Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Ex Libris: Will to Power

I must admit that between the short and long form of the story, I prefer to go with the latter.

A case in point: the late great science-fiction and fantasy writer Roger Zelazny wrote such really good novels that I've no qualms about foregoing his short stories and instead targeted his novels. So far, I've just finished Jack of Shadows but I've also read Lord of Light and the first part of the Chronicles of Amber (Corwin's story) and they were all excellent, top-notch reads. A flaw on my reading but I suppose I'll eventually get his short fiction.

The thing about Zelazny's books though is that they have the imaginative verve and pulpish excitement of Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion books. Like Moorcock's creation, Zelazny's characters (of the books I've read) loom larger than life as they stride through the pages. And like Moorcock's creations, Zelazny's protagonists aren't your regular heroes, going against the grain with their willfullness and their arrogance.

A case in point: Zelazny's Hugo-award winning Jack of Shadows tells the tale of the legendary Jack of Shadows, a.k.a. ShadowJack, whose power is derived-- obviously-- from shadows. Jack is having a bad time: caught while trying to steal the priceless artifact, he's mocked by minions of his archenemy, the Lord of Bats, and then beheaded. But that's not the end of the story. Jack's world has stopped rotating and is divided into Light and Darkness, with science ruling over the former and magic over the latter. Because of this, those who dwell in darkness are immortal but have no souls (and reverse for lightsiders). In due course, Jack wakes up in the Dung Pits of Glyve at the West Pole where those immortal who die are resurrected. And he's mightily pissed.

Thus, this is a story of vendetta as Jack seeks to avenge himself against those who wronged him (despite being in the wrong in the first place). For him though, it's not a matter of right or wrong but rather of pride. Jack flees to the Lightside (a world almost like our own except for the fact that the sun never goes down) in order to seek the artefact of power-- Kolwynia, the Key that was Lost-- to aid his vengeance. With Kolwynia, he will become a god. But what god will he become... without a soul?

Unfortunately, despite its fantastic concepts to rival his other books, the shortness of Jack of Shadows is a shame as the second-half of the story seems rushed. Still, the almost-mythical tone of the prose more than makes up for it, especially when it shifts to the Lightside in the second-half and Zelazny pares his prose to almost grayness to fit the Lightsiders' world of bureaucratic infighting, academics, and cigarettes.

Likewise, as with most of Zelazny's protagonists, Jack of Shadows' drive to gain revenge on his enemies is impressive. Despite the obstacles in his path and the mighty powers set against him, he uses his wits and his power to manipulate the shadows to overcome enormous difficulties. Jack knows what he wants and he aims to get it. Zelazny's other protagonists, Sam of Lord of Light and Corwin of Chronicles of Amber, have the same will-power and drive. However, by that same token, they also have the same faults Jack has: the arrogance and the pride that is the prelude to their fall. Sam is cynical enough to avoid such an ending while Corwin suffers amnesia at the beginning his story. But for Jack, there is no escape.

In the end, Jack destroys his world and, in his words, brings down the greatest evil of his time-- himself.

Sadly, Zelazny died in 1995 due to cancer complications. The man and his stories will be missed.

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