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After my last two books and especially Nnedi Okorafor’s missive and it’s aftermath, I decided to “play it safe” and revisit some old ground.
I remember reading Roger Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows soon after it was originally published in the early 1970s and recalled enjoying it.
After so many years, that’s all I recalled, but apparently this Hugo and Locus Award nominee had gone out of print for some years. Nor could I find a copy in my local library system. Finally, it was republished as part of the “Recovered Classics Book Series number 23”. I downloaded it from Amazon to my Kindle Fire and there it waited for me.
It did not disappoint. It’s not really a complicated tale, though a strange one. A world exists that is tidally locked in orbit around its star with half perpetually facing the sun and the other half in forever darkness. However it is a planet where the light side is ruled by science and the darkside is dominated by magic. In fact it is a type of magic that keeps the darkside from freezing and the bright side from roasting.
In the midst of this is a thief and a power called Jack of Shadows or Shadowjack. He is the only power of darkside that is portable. All other powerful beings are rooted to the geological source of their mystic strength.
While lightsiders live their lives as you and I might, possessing one life and one soul, the darksiders may die and resurrect many (but not an infinite) amount of times. The price for this is possessing no soul at all, and thus, as we discover, no significant conscience.
Jack is a rogue and a scoundrel but not a likable one. In attempting to steal the Hellfire, a prize in a sporting contest and the bride price for the one he loves, he is caught and beheaded. Resurrection can take years and the dead always reanimate in a land of excrement and filth.
Jack has sworn vengeance upon those responsible for this previous death, particularly the Lord of Bats and many of his adventures center around those acts.
He has only one friend, an immobile creature named Morningstar who is bound to the edge between light and darkness. Of those others who have attempted to befriend him, few though they be, Jack has one one level or another, betrayed them.
His only hope is to possess a “lost key” from an orbiting computer, but for that, he must disguise himself as a mortal scholar and perform years of research on the dayside.
He succeeds, but discovers some unanticipated things. His former lover had bound herself to the Lord of Bats, body and soul. After Jack dispatched her husband, he retook her, but she would not love him without his possessing her will. One other, a minor witch who was aged and about to die, convinced him that darksiders do have a soul. They are simply separate, trapped in a jewel each resurrected darksider finds in their hand when they awake. Jack had discarded his, and rather than accepting the jewel she offered, threw it against a wall, shattering it and releasing the soul.
For all his power, he can not escape the soul, though he can prevent it from entering him, and he cannot save the darkside from the cold. In rebellion due to his cruelty those who could, refused. He killed them but that didn’t help.
The book is a study in dichotomies; light vs dark, souls vs soulless, morals vs base motivations. In setting the world spinning again by destroying the great machine at the center of the world, his magic leaves him. His lover goes mad realizing what he has done and dies trying to kill him. Jack loses everything and finally bids the soul to enter him…just at the moment of another enemy’s attack.
Jack kills one last time using his old shadow skills but also falls to his death. In the end, Morningstar, freed from his curse, comes flying toward him. Whether Jack lives or dies is never revealed.
It was simple and satisfying and yet a unique mix of science and magic, At once it was science fiction and fantasy which has received praise from both Joe Haldeman and George R.R. Martin. It reads and “feels” like 1970s SciFi in a way I can’t articulate.
Zelazny died in 1995 and for years he refused fan requests to write a sequel so there is no bringing Jack back from the shadows this time. While there is certainly a lesson in this brief tale, it delivered that teaching in a way that’s just so much fun. That’s the point. Whatever you have to say in your science fiction, please make it interesting and fun.