Jack of Shadows

zelaznyThe Short Version: On a tidally locked world where technology rules the Day and magic the Night, one man – know as Jack, among other things – seeks revenge for a series of slights in a vendetta that will lead him across the entire planet, passing between worlds that might as well be in a different universe.

The Review: I fell for Roger Zelazny last fall when I read A Night in the Lonesome October. Playful, inventive, full of imagination – I had the sense of Zelazny as a titan of SFF whose work I’d been missing all these years, one whose name had never even crossed my radar before I saw the curious green spine at The Strand. When I saw that Chicago Review Press had reissued another of his novels, I nabbed it immediately, thinking, “I’m going to need a little more time before I attempt The Amber Chronicles, so why not see what else he’s got?”

And at the outset, this book promises more fantastic invention. The cold open, as it were, sees this mysterious character of Jack captured and killed as he attempts to steal a beautiful artifact. He promises shadowy retribution and gets axed, leading to a beautiful depiction of the passage of time:

Fine lines of light traced in the blackness – white, silver, blue, yellow,red – mainly straight, but sometimes wavering. They cross the entire field of darkness, and some were brighter than others…
Slowing, slowing…
Finally the lines were no longer infinite roadways or strands of a web.
They were long thin rods – then sticks – hyphens of light…
Ultimately, they were winking points.

This thief, Jack, is a magic entity, Lord of Shadows – and he has been reborn, as all those who live on the dark side of the planet can be. They have multiple lives, but must crawl out of a stinking swamp at the far western edge of the world. He does so, regaining strength and outsmarting various creatures that cross his path – but he’s captured eventually by his nemesis, the Lord of Bats, and imprisoned.

And this is where the book begins to go off the rails. None of the characters, Jack or any of the others who cross his path, are given much (if any)… well, characterization. There’s nothing for a reader to hang onto: scant motivations, little detail about their persons or their psyches, no sense of stakes on a personal or on a larger level. I was interested, on an imagination level, by the prison pendant that the Lord of Bats traps Jack inside of – but I wasn’t particularly concerned about Jack getting out. And when he does, the quest he sets out upon seemed MacGuffin-y at best.

There’s then a strange interlude where he sits with a Promethean figure called Morningstar who is doomed to forever look towards the east at a point where the sun is just about to rise. This is the moment of perhaps the most character development in the entire novel, where Morningstar asks Jack why he gives him wine when he comes by and Jack explains that he’s probably the closest thing he has to a friend. They also discuss the difference between the day and night sides of the world and their perceptions of the universe – for the night side is where magic rules and the day side is where science and technology are king. The night side understands that the core of the earth is some complex machine; the day side believes it to be molten. And Morningstar says, about this and all differences, that neither side is wrong. It’s a curious, thought-provoking moment and it implies that there could’ve been a larger, more in-depth exploration of this world and these characters that, for whatever reason, didn’t make it to the page.

And then Zelazny takes another amazing leap that brought me back into the book just when I was starting to falter: we fast-forward by some untold number of years (at least five, but time seems fluid and, for these nearly ageless magical beings, largely irrelevant) and are ensconced in the East, on the daylight side of this planet. Which looks remarkably like our planet: cars, computers, universities. The reader has to play a ton of catch-up to figure out what the hell is going on and who these people are and it was actually a lot of fun to map this relatively relatable world onto a novel that, to that point, had been totally fantastical.

But quickly the fun dissipates as we’re told things instead of shown them, introduced to characters who are at the tail end of their relationship to Jack, and then he’s jetting off towards the dark side of the planet again. There’s a whole lot of to-do, things go poorly for everyone, and then Jack smashes the machine in the core of the earth and starts the planet spinning (again?) and that’s it. It all happens in the space of fifty or so pages and it felt like Zelazny was rushing through, marking beats to come back later and flesh them out. In fact, if I had to say one thing about this book, I’d say that it felt like a promising first draft of something that could be epic and wonderful when fully realized. To know that this is what the fully-realized thing looks like… well, I’m still sold on Zelazny’s imagination but have some questions about his follow-through…

Rating: 2.5 out of 5. Brimming with imagination and attempting to meld sci-fi and fantasy in a way that still feels rather revolutionary in 2016, let alone how it must’ve appeared in 1971. But weak characterization, confusing plotting, no real development of either character or plot, and a tendency towards telling us what’s happening as though it were a recap instead of a narrative make for a pretty unfortunate reading experience. There are moments of brilliance and excitement, but they’re ultimately far overshadowed by the book’s flaws. I hope Chicago Review Press keeps bringing Zelazny back into print – but also hope they pick some stronger works next time.

 

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