Saturday, November 26, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Night Kings

I liked Night Kings a lot as a kid. I like it a lot less as an adult. Specifically, I like it a lot less as an adult in 2011.

Also, I hear the chords to Bob Segar's Night Moves every time I read the title, but that's just me.

It's not a bad story at all. The problem is that it first saw print in 1986, and Zelazny had no way of anticipating the proliferation of urban fantasy as a distinct genre that would rise up in the intervening twenty-five years. I began playing Dungeons & Dragons in the mid-80s. I owe my interest in fantasy and science fiction to role-playing as much as anything else. In 1991, White Wolf launched Vampire: The Masquerade, and followed it with a game where players played werewolves, and then one with magi, ghosts, fairies, demons, mummies, and so on, until it became a crowed place. They all took place in the same world eventually, and the atmosphere was very much a product of the grim & gritty, trenchcoat and katana 90's zeitgeist. (That's not intended as a dig, mind you. There are still elements about the whole deal that I appreciate non-ironically, and given the random stuff about which I write here, I'm hardly in a position to criticize anyone's tastes.) They, in turn, influenced the burgeoning genre, and this story is very understated compared to later works.

The nameless narrator is the proprietor of a specialty shop that sells silver bullets, wolfsbane and the like. He and his assistant Vic are doing a brisk business selling their wares when a hemoholic vampire named Leo arrives at the back door and informs nameless that his opposite number has chosen tonight to finish it.

So our hero closes up shop, and the evil counterpart's apprentice, Sabrina, a green-eyed woman with perfect teeth, arrives to take them to confrontation. (I had wondered if Sabrina and Vic were references to something that I had missed, but the Collected Stories, which I consider the definitive reference work in matters such as these, doesn't mention them as references to anything, so I expect that Zelazny just assigned the names without any particular meaning behind them.)

They banter and begin their duel within the cemetery, calling upon those who represent their side of the conflict. The adversary begins with "Asthtaroth, Beelzebub, Asmodeus, Belial, Leviathan...," and our hero answers with "Newton, Decartes, Faraday, Maxwell, Fermi...,"

It's probably that bit and those that follow that inspired me to write this post about the story, because it reminds me of a similar piece in one of my favorite books, A Wrinkle in Time, in which the characters are talking about humans who have opposed the darkness.

"Who have our fighters been?" Calvin asked.

"Oh, you must know them, dear," Mrs. Whatsit said.

Mrs. Who's spectacles shone out at them triumphantly, "A
nd the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not."

"Jesus!" Charles Wallace said. "Why of course, Jesus!"

"Of course!" Mrs. Whatsit said. "Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They've been lights for us to see by."

"Leonardo da Vinci?" Calvin suggested tentatively. "And Michelangelo?"

"And Shakespeare," Charles Wallace called out, "and Bach! And Pasteur and Madame Curie and Einstein!"

Now Calvin's voice rang with confidence. "And Schweitzer and Gandhi and Buddha and Beethoven and Rembrandt and St. Francis!"

What can I say? I like the sentiment of poets and scientists and humanitarians as the champions of humanity.

The fight goes on, the hero has the upper hand, but the cock crows and the adversary vanishes before the hero can dispatch him.

It's a trifle of a story, but I'm sentimental about it for the above reasons. It's not a bad story, but compared to the contemporary fantasy works that would come later, it's rather vanilla. I have no doubt that had the genre been more firmly entrenched, Zelazny would have put a kickass spin on the modern urban fantasy story. But it just didn't exist, and a genre has to be established before it can be deconstructed.

1 comment:

  1. "compared to the .. works that would come later ..." You're looking at this backward. Zelazny's collection and melding of cliches and tropes could well be the INSPIRATION for half of the urban fantasy that came later. It's like complaining that an old movie has old-fashioned graphics, or that "Casablanca" is in black-and-white.