It is about time that I recommended something by the great Roger Zelazny (1937-1995). Isn’t Zelazny the most perfect surname for a writer who inhabited the borderlands between Fantasy and Science Fiction? The novel I’ve chosen, “Jack of Shadows” (1971), is set in a world divided between a magical darkside and a scientific lightside. There are plenty of old paperback copies around but don’t go for the 1974 Corgi edition which I have – its ghastly bat-dominated cover makes “Jack of Shadows” look like the tackiest of Horror stories. The novel was reissued in 2016 in the “Rediscovered Classics” series with a good introduction by Joe Haldeman.
This story begins in the Twilight Lands during the Hellgames. Many powerful beings are competing for the Hellflame trophy but the thief known as Jack of Shadows plans to steal it for the father of the woman he loves. Jack is difficult to defeat because if any shadows are present he can escape into them but he is betrayed by two darksiders who serve the Lord of Bats and beheaded. Jack is annoyed at “having to lose one of his lives on a sloppy job”, especially as this means a very long walk back from the Dung Pits of Glyve. During his perilous journey through the horrid realm of Drekkheim he meets a Wise Woman called Rosalie whom he once seduced with promises of taking her to live in his possibly non-existent castle of Shadow Guard. She warns him against letting hatred lead him to “the machine that thinks like a man.”
Jack’s hatred for his enemies does increase when he discovers that his beloved Evene now seems to be the bride of the sorcerer known as the Lord of Bats. After escaping from a cruel imprisonment, Jack visits his only friend, the chained fallen angel, Morningstar, who tells him about the great machine at the heart of the world. Jack breaks the rules by crossing over into the human lightside, where he gets a college-job lecturing on anthropology. He is soon pursued by a terrifying darkside monster known as the Borshin and forced to flee but he already has the information he needs to overpower his enemies. Jack will have his vengeance, even if it costs him his soul. Can anyone stop him destroying the world?
“Jack of Shadows” is a mish-mash of a book which shouldn’t really work and yet this story has fascinated me for years. The plot moves extremely fast and all manner of ideas are crammed into this short novel (only 157 pages). The opening chapters read as humorous Dark Fantasy, rather similar to Jack Vance’s “Dying Earth” stories (see my Post of June 2012) or Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series (see my Post of July 2014). Initially, nothing is taken very seriously. When the Lord of Bats appears, he’s described as though he was a vampire out of a junk Horror movie and he lives in the absurdly named fortress of High Dudgeon. These jokes make the ensuing psychological duel between Jack and his arch-enemy all the more shocking. When Jack is masquerading as Dr Shade in the science-oriented human world, the story resembles a Crime Thriller before morphing into Horror again as a monster haunts the campus. Once Jack is back among his shadows, the tone darkens even further. There are deliberate echoes of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Christopher Marlow’s version of the Faustus legend, not to mention “The Count of Monte Cristo”. The more successful Jack is in wreaking revenge, the more tragic his story becomes.
I think it would be fair to say that all of Zelazny’s novels are dominated by variations of the same hero/anti-hero. To begin with, Jack seems a typical Zelazny hero – a threatened loner with unusual powers who is willing to question and shatter the rules of his world. What makes Jack distinctive is how close he gets to becoming not just an anti-hero but the villain of the piece. In the early chapters, most readers will like this amusing trickster but we soon get to see Jack’s ruthless side. The more he is denounced as a selfish liar and fantasist, the more Jack is determined to validate his self-image, even if that means forcing everyone else to fit in with his own version of reality.
Zelazny’s female characters aren’t usually memorable but the ones in this book are something of an exception. Sad-eyed Evene becomes a haunting figure as Jack changes from devoted lover to implacable stalker. Rosalie is the human love whom Jack simply forgot to go back for. She has become an old woman while her shadow-Jack has not aged at all. Rosalie has cause to be bitter and vengeful but she chooses forgiveness and acts as the guardian of Jack’s soul and the voice of his conscience.
Jack’s respect for Rosalie and his strange friendship with the angel/demon Morningstar are the two elements which made me want to stay with Jack on his journey through his own personal hells. Morningstar is an unforgettable creation, with his “great, lightning-scarred visage” and his lidless eyes always looking towards a sunrise that never comes. The poetic conversations between Jack and Morningstar are the heart of the novel. Jack is told that, “Everything that lives changes or dies” and that “Each of you colors reality in keeping with your means of controlling it.” Morningstar’s explanations deconstruct Zelazny’s own genre of Science-Fantasy in a disturbing way, so it is fitting that there is a massive apocalypse at the climax of the novel. Many authors would have set a whole series in this complex double world but Zelazny always refused to write a sequel to “Jack of Shadows”. I’m glad that he didn’t because the enigmatic ending allows each reader to finish Jack’s story in her or his own way. Do try it and see which ending you choose.
While writing this post I realized that a book which contains two stories of failed love might not be the most appropriate choice for Valentine’s Week, so here is a quick bonus recommendation. If you are still in a romantic mood (or need cheering up after reading “Jack of Shadows”) you couldn’t do better than Garth Nix’s charming Regency Romance “Newt’s Emerald” (2015). This is now at the top of my list of Georgette Heyer- inspired Fantasy. On her eighteenth birthday, Lady Truthful Newington (Newt) is shown the magical emerald which is her birthright. When the emerald is stolen, Newt disguises herself as a boy and embarks on adventure which will bring her danger and romance. Enjoy. Until next time…