Jack of Shadows
by Roger Zelazny

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Fantasy & Science Fiction, July & August 1971

Walker: New York, 1971
184 pages

July 2011

In the Dung Pits of Glyve

Roger Zelazny's fantasy, Jack of Shadows, is a gray, bleak, and generally unpleasant novel. The characters are flat, with even the protagonist scarcely able to stir more than ripples of empathy. When characters or creatures die (stabbed, crushed, burned, or eaten), we are not meant to care much, nor do we. In fact, a defining sequence occurs near the beginning of the book, when Jack himself is caught in the Twilight Lands, kept fully illuminated and so away from the shadows whence derive his special powers, and reasonably executed for theft. As darkside folks tend to do, Jack reconstitutes and revivifies himself "in the Dung Pits of Glyve at the West Pole of the World".

This is serial immortality, albeit with many risks of starting over from the bottom of the world. Jack struggles and fights his way back to inhabited areas, power, respectability of a sort, and revenge — mostly in that order. But after the hard way back from his world's low point at the Dung Pits, Jack's story becomes less pleasant, approximately in pace with his own evolving nature and revealed behavior.

So what is right about Jack of Shadows? Where is the Zelazny touch?

One useful thing is being able to refer to the Dung Pits of Glyve in conversation with other fantasy fans, or recognize references to the same. One never knows when this foul place will pop into a discussion, or you feel the need to bring it in yourself. I've been there, conversationally speaking.

The novel is adventurous and surprising, with the best adventures inherent in the nature of this world of a hemisphere of permanent daylight, the other of permanent night, with a band of twilight dividing them. Zelazny's symbolism is intriguing, although it all may not emerge on a first reading. Jack's ability to move in shadows rather as does a spaceship in subspace is exotic, and I wish there had been more about this. The author sets his theme of shadow, light, and dark with a Shakespearean thought:

Prince of Aragon (to Portia, etc.):

Some there be that shadows kiss;
Such have but a shadow's bliss.

William Shakespeare
The Merchant of Venice, 2.9.65-66

The key to this symbolism is the fellow Morningstar, a sphinx-like statue (or petrified sphinx) virtually unmoving on a crag facing east, "outlined against the Everdawn." Morningstar is the Jack of Shadows' only friend. Among other things, Morningstar is something of an oracle:

"... It is impossible to make a man understand what he will become with the passage of time; and it is only a future self to whom a prophesy is truly relevant."

"Fair enough," said Jack. "Only I am not a man. I am a darksider."

"You are all men, whatever side of the world you call home."

So we see here rather a Nietzschean theme, but this is too grand a gathering of light and dark for even a professional thief like Jack of Shadows to steal our hearts for, with the tools at hand in this novel. Sadly, although the framework of symbols holds together, the reader finds it draped with a fabric of people and events more or less with the odor of the Dung Pits of Glyve, and mostly which might better have been left there.


© 2011 Robert Wilfred Franson

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