps in the Visual Guide.)

After the fight, Merlin stumbles on the spikard, though we don't call it that yet.

The  band  was  wide, possibly of platinum. It bore a wheellike device of some reddish metal, with countless tiny spokes, many  of them  hair-fine.  And  each of these spokes extended a line of power leading off somewhere, quite possibly into Shadow, where some power cache  of  spell source  lay.  Perhaps Luke would rather have the ring than the sword. When I slipped it on, it seemed to extend roots to the very center of  my  body.  I could  feel  my  way  back  along  them to the ring and then out along those connections. I was impressed by the  variety  of  energies  it  reached  and controlled-from simple  chthonic forces to sophisticated constructs of High Magic, from elementals to  things  that  seemed like lobotomized  gods.  I wondered why he hadn't been wearing it on the day of the Patternfall battle. If  he  had, I'd a feeling he might have been truly invincible. We could all have been living on Brandenberg is Castle Brand.

Just like in Sign of Chaos, we end the book with a big magical brawl. This one is even more over the top than the last. The phrase that leaps to mind is "comic-booky", but that's not a pejorative for me, so I kind of liked it, even if it moves the conception of magic even further away from the understated incantation in Thari that it was in the Corwin books.

I can't help but feel sorry for Jurt here. For his entire lifetime, he's been losing to Merlin through absurdly bad luck. Right after his bath in the Font of Power, Merlin blunders into an even greater source of power. I think I'd wind up a little crazy too.


  1. I'm probably trying to create something out of nothing here, but I'm going to say it anyway, just in case I'm on to something BIG. (Which I'm almost certainly not.)

    In KNIGHT OF SHADOWS, toward the end of chapter 11, there's a huge paragraph in which Merlin finds the spikard. At one point he says, "I was impressed by the variety of energies it reached and controlled--from simple chthonic forces to sophisticated constructs of High Magic, from elementals to things that seemed like lobotomized gods."

    So . . . does anyone think those last two words may have been a reference to Kali? Because that's how I'm choosing to interpret it, and you can't stop me.

    1. That wasn't how I interpreted it, as a lobotomy is a specific medical procedure. And while it's used colloquially/misused as often as not, but, to me, "lobotomized" implies a deliberate intent that wasn't present with the transference that left Kali with brain damage.

      It made me think of two things, though.

      1.) I wrote, but never posted, a review of Sucker Punch, which is all about lobotomies. It appeared in slightly different form at Geek Speak, but I composed it here, and it's been hanging out as a draft forever.

      2.) I was thinking about the times Zelazny does specifically mention lobotomies and the two instances that leapt immediately to mind were from Roadmarks, where Red tells John Sunlight that Doc Savage is coming to give John an icepick lobotomy, and in Love is an Imaginary Number:

      "I pleaded with them to give you a chance at peace, but you threw that gift in my face."
      "The peace of the eunuch; the peace of lobotomy, lotus and Thorazine," I said. "No, better they work their wills upon me and let their truth give forth its lies as they do."

      I think NESFA's next project should be a Roger Zelazny concordance, that tracks this kind of thing. That our an Annotated Amber. I'd read the hell out of that.