I was a huge Zelazny fan when I was younger and read a great deal of his work. I even went so far as to stand in line at the old Recycle Books in San Jose to get an autographed copy of Nine Princes in Amber. He crossed genres easily and I felt then and now that much of his work was way ahead of its time. So when I came across a copy of Jack of Shadows at a garage sale I snapped it up.
I had read the book decades ago but only had a faint memory of it, and a vague feeling of uneasiness about it. I could not put my finger on why prior to reading it and am still not sure why afterwards but I believe I have a better idea why now.
The world that it is set in is an earth that basically does not rotate. Half is always in sunlight and half in darkness. In the light section there is science and a mechanical world. In the dark there are ruling powers that have powerful magic at their command. The dark side keeps a shield in the sky that keeps the world as it is with magic while the daysiders have a mechanical shield. The people in the sun have souls and the people in the dark are immortal and will be reborn if killed. At the edge of these two areas is Shadow, an area that the titular figure inhabits, and where his power comes from. The world had a Dying Earth feel to it, but it is obvious that Jack Vance’s books were not an inspiration. You also get hints (in hindsight) of the powers and characters that will his Amber series, especially Corwin.
I really enjoyed the reread but I could clearly see why I had the unease when I was younger. When you are introduced to Jack, he is a cool character, just a master thief planning a job. When the plan goes off the rails he ends up struggling to survive (after being executed) and vows vengeance on all that have wronged him. And he brings off the vengeance with a flourish. At this time he becomes an unlikable character. His mistakes and arrogance start compounding problems and he has to take drastic measures to try and salvage the situation.
I think what had upset me was that when I read this, back when it was originally published, all of the heroes in books that I followed were basically good. Even a character like Conan, who off the pages looted, robbed and raped, was a chivalrous, almost do-gooder in the stories. Jack somewhat redeems himself, but not really. I think I was unprepared for a character like this at the time, and to a degree I still find it unsettling. Not that he did not reform but rather because I still somewhat liked him.
I think that since I really enjoy Zelazny’s writing style and the imagery that he presents it is time to revisit other books that he has written. I think that Lord of Light, which won the Hugo in 1968, will be on my need to read soon list.