Friday, January 17, 2014

Roger Zelazny Book Review: But Not the Herald

It's been a while since I've written a proper Zelazny review.

And it seems like all of my latest Zelazny reviews open with a variation on that sentiment. Heh.

I had to check to see if had already written this one. This story always fails to make an impression on me. Reading it is like talking to the Nameless God in Neil Gaiman's American Gods. I can read it and then be unable to tell you the first thing about it, five minutes later.

(Amusingly, I googled the title while doing some research and came across someone's comment on the Facebook wall of their local newspaper, complaining that coupons had been left out of the paper: that story still doesn't explain why all the other newspapers got the coupons on sunday but not the herald.)

I don't think I would have written this review at all, save for the fact that it was written on Zelazny's blackest night, along with two of his most passionate and moving reflections on grief and loss, Divine Madness, and Comes Now the Power.

But Not the Herald is the Teddy Roosevelt on Mount Rushmore, admirable and respectable, but lacking the legendary status of its peers.

Now, I like the story. I don't want to make it seem as if I don't. Consider the opening.

As the old man came down from the mountain, carrying the box, walking along the trail that led to the sea, he stopped, to lean upon his staff, to watch the group of men who were busy burning their neighbor's home. 
"Tell me, man," he asked one of them, "why do you burn your neighbor's home, which, I now note from the barking and the screaming, still contains your neighbor, as well as his dog, wife, and children?" 
"Why should we not burn it?" asked the man. "He is a foreigner from across the desert, and he looks different from the rest of us. This also applies to his dog, who looks different from our dogs and barks with a foreign accent, and his wife, who is prettier than our wives and speaks with a foreign accent, and his children, who are cleverer than ours, and speak like their parents." 
"I see," said the old man, and he continued on his way.

I like that bit about the dog. This story reminds me a bit of Youth Eternal, which I first read in Threshold, the first of NEFSA's Collected Stories. (I'd like to review that one, but I can't figure how to cover a two page story that's almost entirely dependent on its twist.)

Our old man continues, sees people being jerks to each other and it accosted by muggers as he comes upon them burying the body of their victim.

The old man continued on his way to the sea, coming after a time upon two men who were digging a grave for a third who lay dead. 
"It is a holy office to bury the dead," he remarked. 
"Aye," said one of the men, "especially if you have slain him yourself and are hiding the evidence." 
"You have slain that man? Whatever for?" 
"Next to nothing, curse the luck!"

I like the story, with its cheerfully immoral parade of criminals. Disappointed with their earlier haul, these muggers take the box the old man carries, but he cautions them not to open it.

I am a Pantera's box you do not want to open.

They do anyway, and Hope, a winged creature with an infinitely delicate and pathetic voice, flies to the dark corners of the Earth.

When the two murderers turned again to the old man, he was changed: For now his beard was gone, and he stood before them a powerful youth. Two serpents were coiled about his staff. 
"Even the gods could not prevent it," he said. "You have brought this ill upon yourselves, by your own doing. Remember that, when bright Hope turns to dust in your hands." 
"Nay," said they, "for another traveler approaches now, and he wears a mighty purse upon him. We shall retire on this day's takings." 
"Fools!" said the youth, and he turned on winged heels and vanished up the path, greeting Hercules as he passed him by.
I think its biggest weakness is that, like Youth Eternal, it's too reliant on the twist for its impact. Nevertheless, it's a fine story, and it has the sly humor and mythological references one expects from Zelazny's work.

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