I rarely read and am leery of reviewing anything that I consider to be “modern.” The style of prose itself turns me away, as well as a frequent sense of plotlessness; the works are feeble and desultory, all of them. I cannot quite say during which point in time this change occurs, there is no hard-and-fast date I can fix to separate “modern” fiction from the “real thing”, but if I had to choose, I would hazard a guess at the sixties or thereabouts. This is not to say that there might not have been earlier works in this mold; I am not suggesting that the change came about suddenly. But I feel safe in my assumption that the old prose styles were nearly eradicated (at least in genre fiction) by the sixties, and I lower my expectations accordingly.
So it is with some trepidation that I prepare to review Roger
Zelazny's Jack of Shadows, published in '71. Zelazney has been
spoken well of in PulpRev circles, and I am conscious that criticisms
of the work based on such a nebulous and indefinable idea, which may
merely be my own very personal eccentricity of taste, might be contrary to the aesthetics of the Pulprev. Nevertheless,
here we go!
The prose feels midway between new and old styles. It reads like, if not
contemporary, at least semi-contemporary work. It seems rather like
the spare, somewhat sterile prose of today, coupled with the
vocabulary of yesterday.
The story is thus: on a tidelocked world, where half is eternal
day and half eternal night, magic rules the night and technology
rules the day. The darkside is a realm of swords and sorcery, ruled
by powerful beings who have many lives but no souls; the lightside a
contemporary society of mortal men. A magic shield protects the one
side from the cold, and a mechanical shield protects the other from
the heat. The world is supposedly controlled by a mighty machine at
Right off the starting line the opening had me raising an eyebrow
and checking out my brain. Jack gets captured. Jack is a legendary
magical thief, with the power to work all sorts of magic whenever he
is in shadows. He can escape from any prison, passing though shadows
from place to place like a spirit. He is very powerful, yet he gets easily
taken by the arena security at a great competition when he goes to
steal the magical prize. This stunning capture is seemingly effected
by two bystanders recognizing him while he's standing around looking
at the jewel and reporting him. You think: “Surely this is all part
of his plan; surely he isn't this stupid!”
The two bystanders who recognized him taunt him. It seems they are
in the employ of Jack's nemesis, the Lord of Bats (Zelazny does some
pretty cool names on occasion), and are apparently the Lord's way of
laying a trap for Jack. Now you are thinking: “That's it? That was
his grand plan? Send some lackeys to point at him and say, “Arrest
...Well...I have to grudgingly admit that once everything is
explained, it makes sense. It is conceivable that Jack came to the games unaware that any
other Darkside Power knew he was in attendance. His task was to steal
the prize, and therefore prove himself worthy to wed Evene, the
daughter of the Colonel Who Never Died. However it seems that the
Colonel afterwards decided that he would rather his daughter marry
the powerful sorcerer the Lord of Bats, instead of Jack, and so he
betrayed Jack's mission to said Lord, who then sent his men to tip
off the games-master to Jack's presence, therefore causing his arrest
and subsequent execution.
It sounds all well and good on paper, but Zelazny hurts himself
by playing his cards so close to his chest. The initial impression
that I received was of Jack bumbling into some random bystanders who
get him caught, and swearing bloody vengeance on all of them for so
catching him, and this was a deep seated impression by the time the
author deigned to start explaining the circumstances. Even after all
the explanations have trickled in (the last one coming in the last
third of the book) they are so lightly touched upon that the reader
must work to construct unaided a scenario in which these events have
the weight which they were clearly intended to have.
Jack has now been executed. Awakening several years later in a
wasteland about the dark pole, where all darkside beings are reborn
after death, and with nothing but an odd stone in his hand, he sets
out across the waste, through the hostile territories of rival Lords.
Along the way he has three random encounters which the cover blurb
appears to think are adventures. First, a vampire tries to drink from
him, and he drains her dry in response. Secondly, a sentient rock
mind-controls him into approaching and touching it, and begins to
suck out his life force, but by managing to strike a light, Jack gets
himself some shadows to conjure in, and drains the rock dry as well.
Lastly he meets an old witch, who turns out to have been a lover
of his, long ago, in one of his previous lives. She chides him for
not coming back for her, as he promised. Now she is an old woman, and
it is too late. Jack is regretful, says he did go back, but by that
time her village was different, and no one knew her any more. Time,
it seems, just doesn't factor into your perception of the world when
you can live many lifetimes. He offers her a place in his home when
his triumph is complete, but she turns him down.
Jack tries to sneak across the land of the Lord of Bats himself,
hoping to get safely to the twilight border. He is
captured and taken to the fortress High Dudgeon (see, Zelazny could
do some really cool names), where he is imprisoned in a gem, the Lord
of Bats promising that he will be confined until he goes mad. Evene
appears to Jack and tells him that when he did not return, her father
had her marry the Lord of Bats instead, and that she truly loves her
new husband. Jack pretends to believe it an illusion or trick, and
plots his escape.
The one thing that the powers of darkness have agreed on, is that each
one must use his powers at a certain ordained season to refresh the
shield, lest the surface freeze. Jack uses his powers to do the
unthinkable, faking his name on the record books and breaking darkside compact. Thus he is set free to perform his magic on the shield, but
spirits himself away instead.
He transports himself to a twilit mountaintop, where a great being
named Morningstar is bound, his body attached to the mountain--bound
and compelled never to leave until the sunrise comes. Jack thinks of
Morningstar as his “only friend,” and he shares his plans with
Jack then goes to the light side, and blends in with humans, using
their technology to track down a mystical treasure called “The Key
that Was Lost,” which will grant him near omnipotence. After a time
skip of five years, we pick up with him narrowly escaping back into
the twilight after he is outed as a darkborn, fleeing with
calculations which he is not sure hold the data that he needs.
Jack of Shadows is quite an amoral protagonist, and during his quest for
vengeance, the author goes out of his way to let us know that Jack is
a womanizer, and that he cares not a fig for the potential broken
hearts he leaves behind; that he sees no reason not to do whatever he
pleases with the omnipotent power which he seeks; and that he gloats
in anticipation of the tortures and mutilations which he plans for
his foes. He happily lets Quilian, the mortal who suspected his true
identity be killed while he flees.
So Jack isn't a good guy. I've read stories with amoral leads
before and enjoyed them. In my mind, you need one of two things to make
a protagonist cut from—shall we say—imperfect cloth sympathetic:
you must either have him adhere to a certain standard of honor and
justice, even if it is a warped one (such as in Captain Blood), or
make him live in a world where the vices he practices and the mindset
he carries are the norm, making him perhaps better, and certainly not
worse than could be expected in the society wherein he exists (such
as in The Three Musketeers, The Strolling Saint), or some mixture of
both (Hornblower, The White Company). Jack does something else, but
something just as good, or perhaps better.
My expectations had been dropping rapidly for the first thee
quarters of the book, and then the story changed...by transitioning
Jack from amoral antihero to full-fledged villain as his plan comes
together. When next we see him, he has acquired the power he sought.
He confronts the Lord of Bats and his minions and executes his
gruesome revenge to the fullest, magically brainwashes the woman who
rejected him into becoming his bride, takes over all of the darkside
as a cruel tyrant, and with his reign of terror solidly in place,
begins his happily ever after.
This really threw me. My idea of the story was turned on its head.
I doubted that there could even be a happy ending for Jack, and
started to wonder if Jack of Shadows was a tragedy, and he was the
tragic villain. Then as the story went on, I saw hope of redemption.
Zelazny, it seemed, could surprise me after all.
Now two things happen, the first: the old witch comes back to see
him again, bringing him the stone he was reborn with and had left
behind at the pole. She tells him it is his soul, and asks him to
take it, hoping that it will soften his hard heart. He refuses,
crushes the stone and drives away the spirit within it, but from this
point forth his soul follows and frequently pesters him to accept a
reunion. Once again he tries to offer the old woman a home, and once
again she turns him down.
The second thing that happens: Some of the other dark Powers come to him
and declare that they will not serve a tyrant, and that none of them
will stir to protect the shields. They would rather die in polar
night than live under his tyranny. Jack asks Morningstar for advice,
and at his friend's behest, delves deep into the core of the earth to
the Great Machine, which he destroys. On the surface the lands are
thrown into chaos, earthquakes and floods and destruction abound. The
earth is starting to turn in a new fashion, and now there will be
normal day and night, with no need for shields. However, with the
coming of the day to his lands, Jack's powers fail. Evene, whom he
held in concubinage regains her sense of self, and falls from the
battlement while trying to kill him. His magical fortress collapses. At
the last moment he softens and admits his soul into his heart, and
from the crumbling walls he sees the beauty of the world the first
time. With that see sees his own evil, and falling, concludes:
“For the whole world. I apologize. I love you[...]It is only
fitting[...]It is only fitting. There is no escape. When the earth is
purged by winds and fires and waters, and the evil things are
destroyed or washed away, it is only fitting that the last and
greatest of them all be not omitted.”
At the last moment, he looks up and sees Morningstar, free at
last, diving on his great wings to catch him.
It's a fantastic ending--that I will wholeheartedly grant. The
last third of the book is full of tension and drama, and has somewhat of
weight to it.
But here is my beef with the book. The ending is the only part
that even partially lives up to its potential. The story itself as it is presented
is shallow—a shallow, mildly entertaining time killer. Not a story
you'd ever care enough to revisit.
The plot then, as I said, has potential. My issue is with the story: how little of it there is! Despite all
that happens, I was left with the a strong feeling that there were less than a dozen important scenes or so. I'm sure this was not the case,
but it felt as if this were the case. Given the proper time and
attention, it could have been so much more. The skeleton of an
excellent redemption plot is there, and a world which could have been filled with atmosphere, but it doesn't come together
until the very end. The rest of the story is empty of drama, empty of
weight, empty of action.
Jack searching for The “Key that Was
Lost,” posing as a professor for five years to get access to a
university computer, through which he runs calculations which will
discover to him the secret of the Key? All glossed over. Jack finding
the Key? It happens off-screen (a stylistic choice on the author's
part: we see Jack's newfound power first through the eyes of his
victims), and it is never given enough time or attention afterwards
to give us the feeling that he struggled or that he really
accomplished something. The confrontation with the the Lord of
Bats, and his death at the Jack's hands happens off-screen. Their
magic duel, what we do see of it, is not very thrilling. The rest of
the "adventures”—those five or six random-encounters that
might or might not fill a mere two chapters of Tolkien, are trivial.
Description? There is almost none, though what there is could be
worse. There are unfulfilled mysteries. During his visit to the earth's core, Jack encounters a
creature who may have had some relation to Morningstar. This opens
some exciting questions at the ending as to Morningstar's true intentions,
but nothing definite ever comes of this. Jack reminisces, and we are
told that he hated Quilian, with no explanation as to why. When Jack
reaches the Machine, he meets an old man tending to it. He kills the
fellow so that he can destroy the machine. Why there is an apparently
ordinary man at the center of the earth, who knows.
You can read Jack of Shadows if this sounds interesting to you, and the ending is good enough to
make it stick with you. It's not bad, but it is shallow. Shallow and
full of wasted potential. The whole story amounts, more or less, to a
handful of random encounters and a revenge quest which consists of
the protagonist going off somewhere and doing some stuff and coming
back with everything accomplished. Being kept at
a distance from Jack was not bad in itself, but it was not executed
in a satisfying manner. Look to the famous The Count of Monte Cristo
for a revenge tale that uses these tricks better (though it, too, has
serious flaws, of quite the opposite sort). Jack is well conceived,
but too lightly told. It might have made a better movie or miniseries
than a book.