A Night in Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny

March 12, 2006 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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Roger Zelazny is probably best known for his Amber series, which are kind of lightweight adventure fantasy stories. His best work (in my opinion, of course) is Lord of Light, where he tells a more sober story with a lot of mythic and religious elements. A Night in Lonesome October is something of a hybrid between the two. It takes the lightweight style of Amber and the mythic elements from Lord of Light…although here the myths are popular myths of vampires, werewolves, and Elder Gods. Well, I’m not sure if Lovecraft is popular, but you get the picture.

There is good and bad in this combination. The good news is Zelazny is almost without peer when it comes to writing light intrigue. The plot involves a lot of maneuvering through a somewhat tangled web of alliances and plots as various supernatural entities cooperate and compete in an attempt to open (or close, as the case may be) a gate that will allow Cthulhu and friends to return to the Earth. Zelazny doesn’t make it so complicated it becomes confusing and the narrator…the familiar of one of the participants…is very engaging. The downside is the book is ultimately no more than a confection. There’s no deeper meaning here, it’s just a fun ride. There’s not even any real tension, because even though the fate of the earth hangs in the balance, the characters themselves don’t seem to be all that concerned. Oh, they occasionally allude to the seriousness of the situation, but they don’t seem to be losing any sleep over it. And since the characters aren’t tense, the reader isn’t either.

There’s no law that says every book has to have Deep, Important Thoughts or even Spine-Wrenching Tension and for what it is this is a very good book. It’s even a quick read, by modern standards. Recommended to those who enjoyed Amber or who like the sound of a light hearted supernatural romp.

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The First Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny

November 15, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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The Chronicles of Amber were originally published as five books, but today they would be published in one since they form one long story so as is my custom I will review all of them together. These books are decent but flawed and I almost gave them four stars, but ultimately they are just so frustratingly mediocre I couldn’t do it. Plenty of people absolutely love these books and I can see why, so let me make clear what you are getting (spoiler free, of course) so you know whether you should give them a try. First, these are technically fantasies but really they fall into a combination of mystery and intrigue. If you like books filled with plots within plots, duplicity, and unexpected revelations, then this might be up your alley. The first person narration is somewhat uneven but effective when it has to be. Although I anticipated one major twist by a couple hundred pages, there were several others I didn’t, and the story kept me turning the pages.

So what’s not to like? I have a whole laundry list of complaints, with no individual one being so serious as to keep me from enjoying the books but together they make the affair rather less than memorable. First, the main character is a gigantic tease in that he is initially painted as a complete rogue but pretty quickly–before he does anything that’s genuinely unlikable–he becomes nice to a fault. We hear that he has changed, but no evidence is given for it. After I was done I knew what he had become…a boilerplate goody two shoes protagonist…but I knew almost nothing about who he had been. Second, I said this was really a mystery novel and not a fantasy, and this is particularly noticable in the world building, or lack thereof. Zelazny was nothing if not creative, and his world is full of interesting features and ideas. It’s a terrible shame, then, that is must remain a static backdrop occasionally remarked upon and never truly explored. In the wake of the Lord of the Rings films I have heard Amber proposed as a great candidate for the big screen treatment, but in truth the book’s true form is a stage play. What’s important here are the characters and their efforts at outwitting each other. It’s absolutely criminal that (this isn’t a spoiler) Amber is apparently the “true city” from which all other cities gain their form and yet at the end I had a vague idea as to the surrounding terrain but no understanding of what was in Amber itself, how big its population is (the size of its army suggests its population is quite small), and what, if anything, makes it so much better than Rome, Paris, or, let’s face it, Gary, Indiana. Meanwhile, the Shadows cast by the true city form an infinite number of universes, and this infinity is hardly touched upon. That’s not to say I want a lot of dilly-dallying filler adventures along the lines of Otherland, but this infinite tapestry just provides a few boilerplate settings that serve just as matte paintings behind the dialogue. As for the strength of the book, the intrigue, the dialogue was clever enough but not exceptionally smart or subtle. The narration was, well, linguistically naive. Several times each book I hit a sentence or word choice I found quite jarring. It doesn’t help that Zelazny never quite takes himself completely seriously, which to my mind undermines the supposed import of what is going on. Either the universe hangs in the balance, or we’re trying to be witty, but not both, surely? Finally, although the plot is the book’s best feature, it begins to break down towards the end as the author gets distracted by his own metaphysics. This is such a common feature of modern fantasy and science fiction that when things began to seriously go off the rails in book five it was like I was meeting an old friend.

This review may sound more like a one or two star review, but really taken as a whole it is a competent fantasy. It is a blissfully quick read, so its flaws are quickly passed over. If you like intrigue and want some relatively light and quick reading, give it a try.

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

May 18, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 5 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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This is a brilliant book. As with most amazing books there’s not a lot I can say other to strongly recommend it. The premise is a new spin on the traditional SF colonization. When the ship arrives at the colony long before the narrative of the book begins, the crew uses their unique access to technology to make themselves the controlling elite. The unusual aspect comes when they choose the Hindu religion as their method of control. The technology the ordinary people (and indeed soon many of the “gods” themselves) no longer understand provides the gods their powers while a device for transferring consciousness to vat-grown bodies and further means to examine the memory of that person in the process allows them to create a karmic reincarnation system. This is all the backdrop for the main character’s struggle against the authority. The tricky bit is he does this by starting Buddhism, even though he is not really a Buddhist himself.

With so many religious elements and a complicated cast, most authors would make a real mess of this. Zalazny not only vividly draws the characters but does an absolute bang-up job with the religious aspects. Admittedly I am a westerner and have little direct experience with either of the two Eastern religions featured, but everything was really well-written. Very strongly recommended.

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