Roger Zelazny is one of the few writers in any genre that I think honestly deserves the sobriquet “visionary.” My first contact with Zelazny was “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1963 with the best cover I had ever seen. It is still a brilliant and haunting story. By the time “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” won the Nebula award in 1965, Zelazny was a major noise in the genre.
Lord Demon is his last novel, completed by the very talented Jane Linskold, Zelazny’s friend and biographer. It harks back to Lord of Light and Creatures of Light and Darknesss, two of his early novels, and among his best. In Lord Demon Zelazny has taken Chinese folklore as his context -– or at least, his starting point — building a rich and surprising universe in which our hero, Kai Wren, Lord Demon, Godslayer, lives.
Lord Demon, once a great warrior in the demons’ last war against the gods, has spent the last thousand years making plates, vases, bowls, and bottles of ceramic and glass. His works are rare and quite literally priceless, since each contains a bit of his own chi, and they are magical. He lives in one of them, because he, like most demons, can manipulate space-time and manage to fit a world into a bottle. (And why not bring in a little of the flavor of the “Arabian Nights” while we’re at it?) His bottle resides in a house in San Francisco, which is where the action, at least that of it in this plane, takes place. He has just finished a new bottle that has taken 120 years to complete, and his long-time servant, Oliver O’Keefe, an Irish musician and the closest thing that Kai Wren has to a friend, goes out to pick up pizza to celebrate. Lord Demon decides to take a walk outside and meet Ollie on his way back. Passing a small park, he discovers that Ollie has been murdered by a group of six minor demons, scrub demons, low-life little creeps who have just enough power to be demons at all. Kai Wren is a little more than annoyed by this, and the two surviving demons finally name the demon who gave them the contract: Tuvoon, the Smoke Ghost, son of Kai Wren’s own teacher, Viss of the Terrible Tongue, working through an intermediary. Kai Wren frees the two demons, Ba Wa and Wong Pang, and sends them to give Tuvoon notice that they will fight a duel over this insult. As it turns out, Tuvoon had not enlisted the scrub demons to kill Ollie. Shortly after this, an attempt is made on Kai Wren’s life, which is foiled by the Walker, nephew to He of the Towers of Light.
This is a complex, tightly constructed novel, for which it would be shameful to give away too much information on the plot. The basic story line involves Kai Wren’s attempt to find out who is trying to kill him, and why, which is a much more complex and important question. Along the way, we learn the story of the demons’ exile to a separate plane after a war with the gods, who occupy a plane that has unlimited chi, where the demons also originated. We meet Li Piao, a human wizard who teaches a class in making kites; his granddaughter, Li Plum, a practitioner of feng shui who is also a talented wizard; Shiriki and Chamballa, fu dogs who have come to live with Kai Wren after fleeing the plane of the gods; He of the Towers of Light, one of the few remaining demons from the time of exile; Seven Fingers, a sort of demon Hephaistos, and his daughter, Spilling Moonbeams, who, like Tuvoon, has difficulty manifesting a fully material body (which becomes a very important thing to know); Fu Xian, a sorcerer who is more than he seems. We take a journey to rescue Shiriki and Chamballa, who have been kidnapped and transported across the Plane of the Hangers (yep – wire coat hangers), and escape through the Plane of Socks (all those lost socks have to go somewhere). There are plots within plots, misdirection, magical weapons, sorcerers, demons (even an Irish demon, with a small but critical role to play). There is, finally, a heroic battle (two of them, actually), there are three wishes, there is a lot of excitement and fun.
Demons are generally portrayed as not sharing the human capacity for emotion, particularly love. Kai Wren does not fully illustrate this idea. There are reasons, which become clear in the novel, but Kai Wren himself is somewhat nonplussed to realize that one reason he was so incensed at the murder of Ollie O’Keefe is that he loved him as his closest friend; he also comes to treasure Li Piao, and the love he feels for Viss of the Terrible Tongue is a key element of the story. It’s well-done, although I can see where some would consider the explanation too neat. I don’t agree, because the other demons are quite definitely shown as not sharing in this capacity, so it does have to be explained in some way that makes sense in terms of this universe.
Zelazny was always a very inventive writer, and Lord Demon shows him in top form, as much as does Donnerjack, also completed by Linskold. He was also a writer who had the cheek to refer to one of his own books (Kai Wren is captured, his chi is drained, and he is incarcerated in a hospital under heavy sedation; Zelazny fans will know the reference) and then shortly thereafter, quote Shakespeare. He was not a perfect writer: his dialogue was always somewhat stilted, sometimes painfully so. It works in this novel because the characters retain a lot of the formality associated with the traditional Chinese. He was also a writer who pushed the boundaries of science fiction and fantasy, and indeed, really bridged those two genres in a way no one else had. Even in what is nominally a science fiction novel, such as Creatures of Light and Darkness, Zelazny wove in a strong element of fantasy, as he did in Donnerjack. As the winner of six Hugos and three Nebulas (I think only Connie Willis has won more), he has a well-deserved place in the annals of speculative fiction. This is Zelazny at the top of his form, even though he didn’t live to complete the novel. Great credit also goes to Jane Linskold: there are no seams and the book reads like pure Zelazny. That’s a very good thing.
(Harper Voyager, 2000)