Thursday, April 17, 2014

Review of Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny

Creation myths are among the most powerful stories mankind has created.  From the fertile, varied mix of Australian Aborigines to the Jewish Yahweh, the Greek Titans to the coalescence of the heavens in Daoism, each culture, and eventually human, knows and relates to stories which explain how the world, or some aspect of it, came into being.  An open tribute to Jack Vance, Roger Zelazny’s 1971 Jack of Shadows is one such story.

Never named, Jack of Shadows takes place on a planet stuck in rotation.  The sun only ever striking one side, the other half lies in perpetual twilight, the stars lighting one’s path.  But night and day are not the only aspects separating the two halves.  Mortality in the form of souls and science thrive on the day side, while magic and immortality cohabit on the dark side.  A precursor to Changeling and Madwand (from a premise point of view), the novel tells of the eponymous Jack and the adventures he has on both sides of a globe.

Born nightside, Jack is a thief who desires the hand of Evene, the beautiful daughter of a lord born in night and a woman born in day. But before her father, the Colonel Who Never Died, will give her hand in marriage, he asks Jack to steal a jewel as a bride offering.  The beautiful Hellflame—ultimate prize for the Hellgames of light side—is the Colonel’s desire, and it is in the light Jack is found at the beginning of the story, eying his goal.  Seen and caught immediately thereafter, Jack is beheaded, thrusting him back to square one: Hades, night side.  From that pit of filth to the mansions of nightside’s most powerful lords and barons, the mountains on the edge of twilight to the cities of light side again, the quest Jack subsequently takes upon himself to enact revenge is everything the genre is made for, and in its aftermath, the planet is never the same. 

This Immortal borrowing from Greek myth and Lord of Light from Hindu and Buddhist myth just to name a couple of Zelazny’s real world influences, Jack of Shadows sees the author striking out into his own territory.  Synthesizing the concepts in general, the novel is distilled myth: science-fantasy. 

One of the strengths of the aforementioned Zelazny novels is style.  Save the action sequences, all is oblique, allowing the reader to fill in the gaps of setting, dialogue, character, and plot from the indirect details provided.  Playing to Zelazny’s strengths, the stories are a success from strictly a presentation point of view.  Jack of Shadows a direct narrative, it’s difficult to say the change in style suits the story as well.  Though a highly focused narrative throughout, Zelazny chooses to expound the story in overt fashion.  By choosing to include the details of such a world-spanning plot, something inevitably feels left out or over-simplified.  Shrouded in less mystery, Jack is likewise not as strong a character as Sam or Conrad.

In the end, Jack of Shadows is science fantasy that synthesizes much of Zelazny’s knowledge regarding the world’s creation myths.  He Who Shapes, Lord of Light, and This Immortal stronger stories style-wise, Jack is nevertheless a more focused and coherent effort than Creatures of Light and Darkness or A Rose for Ecclesiastes.  The main storyline skewed from conventional fantasy only by the intrusion of the real world, the ending, transcends the whole.  Fans of Michael Moorcock, and yes, Jack Vance will enjoy the novel most.


  1. I have to admit that I was not a fan of this particular Zelazny novel -- I CONCUR completely with the argument that This Immortal, Lord of Light, and The Dream Master were superior. I'm not sure why, Jack of Shadows felt flat despite the fantastic settings, unusual descriptions. I was unable to review novel as well.

    1. My guess is that Zelazny builds a frame but never fills it out. The light side gets some stage time and is therefore intriguing, but is never fully realized. The dark side, while being the setting in which the majority of the story takes place, still feels like so much more is happening that is not described. Being an exercise in world-building, it almost seems as though Zelazny needed to make the story longer so that the reader gets a feel for the planet as a whole. Without the feeling/understanding how the whole planet is affected, the grand metaphorical moment of the dawn guardian at the conclusion falls a bit short...

      Yes, there are better Zelazny stories out there. I've got Isle of the Dead on my to-read pile and I know you recently purchased some of Zelazny's more obscure works. Hopefully there's something with more substance still kicking around in his backlog.

    2. This sounds ridiculous but I started reading Isle of the Dead but then the pages started falling out so I moved to The Dream Master instead. I really need to glue it back together... I finally put forth the effort to review The Dream Master -- loved it! Review is up.