Saturday, December 25, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Donnerjack, part one: All Patience

In our world, called the Verité, he is a Scottish laird, an engineer, and a master of virtual reality design. In the computer-generated universe of Virtù, created by the crash of the World Net, he is a living legend. Scientist and poet with a warrior's soul, Donnerjack strides like a giant across the virtual landscape he helped to shape. And now he has bargained with Death himself for the return of love...

I'd been reluctant to review Donnerjack because I think it will mark the last of my favorites. I mean, I like just about everything Zelazny has written, but there are some that I just adore and Donnerjack is right up there.You'll see that I gave it a better grade than A Rose for Ecclesiastes, something that will get me lynched by other Zelazny fans, but there it is.

I've never encountered a fan of the book. I was talking to a science fiction author who says that Nine Princes in Amber is his favorite book, and who told me how influential Zelazny was on his style. As of four years ago, he said he hadn't read the book, but that he'd probably get around to it some day. That's the kind of tepid response it seems to engender.

I picked it up because we were flying to the UK and I wanted a long book to read on the plane. I'd been burned by the other book posthumously completed by Jane Lindskold, (Lord Demon), but figured I'd take a chance on Donnerjack.  It's huge for a Zelazny book, but that's because it was originally supposed to be a trilogy.

I bought it at a Barnes & Noble, though I was shopping on eBay for a used copy. I noticed that somebody was auctioning an autographed copy, which was a neat trick. (The auction explained that Zelazny had autographed a sticker, which was later placed inside the book.) I went from being open to the book to mild interest, to incredible excitement in the first chapter.

I love it. I think it's the best thing he's written in thirty years. I even like the photo on the back of the hardcover!

Oh, man, where to start?!

The opening lines are as good as any he has ever written:

In Deep Fields he dwelled, though his presence extended beyond that place through Virtù. He was, in a highly specialized sense, the Lord of Everything, though others might lay claim to that title for different reasons. His claim was as valid as any, however, for his dominion was an undeniable fact of existence...He could assume any form, male or female, go where he would, but he always returned to his black-cloaked, hooded garb over an amazing slimness, flashes of white within the shadows he also wore...There was no other like him in all of creation. Known by thousands of names and euphemisms, his most common appellation was Death.

The story begins when Death is wandering Deep Fields, and one of his servants, a black butterfly named Alioth, informs him of intruders. (My wife tells me that all of Death's servants,  Mizar, Alioth, Phecda and Dubhe are all names of stars in the Big Dipper.)

"What desecration is this?'' Death inquired, raising his arms, his shadow flowing toward them. "You dare to invade my realm?"

The one with the sack straightened and the man dropped the light, which went out instantly. A great babble of voices and strident sounds filled the air as if in synchrony with Death's ire. There came a small golden flicker from within the trench as his shadow reached it.

Then a gate opened, and the figures passed through it, just before the shadow flooded the trench with blackness.

I really liked that passage above. It reminded me of when Jack escaped from the Lord of Bats.

[Death] "Yet all patience is but an imitation of my ways, and even in the highest realms I am not unknown."

Dubhe sprang to his shoulder and settled there as Death rose up out of the trench.

"I believe that someone has just begun a game," Death said as he headed across Deep Fields through a meadow of blackest grass, black poppies swaying at the passage of his cloak, "and, next to music, they have invoked a pastime for which I have the highest regard. It is long, Dubhe, since I have been given a good game. I shall respond to their opening as none might expect, and we will try each others' patience. Then, one day, they will learn that I am always in the right place at the proper time."

I love that line. "All patience is but an imitation of my ways." Death is mythic, man! I was talking with a friend a few years back, and he was big into heavy metal music. He said that Iron Maiden had come under fire for their album Number of the Beast, but they denied any kind of occult influence, with Bruce Dickinson saying  "Metal isn't the type of music where you talk about prancing in the tulips.  It is epic music where you talk about epic battles like God and Satan."

I was never huge into metal, but I've got to respect that. Roger Zelazny set up an epic here, and he succeeded brilliantly.

After the scene in Deep Fields, we meet the title character of the book,

John D'Arcy Donnerjack loved but once and when he saw the moiré he knew it was over.

I love that too. The rhythm of that sentence sets the scene well and makes us feel like we're in a fairy tale. Virtù is, as the name suggests, a virtual world. Some time ago, the Internet crashed for a short time, and when it came back up, it was completely different. There had been hundreds of virtual years of warfare and evolution among the programs, even though little time had based in Verité. This event was called the Genesis Scramble.
Donnerjack had thought his love was a real woman projecting into Virtù, but when he sees the distortion effect of a moiré, which precedes the failure of a program, he realizes that she is not. This in no way diminishes his feelings for her, however, and he resolves to enter Deep Fields and bargain with Death himself for her return.

(Ayradyss is similar enough to Eurydice that I have to assume that that was intentional, considering they're both led out of their respective underworlds. Also, Donnerjack plays Politian's Orfeo for Death, which is an opera of the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.)

"I know you, John D'Arcy Donnerjack. I am an admirer of your work. I am especially fond of the delightful fantasy of the afterlife you designed based on Dante's Inferno."

"The critics liked it, but the public proved somewhat less than enthusiastic."

"It is generally that way with my work, also."

Donnerjack stared, not certain of how to respond until Death chuckled.

The conversation continues. Death offers to release Ayradyss in Verité rather than in Virtù, but Donnerjack doesn't believe it possible.

"If I am to violate one law of existance for you, why not another?"

"But the principles which govern this place would not permit it. There is no way to manage the 'visit' effect permanently, fully either way."

"And if there were?"

"I have made a lifetime study of this."

"A life is a shallow place in time."


"Do you think me a proge-generated simulacrum? Some toy of human imagination? I came into being when the first living thing died, and I will not say where or when that was. Neither man nor machine ever wrote a program for me."

Donnerjack drew back as a moiré flowed between them.

"You make it sound as if you really are Death."

The only reply was the continuing smile.

Death's price for her return is construction of a palace, and Donnerjack and Ayradyss's firstborn. Donnerjack agrees pretty readily, which is really, kind of stupid. Has he never read a fairy tale at all? I mean, or even fucking heard of one? Because that whole firstborn thing is really pretty boilerplate. He's not convinced that what Death is what he claims to be so, he agrees to the terms right away, because he doesn't think that there is any chance of a child resulting from their union, and this causes some trouble down the line. But, as Faust said, if one imaginary thing exists, then all imaginary things must exist. Meaning, if you're dealing with a creature thought to be impossible, and he asks for your firstborn and you say "sure!" because you think that's impossible too, well, maybe you could have stood to be more prudent.

Slowly, other characters are introduced. I'll expand on them later in the second part of this review, but the big ones are Arthur Eden, "tall, very black, his beard shot with gray, heavily muscled in the manner of an athlete somewhat past his prime, which he was -- was a professor of Anthropology at Columbia's Verité campus." I like how Zelazny just offers up "Verité campus" too, with the reader being left to infer that there are campuses that exist only in Virtù. Also, Zelazny didn't write a huge amount of African American characters, so it's nice to see one here. He's going under cover to research a church that has sprung up out of Virtù, whose adherents sometimes seem to manifest special powers.

We also meet Tranto the phant, a rogue elephant proge and the unfortunately named Sayjak of the People (could you come up with a name that doesn't make me think of Wheel of Fortune?), as well Lydia Hazzard, a teenage girl with jungle green eyes.

It's fantastically complex, and there is a hell of a lot going on. The bit above is just from the first chapter and a half. In some ways, I think it's Zelazny's most ambitious work and in some ways I think it's better even than Lord of Light.

Okay, that was just laying the ground work. I'll be back in another day or two for the second part of this review.


  1. Okay, you've convinced me to take another shot at it. Years ago, I checked it out of the library, spent 15 minutes reading the first few pages, and set it aside as unreadable -- Lindskold doing a poor pastiche of Zelazny's prose (her Lin Carter to Zelazny's Robert E. Howard?). I'll give it a fairer shot this time around.

  2. It's one of my real favorites. Perhaps I'm a little more sentimental about it than I would be otherwise, because reading it, I knew that was it, that we wouldn't get anything more after this. (Though I suppose we did, after a fashion, with the Dead Man's Brother.)

  3. I have good news and bad news, Josh.

    The good news: I started reading _Donnerjack_ recently and instantly fell in love with it. I'd gone in knowing nothing about the book (not even the premise), which made it a real delight, because I had to figure out for myself what the heck was going on. There are so many interesting, highly imaginative settings and characters and concepts. So good!

    The bad news: I've gotten to the point where Lindskold took over and I absolutely hate the book now. Seriously, I can't read more than about 2 pages without getting angry and slamming the book down. This is _Lord Demon_ all over again. What a tragic, colossal disappointment--it hurts my heart to know that this book had such great potential, and yet it's all coming apart before my very eyes.

    1. About when do you figure that point to be? How far have you gotten?

    2. I think the whole first "book" was written by Roger, with some possibly editing exceptions (there was one point where I thought Lindskold had taken over because Roger got a sudden love for parenthetical comments, but then it quickly got back to his voice).

      Then, somewhere early in the second book (maybe after Donnerjack's death? I'd have to look again to see if I could pinpoint the exact spot), the characters just start talking differently and doing very Lindskoldy things: explaining to us things that are better left a mystery, pausing for a laugh, etc.

      As of right now, my despair isn't as strong as it was last night (I'm now able to read more than a few pages at a time), so I'm hoping I'll still be able to finish the book. But, yikes--that contrast of styles is hard for me to get past.

    3. I believe you are mistaken. I wish any Zelazny fan would make a point of reading the biography because many FAQs like this are addressed. But here are two pertinent sections from part 6 of the "...And Call Me Roger" biography, which is in volume 6 of THE COLLECTED STORIES OF ROGER ZELAZNY:

      Scattered sections of the novel’s first half
      are identical to portions of the hand-written manuscript residing in
      the Zelazny Archives at Syracuse University.

      After Donnerjack’s publication, readers pressed Lindskold—sometimes
      rudely—to pinpoint exactly where she took over. Some of them
      “knew” the precise location by a perceived change in style. Lindskold
      has declined to answer. Some readers declared that the break point must
      have been when John D’Arcy Donnerjack, Sr., abruptly died, believing
      it unlikely that Zelazny would kill him off. But Zelazny’s handwritten
      sketch of the trilogy shows that Donnerjack, Sr. would die exactly as
      described, and the story would then focus on his son. Author William
      Sanders, who knew Zelazny and Lindskold quite well and had firsthand
      information about the book’s creation, said, “Jane boldly disassembled
      Roger’s beginning chapters and rearranged the whole structure
      of the novel. This is another reason it is so hard to tell who wrote what;
      Roger’s original text is not printed as an integral whole but is distributed
      in hunks and chunks through the present book. More boldly still, she
      completely rewrote certain parts and threw out bits that didn’t work.
      She acted, that is, as a genuine collaborator, not just a posthumous
      amanuensis—which was exactly what Roger had asked her to do.”

      Only Lindskold knows for certain. But the comments about what is in the archives are based on what I saw and read there. I kept copies of that material too.

    4. I haven't returned to Donnerjack since I wrote this piece, partially because I'm concerned that I won't like it as much.

      I reread my posts on it, and found that my feelings were largely unchanged about it. I would have liked to have known a little more about who wrote what, but Lindskold has chosen not to discuss it, and we have to respect that.

      I had a vague recollection of reading what Chris posted and would have probably gotten around to looking it up, but he saved me the trouble.

    5. Chris:

      I actually did read the biography on _Donnerjack_, but that doesn't change what I said. I'm in no way questioning whether or not Donnerjack's death was planned by Zelazny. All I'm saying is that, since that point in the story, the voice has seldom (if ever) sounded like Roger's.

      Anyway, we can talk about Roger's "hunks and chunks" sprinkled throughout the story all we want, but the fact of the matter is this: he didn't write the entire book. Jane filled in much of it. And that means that, eventually, a reader will end up in sections which Roger did not write at *all*. (Even if he did plot out those sections. And it's not the plotting I'm complaining about.)

      I don't mean to be Lindskold-bashing, but I really like Zelazny's voice and I'm not a huge fan of some of the decisions that appear to be hers. You, Chris, should know as well as anyone that when Roger was having troubles selling stories, he sat back, looked at all his creations and asked himself, "What am I doing wrong?" He decided that he was over-explaining things, and from that point forth vowed never to do so again. So, forgive me if I come across a part of the book where things are explained in eye-rollingly-severe detail and I assume it wasn't Roger who wrote them. (I just hit a particularly bad instance on pages 240-241, if you want to see what I'm talking about.)

      So, yes, I read the _Donnerjack_ excerpt in the biography. And I'm sure everything you said there is probably true. (You are, after all, the resident authority on such matters.) However, it doesn't change my opinion on this subject. There may not be a definitive point where authorship of the book changed hands and never changed back, but the fact remains that Lindskold wrote a lot of this book. And even if I can't discern ownership of every single excerpt, there are definitely some that I can't possibly see belonging to Zelazny, and those are the ones that bother me.

  4. What I was responding to were your two statements:

    "I've gotten to the point where Lindskold took over and I absolutely hate the book now"


    "I think the whole first "book" was written by Roger, with some possibly editing exceptions...Then, somewhere early in the second book (maybe after Donnerjack's death? I'd have to look again to see if I could pinpoint the exact spot), the characters just start talking differently and doing very Lindskoldy things..."

    As I tried to point out in the comments I excerpted from the biography, Zelazny's text is not confined to the "first book" prior to Donnerjack, Sr's death. His text is in chunks throughout the book. And to be clear, I have copies of portions of the original manuscript which are in his handwriting, so I can accurately confirm examples of pure Zelazny text, and some of that is what people have claimed to be Lindskold's.

    In my remarks I didn't make or intend to imply anything about the quality of the book or the writing. But since you ask: Zelazny was not well during much of the time that he worked on Donnerjack and Lord Demon. I've read Donnerjack a couple of times and I remember experiencing moments of pure Zelazny intermixed with other moments that were not as well written or plotted. I resisted trying to identify who wrote what, but when I experienced a pure Zelazny moment in the writing I generally assumed, rightly or wrongly, that Zelazny wrote it. The less well written text may have been from Zelazny during his sicker days, or maybe it was from Lindskold; I don't know. I approached the book with lower expectations (I do so with any collaboration involving one of my favorite authors), and with those lower expectations I did enjoy it each time. But it went on too long... It was, after all, supposed to be a trilogy, but got compressed into a single long book.

    My main point remains that the impression that Zelazny wrote up to point X in the book and then Lindskold took over is incorrect. It's not that linear. But on the other hand, if you were to say something such as the first third or half of the book contains the largest percentage of Zelazny's own words and the last third or half contains the smallest percentage, I would not argue with that, I would hazard to say that it is probably correct.

    1. Chris,

      Okay, I think we're on the same page now. Yes, I'm sure there are parts in the latter half/two-thirds of the book that Zelazny wrote, but I feel like a larger percentage of the stuff I'm starting to read is Lindskold's. And it's entirely possible that when I read a part written by Roger, I don't really notice it; whereas, when I read something that's (presumably) by Lindskold, it really stands out in my mind.

      Then again, I'm kind of a critical person to begin with: whenever I give a review of something, I generally get caught up on the things I _didn't_ like more than the things I _did_. So it's possible that these non-Roger parts (or, once again: "presumably" non-Roger parts) aren't as big a deal for the average person when they step back and look at the big picture. But apparently I'm not the average person (in a bad way), so I'm letting certain sections of the book negatively affect me more than I should.

      That being said, I'll repeat: I really liked _Donnerjack_ when I first started reading it. And as you may have noticed, between my first and second comments on this page, I went from "hate the book now" to "my despair isn't as strong as it was." So, things are getting better, I guess. I'm still interested in what's going on, for sure--I just don't always like the way the characters and prose are being handled.

      ANYWAY, I kinda regret getting this whole conversation started in the first place, because Josh's blog is here to honor Zelazny's memory, and here I am dumping on one of his works. So, uh . . . can we all just forgot what a jerk I've been and go back to being friends? After all, it's Easter, and bunnies are the reason for the season. Or whatever.

    2. Zach: ANYWAY, I kinda regret getting this whole conversation started in the first place, because Josh's blog is here to honor Zelazny's memory, and here I am dumping on one of his works. So, uh . . . can we all just forgot what a jerk I've been and go back to being friends? After all, it's Easter, and bunnies are the reason for the season. Or whatever.

      If I were doing this whole thing over again, I think I would have two entirely separate blogs, with no overlap between them. One for the Zelazny commentary and the other for the my daughter is cute/the Easter Bunny brought us Legos/Josh sure watches a lot of cartoons for a grown man entries.

      I try to keep the Zelazny posts discrete from the other stuff. And while I can meander a bit within the post the chosen topic, I generally do stick to reviews of Zelazny's stories or closely related stuff (like the Amber RPG or computer game) FOR the topic of a post. Lindskold is a talented writer, but her works lack the same appeal for me that Zelazny's works hold. Her works aren't my cup of tea, so she's generally almost entirely outside the scope of the Zelazny posts.

      To say nothing of the fact that I review the stories against other stories by Roger Zelazny. His works are the gold standard, so I'd essentially be dismissing Lindskold because she couldn't write a Roger Zelazny story as well as Zelazny himself, and that's not fair to her.

      It gets tricky in situations like this, though. As you guys have each mentioned, there are a lot of factors at work. I happen to love the novel, warts and all. One of the comments earlier in the thread mentions that it reads like a Zelazny pastiche, and part of the reason that I like it is *because* of that. It was one of the last full length works I read, so I was familiar with his other stuff by then, and the stuff that others have called "pastiche" struck me more as a tribute to a great man's career.

      I might not interested in reading Lindskold's other books, but she has a lifetime of goodwill from me for her work on Donnerjack.

  5. After spending a weekend listening to bagpipes and seeing kilts at the local Highland Games, I developed an urge to re-read Donnerjack.

    I might have to get on that soon!

    1. Heh. The trick to enjoying Donnerjack is to read Lord Demon first, in order to get your expectations as low as possible.