Roger Zelazny was probably the most frustrating of all my favorite sf authors. I can split his career into three distinct eras: From when I first discovered him in 1965 through about 1969 he was incomparable, towering over the sf field with such works as This Immortal, Lord of Light, The Dream Master
and short fiction such as “A Rose For Ecclesiastes,” “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” and “This Mortal Mountain.”
From 1970 through 1978 he was a very good writer who never quite regained the brilliance of his first years. Highlights included the original Amber
series, Jack of Shadows, Today We Choose Faces
and Doorways in the Sand
But after 1978 his fiction tended to be throwaways that he seemed to write without either thinking or revising. I totally disliked the second Amber
trilogy, and most of his non-series novels were collaborations with Thomas T. Thomas, Fred Saberhagen Robert Sheckley and Gerald Housman. Probably the only true Zelazny-quality story he wrote in that period was the novella “24 View of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai.”
So when he announced in the 1990s that he was going to write two standalone sf novels, it was a major announcement, if a wary one, since there was equal likelihood the novels would be “latter-day” Zelazny rather than vintage Zelazny (or even 1970s Zelazny, which would be welcome as well). Then, of course, came the sad news that Roger Zelazny died in 1995 and his companion, writer Jane Lindskold, completed the two novels Lord Demon
. For years I did not read either one, memories of his collaborations with Robert Sheckley in my head. But when I found a copy of Donnerjack
in a used bookstore, I figured I might as well give it a try.
Surprisingly, or maybe it shouldn’t be, Donnerjack
is a very good novel. The opening pages are typical Zelazny, if a bit dense, and the first few chapters are mostly scene-setting without much obvious purpose. But soon the story gets moving and there are echoes of early Zelazny in it, circa To Die in Italbar
. The story is set in two worlds, Verité
(which is our world) and Virtù
(an artificially-created virtual reality). The main character is John Donnerjack, a programmer in Verité
but a legendary figure in Virtù
. Among other denizens of Virtù
, he encounters Avra who is a being of that world rather than being an avatar of a human from Verité
, and whom he has the misfortune to fall in love with. Knowing that humans cannot interbreed with beings from the artificial world of Virtù
. Donnerjack makes a deal with Lord Death to bring Avra to our world. The deal, of course, involves giving their first-born son to Lord Death, a deal which Donnerjack scoffs at because of the impossibility of a human from Verité
mating with a being from Virtù
, but which becomes the novel’s main focus as Avra somehow becomes pregnant.
The plot becomes more developed as Donnerjack vanishes from its pages. His son Jay is raised in Donnerjack’s Scottish castle (which he builds himself on the site of his ancestral home) by robots and “ghosts” from Virtù
, while struggling to stay out of the grasp of Lord Death who wishes to claim his portion of the bargain made before Jay’s death. Other characters enter the novel, including:
• Lydia, a young girl from Verité
who becomes impregnated by Ambry, a being from Virtù
who is either one of that world’s gods, or a legendary figure who has become godlike;
• Link, a reporter investigating the Church of Elish, which worships the gods of Virtù
who are apparently the same gods of ancient Sumer and Babylon and who, Link learns, are plotting to “cross over” into Verité
where they can have another universe to rule;
• Drum, a private investigator who works with Link on his investigations.
Link and Drum become involved with Lydia and Jay in what is a full-scale war brewing between deities in Virtué
. While it sounds confusing, the book’s near-600 pages give ample room for all the interwoven complications to stretch out and be both comprehensible and reasonable. It ends up being a thriller which is neither mindless nor too fast-paced to be absorbing.
Large portions of Donnerjack are obvious Zelaznyish. Verité
is inhabited by a banshee and various ghosts, while Virtù
can be accessed from Verité
through a strange region accessible through underground caves beneath Donnerjack’s castle. There are wonderful scenes of pure Zelazny, and it is obvious throughout the novel that this was not just another 80s/90s throwaway, but a novel of serious intent.Donnerjack
’s plot is considerably more complicated than typical Zelazny, which I credit–perhaps erroneously–to Lindskold. But the combination of Zelazny wonder and Lindksold story-telling is very efffective, and makes this the most interesting Zelazny book I have read since 1976's Bridge of Ashes
. I definitely plan to read Lord Demon
sometime, and perhaps even Zelazny’s collaboration with Alfred Bester Psychoshop
. It’s nice to know that even after years of Zelazny squandering his talent, it was still there when he needed it.