Book CLUB

Mike Carey on one of the first nov­els to merge SF and fan­tasy

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - News - By Roger Ze­lazny, 1971

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.

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