Sunday, August 14, 2011

Classic Quests: Jack of Shadows

Image credit: Jerry Segraves, from Wikimedia Commons

Back when I wrote about pulp versions of Mercury, where that planet was depicted as tidally locked, with a roasting sunward side, a frozen dark side, and a narrow habitable band between, I remembered a fantasy novel that portrayed a similar situation. It seemed too much to get into there, but eventually I wanted to post something about Jack of Shadows, a novel by my favorite writer, Roger Zelazny.

(Spoilers lie beyond the shadows...)

Jack of Shadows is a short book, and much of the world-building is implied rather than stated, but this is what I think is going on: there is a world with one side facing the sun, one side facing the dark. The day side is governed by science, and is protected by a technological shield from the heat of the sun. Meanwhile the dark side is protected by a magical shield.

That's odd enough, but it gets stranger. The daysiders seem like familiar modern humans, but the darksiders are themselves magical beings, who have multiple lives and peculiar powers. (There also seem to be some ordinary mortals in the twilight regions who are tied to the dark realms but not darksiders themselves.) Beyond that -- and here we get into ideas that make this possibly the weirdest of Zelazny's settings -- we learn that the daysiders and nightsiders inhabit one planet but two contradictory worldviews. For example, dayside science declares the world's core to be a molten zone (which Jack, interpreting this concept in a darkside way, likens to a fiery demon) while nightside magic names it a great Machine. As one character tells Jack,

"'It is the same thing that you describe, although neither of you sees it as it really is. Each of you colors reality in keeping with your means of controlling it. For if it is uncontrollable, you fear it. Sometimes then, you color it incomprehensible. In your case, a machine; in theirs, a demon.'"

How the world got that way, or if it was always so, whether this is our Earth in a forgotten past or a distant future or something else entirely -- these all are all moot points. The story is told with such clarity and energy that worries about the setting's background are lost in the imagery. I remember taking this book with me as a kid on a family fishing trip to Eastern Washington State, waking up before dawn with my dad and my sister (Mom rose at a more sensible hour) and stumbling cold into the motorboat, jacket rustling, watching the silvery light slowly sketch in the world. As my eyes adjusted, I'd sometimes think, hey, in the world of Jack of Shadows, 5 a.m. light and 6 a.m. light are regions on a map, and you'd have to walk between them to see the change. You could make your home in the grey pre-dawn, and live there forever. Thoughts like this are probably half of why I read this stuff.

I remember hearing that Jack of Shadows is in part Zelazny's homage to Jack Vance, and if that's true I'd guess the Vance works Zelazny most had in mind were the Dying Earth stories. In that series there's also a strange physical situation (the last days of Earth) with interesting lighting (not coincidentally it's also the dying days of the sun) and the coexistence of science and magic (though in the Vance magic dominates, and science is mostly forgotten.) The rich imagery also makes sense as an echo of Vance. Zelazny is never a slouch in this regard, but this book is particularly thick with interesting brain-pictures. The language is always Zelazny's own, however:

"As he journeyed along, he saw what appeared to be a distant hedge of stones. Drawing nearer, he noted that they were of a lighter color than the others in the vicinity and that they appeared to be regularly spaced. They did not appear to have been shaped by the forces of nature but hand-hewn by some monomaniac whose problem involved pentagons."

Another Vancean nod is the use of a roguish, if not outright amoral, point of view character, and a lack of apparent disapproval of his misdeeds in the narrator's voice. In re-reading Jack of Shadows earlier this year, I was struck by something that's hit me a few different times encountering Zelazny's protagonists as an adult, rather than a teenager. Namely, the stars of the show are sometimes pretty nasty customers. If you've met Corwin of Amber, or Hell Tanner, or even Conrad Nomikos, this will not much surprise you -- Zelazny excelled at the push-pull appeal of violent characters who take on noble causes. But what surprised me was how much my teenaged self was willing to overlook in cheering on some of Zelazny's "heroes." I suppose in part I was hooked by the power fantasies that are an undeniable part of the appeal of adventure stories, and in part by Zelazny's skill in getting inside his characters' skulls.

Jack of Shadows, aka Shadowjack, aka John Shade, aka Jack of Evil, is probably the worst of the lot... and I think even I was a little leery of him. But we spend his eponymous novel firmly in his head, and his self-justifications for his quest for vengeance are strongly felt. So I like to think I didn't quite understand just how awful some of that revenge turns out to be. Aspects of it are chillingly understated, and this too may be part of the Vancean mood:

"As time wore on, Jack continued to resolve boundary disputes to his satisfaction; and these grew fewer in number."

Jack begins the story as an underdog, and as a charming rogue with a long list of larcenous and romantic conquests behind him. He has an interesting complaint, having been summarily executed due to the manipulations of an enemy for a crime he had not yet had the opportunity to commit. Reborn, he seeks terrible vengeance, is thwarted and recaptured, and contemplates even worse vengeance. He crosses his world and ventures to the dayside in search of the computing power that can unearth an arcane secret called the Key That Was Lost. In the process he demonstrates just how engaging a revenge plot can be.

Jack is a Power, one of the greatest of darksiders. Unlike the other Powers, he has no fixed locus of strength; instead, shadows everywhere are his friends. Without them, in either total darkness or full light, he's powerless. With them he is among the great. Zelazny makes great use of this evocative idea, and ties Jack's character into it as well. It's when he's dancing his way between the feet of greater powers that he seems most himself. He claims he has a sanctuary called Shadow Guard, but footloose as he is, that seems doubtful. When he gains the Key That Was Lost and settles in as a full-fledged tyrant of the dark side, he loses his tenuous charm.

Yet his actions have also damaged the shield that keeps the dark side from freezing over, and so he must journey to the heart of the world, to do something madder than any prior action. He will cause the earth to spin. As disaster comes upon the world, a tumult ensuring life will endure, he finally begins to have a sense of things larger than his own wants.

"All the evil was upon his head, for he had indeed earned the title he had borne. Yet, out of it, he felt, some other thing would grow. For this, he could take no credit. He could only bear blame. But he felt that he was no longer precluded from seeing what might come now that the order of the world had been altered, from feeling it, delighting in it, perhaps even -- No, not that. Not yet, anyhow. But the succession of light and darkness would be a new order of things, and he felt that this would be good."

I think Ursula K. Le Guin once observed that a one-word summary of her themes might be "marriage." It's not really a fair question to put to authors, but it's a fun game for readers. The word I'd pick for Zelazny is "growth." Jack's story is that of an adolescent spirit that needs to mature. The division between light and darkness in his world makes a nice image for stasis, a status quo that needs to be shattered to allow for growth. Many other Zelazny characters, like Corwin, Red Dorakeen, William Blackhorse Singer, and Francis Sandow, seem likewise to be people stuck in a form of stasis, and their various quests help them, to some degree, to break free. None of their universes, however, embody stasis as much as the vivid world of this short book.

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