The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack


Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazny


Roadmarks by Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazny likes heroes who don’t know who they are. The most famous is Corwin of Amber, but he also uses this idea in Creatures of Light and Darkness and again here in Roadmarks. The idea behind the Roadmarks world is that branch universes are created at every decisive (and possibly all the other) moments of history and that these branch universes are connected by some powerful race in the past so that there appears to be a road network connecting them. Certain people can travel these roads and the travelers come from the whole range of history and cultures. One of the travelers (our hero who doesn’t know who he is) has another traveler acting out on a vendetta against him by hiring a large number of assassins to track him down through time and kill him. To make matters a bit more complicated, the storyline advances in two timelines. It’s a fast moving, fun story, but not one of Zelazny’s best.

Creatures of Light and Darkness by Roger Zelazny

This is a very difficult novel fit only for hard core Zelazny fans. It apparently was written as an exercise in which Zelazny wanted to play around with different storytelling techniques and which wasn’t intended for publication. I’m glad the book was published, but it’s far from Zelazny’s best work.

After a fascinating and very strong opening chapter in the House of the Dead, the book slips into basic incomprehensibility for at least half the remaining novel. A dizzying array of characters meet and do things that don’t make much sense on a first reading. In fact, they don’t make much sense at all until late in the novel when the reader begins to understand a complicated and fascinating background in which the gods fought a Ragnarok-like battle (even though they are an Egyptian mythos) where, at the moment of the triumph of Thoth, leader of the mythos, he and his closest allies were betrayed by those currently ruling the cosmos. Now it turns out that the two big winners of this betrayal—Anubis and Osiris—are competing with each other for preeminence while the betrayed gods from the past secretly make their comeback.

Overall, on the second reading, it makes a fascinating adventure story. It’s also punctuated with some classic Zelazny humor, such as his recurring radically ecumenical prayers. We also see some playing around with how time travel might affect combat. Overall, it’s a fun book, but you shouldn’t have to read it twice to fully appreciate it.

The Chronicles of Amber

Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny

When I was in ninth grade, I joined the Science Fiction Book Club and got a four-book-for-a-dollar deal as part of the introductory offer. I picked The Chronicles of Amber because it had a cool cover and the two volume set counted as one book. At the time I had never heard of Roger Zelazny, but after racing through the two volume set, I would try and get my hands on everything he’d ever written. Yet even as I devoured his other works, I kept coming back to Amber. I’ve read the books a dozen times, listened to the audio version narrated by Zelazny, himself, played the RPG both in person and in an extended email version, composed my own stories imagining what would come next, and finally happily bought the e-book versions so I can continue to enjoy them again and again. This is one of the greatest adventure stories in science fiction and fantasy and it all starts here with Nine Princes in Amber. On the off chance that you don’t already know what’s coming, I don’t want to risk spoiling anything. Enjoy it like I did the first time—totally fresh and without any foreknowledge. You won’t regret it.

The Guns of Avalon

If Nine Princes in Amber is a “Who Am I?” story, The Guns of Avalon is more of a straight adventure piece. Having escaped from his imprisonment in Amber, Corwin sets out to claim the throne he believes should be his. So he journeys into shadow to raise his new army, but along the way he discovers the consequences of his curse and comes to regret the rashness which led him to inflict it on that which he loves. In other words, Corwin begins to grow up a little. The novel also introduces Benedict, the most fearsome and possibly the most intriguing of the princes and princesses of Amber and sets the stage for the exploration of familial dysfunctionality that is the next book. The only problem you’ll have with this novel (even after multiple readings) is that you won’t want to put it down.

The Sign of the Unicorn

In the first two books of this series, the action was relatively straight forward. First Corwin is trying to discover who he is; second he is trying to conquer Amber. In The Sign of the Unicorn Corwin begins to learn just how little he truly understands of what has been going on in Amber since he began his lengthy sojourn on earth. This is a novel of intrigue and family politics and it begins to reshape Corwin’s view of his brother, Eric’s, short reign. Amber is threatened by a force King Oberon did not understanding and it quickly becomes apparent that it is Oberon’s children—the princes and princesses of Amber—who are responsible for the kingdom’s danger. This book will keep you spellbound as each new revelation forces you to reexamine what you—and Corwin—think you know about who actually has the best interests of Amber at heart. Two factions are vying for power and there’s nothing they won’t risk to get what they want.

The Hand of Oberon

In the fourth book, Corwin finally begins to uncover answers that look like they will hold up over time. Surviving conspirators from both factions put their spin on what has been happening and the reader finally has the opportunity to figure out who the traitor in the family really is—just before Zelazny himself reveals the traitor’s hand. Family members like Julian and Fiona who have been all too enigmatic to this point come out of the shadows, revealing motivations that make you reconsider who is a hero and who is a villain. The tension soars as the traitor acts and we take the penultimate step toward the end game that will decide whether the Pattern and the realm of Amber will survive or be destroyed.

The Courts of Chaos

Roger Zelazny has always had a gift for poetic imagery and his extraordinary talents are on full display in The Courts of Chaos as Corwin hell-rides from one end of the sprawling multiverse of shadows to the other. It’s beautiful to read and he adeptly uses the journey to build tension and foreshadow the key elements of the conclusion of the series. When it finally becomes impossible for our hero to stay ahead of the wave of chaos coming out of Oberon’s possibly failed attempt to fix the Pattern, Zelazny gives us a glimpse of what it must have been like when Dworkin first inscribed the source of all order. From there, the pace of the story springs forward at lightning speed to the conclusion of the struggle among the princes and princesses of Amber. It would have been very easy for these final scenes to disappoint the reader. Anticipation for them had been building over five books and expectations were high. But Zelazny outdid himself and provides a totally satisfying conclusion as the children of Oberon finally mature enough to put their squabbles behind them and place their lives on the line for all of shadow. The final ending, on the horn of the unicorn, was the perfect outcome to a superior tale.

Seven Tales in Amber by Roger Zelazny

I am huge fan of Roger Zelazny, but this collection of short stories greatly disappointed me. The only one I truly liked was Prologue to Trumps of Doom. Most of the others felt like sections of the series that were properly edited out or efforts on Zelazny’s part to lay the groundwork for a new Amber series. I would have loved to read a third Amber series, but I found this collection of short stories to be a disappointing tease.

Other Zelazny Tales

Bridge of Ashes by Roger Zelazny

This is a Zelazny novel I heard about in high school but somehow never found a copy of until it recently came out as an e-book. It tells the story of the world’s most powerful telepath—a young boy whose brain keeps copying the brains of those around him, keeping him from having a personality of his own. His parents (both telepaths who can shield their brains from him) keep moving further and further from civilization to no avail. Even the moon proves not to be far enough away as he begins connecting with people through time until he copies Leonardo DaVinci’s brain and well, that would be telling…

All of this is happening within a world that is going environmentally to hell—all according to an alien race’s plan. It seems that they are terraforming our world to meet their needs, and part of the plan is for humans to grow into an industrial society, pollute our planet, and then kill ourselves off so they can take over. Knowing Zelazny, you can see that the world’s strongest telepath and the aliens are going to have a confrontation by the end of the book.

If you like Zelazny’s work, you will enjoy this novel, but there’s a reason it’s been hard to find for the last few decades. It’s fun, but far from his best work.

Changeling by Roger Zelazny

Here’s a Zelazny novel where it’s not clear for several chapters which of the main characters is the hero and which the villain. An evil sorcerer is killed at the beginning of the book leaving his infant son alive behind him. The victors are reluctant to kill a baby but also terrified of leaving a child alive knowing he is the heir to great magical power and could reasonably be expected to seek vengeance on those who killed his parents. Their moral conundrum is resolved when the wizard who aided the victors agrees to exchange the child (Pol) with one (Mark) on another world creating not one, but two, changelings.

The next several chapters show both children not fitting into their new worlds. Pol is a wizard in a technological world whose untrained powers glitch technology, driving his engineer “father” crazy. Mark is a technological genius on a magical world—a world which thinks that technology is evil. Neither child is happy. Neither fits in. But it’s not until Mark is nearly killed by his neighbors, discovers an ancient teaching machine and still working factories, and vows vengeance on his assailants that the ancient wizard who exchanged the two kids decides it’s time to bring Pol back.

This sets up a battle between Pol and Mark, but it’s not a contest that the reader (or Pol for that matter) feels good about. The two should be friends and allies, but Mark is jealous and a bit paranoid and war between them becomes inevitable. 

This is a fun novel—not one of Zelazny’s greats, but a very enjoyable story just the same.

Coils by Fred Saberhagen and Roger Zelazny

I love the idea behind this novel. A ruthless billionaire got his company ahead in the world by harnessing the abilities of cyberpath, a telepath, a telekinetic, and a guy who can heal or harm with his mind. The cyberpath got out when he found out that people were being murdered to advance the company’s interests—but there was a twist. He had to agree to be hypnotized so that he forgot everything he had been doing with the company. When the hypnotism begins to fail and his memories return, the billionaire grabs the cyberpath’s girlfriend and attempts to kill his former employee.

What follows is a rather straightforward, and I feel, very limited adventure story. Don, the cyberpath, appears to be quite intelligent, but acts as if all he has to do is find his girlfriend and he and she will be allowed to walk off into the sunset. All the while the billionaire is trying to kill him. The really obvious thing for Don to do is to fight back using his own abilities. He could, for example, start wiping out the hard drives on all of the billionaire’s computers. He could, for example, dump the billionaire’s secret files to the press, or other authorities. And I could go on. Instead he drives across country and attempts to walk into a corporate facility and get his girlfriend.

I might also point out that the whole problem could have been avoided if the billionaire used the hypnosis to make Don want to continue working for him. That might actually have led to a better story where Don, on the job, began to recover his memories…

All told, there was great promise in this story, but the implementation was rather lacking.

Doorways in the Sand by Roger Zelazny

This is one of Zelazny’s weaker stories, but still contains that spark of style which Zelazny fans have come to love. Fred Cassidy is a professional student. In his will, his uncle Al provided him with full tuition and a generous stipend as long as he remains a full time undergraduate student. So thirteen years later, Fred is still in college, brilliantly managing his course load and shifting majors to prevent himself from ever graduating and Zelazny successfully portrays him as an intelligent, very well informed, thirtyish man.

The novel opens with the appearance that the major conflict will involve Fred and his new advisor—an annoying man whose goal in life appears to be to force Fred to graduate—but it quickly takes a turn for the bizarre involving a lost alien artifact and the many people—human and alien—struggling to get their hands on it. They repeatedly threaten, harm, and kidnap Fred out of their certainty that Fred has the artifact even though Fred clearly has no idea where it is.

So there are a couple of little mysteries which Zelazny has fun with before springing this twist or that, all of which is quite enjoyable. Unfortunately, the structure of the novel was unnecessarily confusing with each chapter starting somewhere in the future and then jumping back to tell the story in “real time”. After you figure out what’s going on, this structure changes from confusing to irritating. It’s not a useful foreshadowing, it’s just annoying.

All in all, this is a fun book with a lead character firmly in the Zelanzy heroic mode. As always, there are interesting ideas—this time mostly along the lines of what a diverse galactic civilization might look like. Yet it never quite captures Zelazny’s usual magic and turn into a great story.

Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny

This is a quirky little novel about a man who draws tremendous magical power from shadow—a gift that makes him a natural thief. He starts the novel with a “bad” reputation which people he has not injured use to justify cruelty toward him—an action that leads to him being captured by an old enemy who goes on to take everything from him until Jack very cleverly escapes vowing ever more vengeance. The rest of the novel is about the vengeance and its consequences, but the underlying story (and it’s not particularly subtle, which surprised me in a Zelazny novel) is about what it takes to make a person human. This is a fun story. I’ve read it three or four times over the years and undoubtedly will again.

Madwand by Roger Zelazny

The sequel to Changeling was not as sharp a novel as the first, and might explain why a third book did not come in what was clearly intended to be a new series by Zelazny. I think that in part the book was less successful because it lacked both the clear opposing lines of the first book—magic versus technology—and the underlying feeling of tragedy that developed out of the certainty that the two antagonists should have been friends.

Instead, what we get is a mystery. Someone is trying to kill Pol for unknown reasons. And a mysterious figure is trying to help Pol, but his unwillingness to explain why makes the reader suspect that he is not really a friend. There is plenty of moral hypocrisy in this novel as supposedly white magicians engage in evil actions. The central problem appears to be that everyone assumes Pol must be evil because they believe his father was and apparently blood runs true. Yet, they all forget that it was Pol’s grandfather who defeated his father, and he was not evil. There are further examples of blood not running true in the story as well.

Perhaps the biggest weakness of the story is that too many characters have the sarcastic personality that Zelazny often gives to his heroes, which makes multiple people in the book appear to be the same. The best things about the novel are the beautiful illustrations—and that’s not a good thing to note about a medium that depends on the written word.

My Name Is Legion by Roger Zelazny

My Name Is Legion collects three great novellas by the late Roger Zelazny including the Hugo winning Home Is the Hangman. The hero of all three is a man who managed not to be recorded in a global database that is supposed to track everything humans of the future do. This puts him in a situation where he can become anyone, which makes him an excellent and very highly paid detective. Each novella is a mystery which Zelazny unfolds with his trademark style. So if you are interested in finding out why people want to stop nuclear weapons from being used to create volcanic islands in the Atlantic to help solve the need for more landmass, or if dolphins murdered two scuba divers, or why a space probe has come home and begun to murder the men and women who created it, you should definitely give this collection a try.

A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny

I am a huge fan of Roger Zelazny and have read most everything he’s written. My favorite of all of his stories is the novel, A Night in the Lonesome October. I read it every October, sometimes listening to my old audiobook cassette tapes in which Roger Zelazny reads the story himself, and sometimes reading it either in print or electronically. It’s a beautiful story and a tribute both to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos and to many great works of literature and film focused on the late nineteenth century.

This is a tale of people who are drawn together to strive to open or to keep closed a gate to the realm of the Elder Gods on a Night in the Lonesome October when the moon is full on Halloween. This time, those gathering are Jack the Ripper, a witch, Dracula, the werewolf, Dr. Frankenstein, a druid, and many more. There preparations bring the attention of law enforcement and the Great Detective. All of this would be wonderful enough, but the genius of the story is that the humans are not the eyes we see through in the relating of this tale. The point of view and all of the interactions are between the animal familiars of those who will contend—a dog, a cat, a snake, an owl, a bat, a rat, and so on.

As the month advances, players start to turn on each other, winnowing the ranks as some position themselves to save the world while others play for power. There are twists, turns, and secrets aplenty here and I enjoy rereading this masterpiece every single year.

This Immortal

Zelazny won the Hugo for this novel and it’s easy to see why. Conrad (of the many names) is a fascinating man and the immortal of the title moving through a vividly and poetically depicted post-apocalyptic earth which is supported economically almost totally be alien tourists fascinated by earth’s history and the near destruction of the planet in the Three Day War. There is depth of thought regarding this future society evident in almost every page and yet never once did I have that experience of wondering, “Why is Zelazny telling me this now? Why can’t we get on with the story?”

The plot revolves around a rich Vegan who wants to write a travel guide to earth’s most important sightseeing spots starting with Egypt and the Great Pyramids. Conrad is an official in the government agency in charge of protecting the historical monuments. He doesn’t want to play tour guide especially after it becomes clear that some of the humans who attach themselves to the tour want to see the Vegan die before he leaves earth. They worry that the alien’s real purpose is to lay the groundwork for the Vegans to buy up the rest of the planet.

This is where Zelazny truly shows his depth because much of the plot revolves around a political terrorist group who have embraced the ideology of Returnism—wanting all humans to return to earth and make it an independent planet again. Conrad actually started this movement and led the terrorist cell in an earlier life, but came to a point where he believed that it was not capable of achieving the Returnist aim and set about instead exploring other paths. As with many diasporas, most humans don’t live on the planet anymore and the sad truth the Returnists don’t want to face is that second and third generation humans who have never seen earth don’t want to return there at all. Their lives are elsewhere now, but the fanatics can’t give up the dream and have become certain that killing this Vegan is the key to earth’s eventual independence.

To achieve their end they have hired a fascinating assassin named Hasan who, thanks to a quirky response to a longevity procedure, is also effectively immortal (at least he’s lived for a very long time as a young man). Conrad and he know each other well but now they are reluctantly on opposite sides of the Vegan problem.

As if this tension wasn’t enough, the post-apocalyptic earth is a very dangerous place with mutations giving rise to legends out of myth and other monsters. Over all, it’s just a delightful tale filled with Zelazny’s brush-stroke characterizations that hang in the mind years after you read the piece.

This time through I listened to an audio edition narrated by Victor Bevine. At first I thought his slow rate of speech was going to wreck the novel. (I never think of Zelazny’s books as slow moving.) Fortunately, I quickly came to love the nuance with which he shared Zelazny’s prose and brought his characters to life. Whether in print or in audio, this book is worthy of its Hugo and well worth your time.