Knight of Shadows by Roger Zelazny
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The identity of Mask has been discovered, Merlin’s brother is in league with entities desperate to kill him, and Coral, a dignitary’s stepdaughter (and illegitimate child of Oberon) is lost after instructing the Pattern to conduct her to where she “should” go.
Oh, right. The Pattern is sentient.
And practically every other magic tool in Merlin’s employ.
Knight of Shadow has a bit of a misleading title, calling to mind images of a gallant Merlin, fighting the forces of the Pattern and the Logrus (or Avalon and Chaos) as he attempts to find his father and Coral, and deal with Luke and Jurt.
While I can say with confidence that there was a lot to enjoy in this book, there were also many things that frustrated me. On the one hand, Zelazny shows his master weaving of conflict and plots that intersect in wild and unexpected ways; on the other, Merlin spends the majority of the book doing a whole lot of nothing (critical elements of the plot instead given to the characters in his periphery), and not many of the runnings story lines resolved by the end. With only one more book to go, and that book being only 130 pages, I am worried that the resolution of all of these conflicts will not be dealt with in a way that will satisfy.
However, I won’t judge the book on future concerns. Rather, I’ll focus on what I did like, and what I didn’t, in Book Nine of the Book of Amber. Spoilers to follow.
I think Mandor is starting to grow on me as a character. He has sort of a Vincent Price feel to him in my head, if Vincent Price was less into horror and more into fancy magic and playing Mandrake from King Comics. The scenes he was in were interesting, and I’m curious to see how his budding relationship with Jasra will play out in the final book, given that she pretty much duped everyone, despite their best efforts to see through he scheming.
There are a LOT of characters. Like, a lot, a lot. And this book has a problem with names that sound way too similar (Mandor/Merlin) (Jasra/Jurt) (Dalt/Dara). In addition to the problem of trying to keep track of so many characters, it’s also important to keep track of how many people are related (a fair amount of accidental and consensual incest happens in these books). I found a nifty chart to help me keep track of them all in the future (though apparently Oberon had upwards of 47 illegitimate children while he was alive.)
During a very lengthy play-by-play analysis of the book, Rajan Khanna, of Tor.com, noted that one of the creepiest scenes in the entire series takes place in Knight of Shadows. Coral, Merlin’s aunt, is under an enchantment that doesn’t allow her to wake, and Merlin, in an attempt to rescue her, negotiates the Pattern to reach her. However, the Pattern demands Merlin have sex with Coral before leaving, a demand which is briefly (and correctly) refused, before Merlin gives in. Merlin KNOWS Coral is related to him, but that isn’t even a thought that crosses his mind. He knows she is under an enchantment, and practically asleep, but after telling Coral of their predicament, receives a “I thought you’d never ask. (actual dialogue)” before stripping Coral of her clothes and having at it. This scene, coupled with the very last, which calls to mind the schemes of Morgana in the King Authur mythology, cast doubt on Coral and her motives, at which point I have to wonder no woman other than Vialle can resist the temptation to walk the darker path.
As well, though the plots were intriguing and extremely complex, the effect was sort of ruined, because the motives that the big baddies have for doing the things they do to Merlin are quite watery. Julia, our prime villain at the moment, is, when we get down to it, trying to murder Merlin and all the others involved with him simply because “he didn’t trust her enough”. That’s it. The scheme seems to demand more than such a weak motivation, and so that sort of killed the effect for me.
Some highlights in the book included a talking Frakir, which, after reading Steven Brust’s Jhereg, and knowing from N J’s vast knowledge that Brust was inspired by Zelazny, I could see an almost literal copy + paste from their witty exchanges in Chapter 5. Frakir is very much a Loiosh in my mind, though I realize Frakir came first.
I also really enjoyed the interactions between Merlin and Benedict (though he was a Pattern-Ghost), and the development Luke and Nayda/ty’iga received in this installment. The supper between Merlin, Mandor, and Jasra was also really fun to read. In fact, now that I think about it, though Merlin’s lengthy walk in the place between shadows did not add much directly to the story at large, his interactions with the Pattern-Ghosts (including a not-so-evil Jurt and an indignant Oberon!) were very interesting.
All in all, I feel this edition of the book is much stronger than some of the others, even with the incest and rat’s nest of plot lines, precisely because it plays to the characters, which I think are Zelazny’s strong suit in this series.