Mike Carey on one of the first novels to merge SF and fantasy
Jack Of Shadows by Roger Zelazny.
Roger Zelazny’s place in the history of science fiction and fantasy is assured – in the case of sci- fi by Lord Of Light and as far as fantasy is concerned by the Amber novels, beginning with Nine Princes In Amber in 1970 and concluding more than two decades later with Prince Of Chaos.
But in critical explorations of the Zelazny opus, Jack Of Shadows sometimes fails to get a mention, or else it’s dismissed as a flawed or lesser work. On its initial release Lester Del Rey called it “minor Zelazny” and drew attention to its serial origins, suggesting that the author had failed to fuse the separate parts of his story into a coherent whole.
I hate to pick a fight with an editor of Del Rey’s stature, but I think the genius and the uniqueness of Jack Of Shadows lie precisely in the fact that it is made of pieces – by which I mean genre tropes – that can’t be made to fit snugly together.
The world of the novel does not rotate in relation to its sun. One hemisphere is perpetually in daylight, the other endures perpetual night. In between is a negotiable area known as the Twilight Lands. The daysiders cleave to science. The nightsiders use magic. And – very literally – never the twain shall meet. There are strict limits on the commerce and intercourse between the two societies. They barely acknowledge each other’s existence and they police their borders with manic vigilance.
The eponymous Jack is a nightsider, and a thief. An attempted heist early on in the novel puts him on the wrong side of a great many powerful entities, on whom he swears revenge. But in order to make good on his oath he needs a magical artefact – Kolwynia, the Key That Was Lost – and he undertakes a quest to find it.
So far, so high fantasy. But Jack’s quest for Kolwynia doesn’t follow a traditional form. Rather than consulting oracles, assembling fellowships, venturing into caves and all that palaver, Jack goes across into the dayside and takes advantage of its super- advanced IT. He uses a room- sized computer ( 1970s, remember) to define and retrieve Kolwynia – in fact, to recreate it digitally.
So having started in a more or less familiar fantasy setting, the book jumps sideways and takes us to a world that’s very much like our own. Then it uses the tensions between the two societies to explore the ways in which our beliefs shape our world and define our limits. It’s an incredibly assured genre mash- up – one of the first – and it makes the clash of genres into an exquisite meditation on systems of thought, on science and mythology and religion.
At one point Jack discusses the nature of reality with a sphinx- like immortal, Morningstar. He points out that where the nightsiders believe there is a machine at the core of the world ( broken, which is why the world doesn’t move) the daysiders believe there’s a sleeping demon. He asks Morningstar which view is correct. Morningstar says that each society colours reality in keeping with its own belief. And what colour are they using here, Jack demands? “Incomprehensible.”
I also love the book for its equivocal ( anti-) hero and its insanely ambiguous ending. Jack’s quest is only the first stage in a journey that’s more and more inward and introspective – but ends up changing his world irrevocably. Nothing is resolved, everything is thrown into turmoil, and yet for me it’s one of the most satisfying reads in all Zelazny’s work.
MR Carey’s latest novel, Fellside, is published by Orbit on 7 April, and reviewed on p112. The Girl With All The Gifts is out now.