In 1971, Roger Zelazny penned a wonderful mix of fantasy and science fiction that I think rivals his AMBER books for sheer imagination and exciting action. Jack of Shadows is set on an imaginary world, similar in some respects to our Earth, vastly different in others. One side of the planet (which does not rotate) is always in light, while the other is constantly at night. The “dayside” is much like 20th century Earth, with science ruling and the inhabitants enjoying the fruits of modern industry and technology. The “darkside” is similar to the medieval fantasy tropes of many fantasy stories, with magic in the ascendance and different supernatural lords ruling over their fiefs or domains, each with special localized powers.
Jack of Shadows, or “Shadowjack” as he is sometimes called, is a unique individual in that his magical powers are available to him wherever he goes, anytime he is in shadow or twilight, but not in either total light or total darkness. Jack is a not very likeable rogue who spends his time stealing from other darkside lords, and on the whole gaining their unanimous enmity. At the beginning of the book he is undertaking a perilous theft, in return for which he has been promised the hand in marriage of the daughter of a local magical lord — “The Colonel Who Never Died.” Jack is betrayed and executed after being caught in the theft. However, all darksiders who die are reborn as whole adults with their memories intact (after an indefinite period of time) in an area aptly known as “The Dung Pits of Glyve.”
After Jack is reborn (which he remembers has happened many times before), he begins a quest for vengeance which leads him on a journey through both the darkside and the dayside. Much like Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo, Jack becomes obsessed with his desire for vengeance over those who were instrumental in his betrayal and previous death, to the point of breaking even the relatively few laws and taboos of the darkside. Also like the character in Dumas classic, Jack finds out many things about the world and himself that he did not suspect or initially care about along the way. The story tackles questions of morality without being preachy, and without diminishing the drive of the story.
In Jack of Shadows Zelazny created a scientifically impossible world, yet he mixed in so many points of interest and great characters that I found myself not caring that it was impossible. Each time I’ve re-read this book my reaction is the same — I want to take my “willing suspension of disbelief” and hug it as close as possible. Readers will see the ways in which the book draws in figures from our own world’s various mythologies and fantasy memes and then recasts them in ways that seem both familiar and totally unique. One of my favorite characters has qualities of both the Greek Titan Prometheus and the Biblical fallen angel, but there are several memorable characters in Jack of Shadows. The prose is such that Zelazny reveals a lot about his characters in sometimes just a few lines, and they usually rise above the cardboard stereotypes one sometimes finds in fantasy literature.
Jack of Shadows is a short book which was originally serialized in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and then put out in paperback. It was nominated for the Hugo Award in 1972, so it was definitely appreciated at the time it was published. Sadly, it’s now out of print, which I personally find a travesty, but the good news is that it’s fairly easy to find used on line or in libraries. This is one I truly think all fans of fantasy literature should try.