In the early part of his career, and in an indirect sense throughout it, Roger Zelazny combed Earth’s cultures, religions, and legends for story material. His brilliant Lord of Light and This Immortal riffing off Hindu/Buddhist and Greek mythology respectively, he established himself as a writer who combined the classic themes of myth and legend with more modern, imaginative tropes of science fiction and fantasy. His 1969 Creatures of Light and Darkness is no exception.
Egyptian myth and cosmology is the source material for Creatures of Light and Darkness, an epic tale of warring gods where space and time have little meaning — or all the meaning, if the story is viewed as a whole. Stakeholders in universal power, Osiris, Set, Anubis, Isis, and a variety of other deities from Egyptian myth come alive in the narrative. But the story is also grounded in semi-reality. Whether this is a far future vision or simply an extra-terrestrial fantasy setting, six versions of human life inhabit six worlds in the Middle Realm of the gods’ domain. Some worlds are more advanced than others, with the gods being able to control and apply technology at will, giving a distinct sci-fi edge to what is otherwise a full-on fantasy story.
Creatures of Light and Darkness opens on its highest note. In a brilliant opening chapter, a man activates a temple full of dormant corpses for a devil’s ball in Anubis’ House of the Dead. Not knowing his own name, the man is taunted and forced by Anubis to fight one of the living corpses as a test of strength. Anubis then charges the man with a task in the Middle Realm: to kill the Prince Who Was a Thousand. If he is successful, Anubis will return the man’s name. Invested with all of the power the god possesses and given centuries of time, he heads out into the six worlds to fulfill his mission.
A host of Egyptian gods, powerful wizards, and fantasy creations are introduced thereafter, and Creatures of Light and Darkness quickly escalates to dizzying proportions. Not all of Anubis’ information is true, nor is the world as black and white as life and death. Gloves of power, blue-fire wands, shadows of death, temporal fugue (when a fighter can move through time to do battle), and a host of other imaginative effects fill the scenes of cosmic combat. A potentially negative aspect of the novel, this interaction amongst all of the powerful wizards, deities, and other characters is entirely unsettled and requires patient reading for everything to fit into place. Readers rarely have a chance to catch their breath as the plot builds wildly to a crescendo.
Despite the vivid and exciting nature of the story, Creatures of Light and Darkness has some issues. Feeling more like an artist’s sketch than a finished piece, the narrative is a progressively rougher mix that does not allow for overall continuity. On one page you’ll find a properly epic thought such as: “You know every shadow in the House of the Dead. You have looked through all the hidden eyes.” might be voiced. But a page later, a jarring modern reference can slip in to dispel the mood: “Now Set unleashes beads of blaze that are like unto a Guy Fawkes display.” This clash of tone does not lend itself to a smooth narrative.
A related issue is that the dynamic nature of the story rarely allows events and implication to settle properly in the reader’s mind. One epic battle is not yet finished before another arrangement is made, lines drawn, and the sides at war again — the old idea having had minimum time to become the new idea. You must be on your toes. Certainly for some readers this will be an appealing aspect of the novel: an erratic, fast-paced plot that doesn’t resolve itself until the final pages. But for those who enjoy savoring a work of fiction, the jumps in setting, time shifts, character alignment, and seemingly random appearances of deities need to be tempered with more background and character development to be properly enjoyed. Like an unpolished stone, the story could have used another draft to fill the interstices.
One further inconsistency is that Zelazny does not restrict Creatures of Light and Darkness to strictly Egyptian roots. Concepts from Greek and Norse mythology, as well as the author’s personal storehouse of mythic ideas, inform the narrative. Typhon, a minotaur, Cerberus, the Norns, and a strange concept called the Steel General are featured. I am aware that when writing fantasy, anything goes. However, I am also aware that the more focused a writer’s ideas are, the more successful the presentation of story can be. Egyptian mythology contains enough ideas to write multiple fantasy novels, and heaping the tropes of other mythologies onto the novel is more distracting than appealing, particularly given the diminutive length of the novel.
In the end, Creatures of Light and Darkness is of middling grade. Beginning stolidly and ending gasping for air, the story is colorfully vivid to the mind’s eye, rushing along at dizzying speed. Battles and duels of a cosmic scale seem to appear on every page, and the gods of Egyptian mythology are embedded in a fantastical setting to full effect. Zelazny is able to walk the tightrope between science fiction and fantasy, and the book has a very similar feel to Lord of Light, but without the benefit of consistent prose and complementary story structure. As such, the book stands as a representative sample of the author’s work, but do read Lord of Light, He Who Shapes (The Dream Master), or This Immortal (aka …And Call Me Conrad) if you want Zelazny’s best.