“Lord of Light” by Roger Zelazny

In the far future, on a colony world, some people have developed mutant powers…which they use (along with technology) to impersonate the gods of the Hindu pantheon and rule over the planet of their descendants.

And that’s as sci-fi as this story gets. It’s not at all a spaceships-and-lasers story…it’s a fantasy epic, imitating all the conventions of religious myth from symbolic repetition to deliberate ambiguity.

The story follows Siddhartha, AKA Maitreya (“Lord of Light”), AKA Mahasamatman, AKA the Buddha, AKA just Sam. Some view him as a god, others as the friend of demons. He views himself as a charlatan, using the tools at his disposal in a political crusade. The story suggests they are all right – just as it deftly synthesizes a culture built on veneration of the Hindu pantheon (and depending on their approval for reincarnation in a new body) and advanced technology (including the technology that makes this body-transfer possible).

Lord of Light is a story of ideas…a raw, unidealized look at humanity – and the darkness inside of them…a tale of atmosphere, ancient legends, and towering personalities…all set in a rich, layered world drawn from Indian culture and religion – perfect for those fantasy aficionados tired of the “bland European” fantasy setting.

Characters

Mr. Zelazny excels at making characters that are…not exactly “huggable,” but sympathetic. They may not be people you trust, and they sometimes do distasteful things…but you can always understand what’s going on in their heads. They are always intensely human characters.

This goes for our main character Sam, too. While his peers are strutting around in gorgeous bodies and play-acting gods, he’s living as a simple human prince among the commoners (who must watch their political and religious sympathies, lest they be denied a reincarnation when their current body wears out).

Once Sam decides to take on the oppressive oligarchy of Heaven, he does it with subtlety, with trying to break the people’s blind reverence for them…with the (uncontrollable) power of local aliens…with human mistakes, partial victories, set-backs and failures. While we might disagree with some of his choices, and question some of his methods, there’s no denying Sam is a realistic, three-dimensional human character.

Ideas

Speaking of humans…they are pretty dark creatures. And Mr. Zelazny doesn’t shy away from that fact.

The city of the gods where the “Heavenly” bureaucracy lives is basically a great big “garden of delights”…where they spend their days banging each other (and their interchangeable concubines), getting drunk, eating delicacies…and occasionally, indulging even darker passions like violence.

There was more sex than in Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, but each instance was still tamer than Robert Ludlum’s style. A good author doesn’t need to give medical definitions for the readers’ skin to crawl…perhaps there’s a reason “debauchery” is such a gross-sounding word without even knowing what it means?

All of which paints the message loud and clear: no matter what humans achieve – even if they invent a technology that lets them side-step death! – they will still be fallen creatures, and sooner or later they will use it to oppress and exploit each other.

Body swapping

Speaking of the honest exploration of ideas, a central element of Lord of Light is the technology that lets people transfer their “atman” or soul from one body to another.

While no one ever brings up the issue of how they created human bodies without a “person” already living in it, they do discuss the complications of family ties where people are constantly renewing their bodies. What does it mean to say this or that person is your “father” – when he’s now in a new body, and so are you, and so the two of you have no genetic material in common at all…yet he (and your mother) still contributed to the birth of your spirit into the world. Complicated, no?

Add to that the fact that male and female bodies are now interchangeable, and I’m honestly surprised the whole society hasn’t devolved in a fiery collapse because of the total fragmentation of the nuclear family. Perhaps humans are more resilient than I assumed…or rather, perhaps Mr. Zelazny views humans as more resilient than I would.

Myths and legends

Part of the fun of Lord of Light is the depth of the world Mr. Zelazny has created. We really get a sense that exciting, unusual things have happened a lot in the past – that, in fact, the characters’ lives were stuffed full of strange and interesting things – but that we only see through hints and barely mentioned memories. Extending the world beyond the story at hand makes it immensely bigger.

I think the author was trying to do the same thing with some of his ambiguities… Like an old wives’ tale that teaches you about the world by beginning, “Some say…” – while still leaving room for interpretation. This narrative style perfectly captured the ambiance of an oral culture, infused with the rejection of “material reality” that underlies Buddhism. After all, the goal of a Buddhist is to disconnect from physical reality so much that you reach Nirvanna – a state beyond existence.

It fit the story Mr. Zelazny was telling like a hand in a glove…and yet…

Complaints

And yet Jesus said, “I Am the way.” He said, “I am the Truth.”

The gods of the Celestial City rule by indoctrination…by denying their opponents reincarnation…by insisting on the pre-ordained roster of “Heaven.” When a god or goddess dies, their place must be taken by someone else – another of the mutant oligarchs takes on their name and primary attributes (male, fire-wielding, etc.). They essentially ret-con history to maintain their narrative.

Very clever as a story ploy…but, well, modern America has a bad habit of thinking it can make a thing so just by yelling it louder. Which, now that I think about it, makes Zelazny’s villains all the more believable. But…

But ideas have consequences. And when we tell ourselves (even in stories) that real historical events don’t matter (“some say this, but others say that…”) it erodes our grip on reality – God’s reality. Which happens to be very insistent.

Am I saying the novel Lord of Light will destroy your psychological grip on cause-and-effect? Only if you are a pathetically weak, ungrounded person. But I am saying we must be aware of the ideas we come into contact with…fore-warned is fore-armed.

(Also, it’s kinda weird that this universe’s master-of-zombies is the one guy who spouts vaguely Biblical references and claims a vague Christian ecclesiastical affiliation. Even weirder than Ultron’s habit of Biblical/apocalyptic literary reference in Avengers: Age of Ultron.)

Spoilers for Authors

My other complaint is because I watch too much Writer Youtube.

The entire novel builds up the conflict of Sam versus the fake gods…Every scene somehow ties into their clash of ideas: oppress and exploit the common people, or allow them to (re)discover and enjoy the same tech advances that have given the “gods” their comfortable lives. Every battle, conversation, and set-back is somehow laced with the conflict.

Then, in the last chapter, everything peaks – only Sam doesn’t fight the gods. Instead, he teams up with the gods who are left (the ones he, or various others, haven’t killed yet) to fight some third party who’s barely been mentioned.

This mysterious “new challenger” popped up in conversation once or twice before, as one of these hinted past conflicts that made the world feel bigger. But he certainly didn’t get enough development to be the end boss of the entire book. It’s not quite an official “Martha Moment“…but it’s also not entirely satisfying.

(In a “Martha Moment,” something causes one of the opposing teams – often the winning side – to abandon their goal so that the two sides can unite in the third act. Instead, Sam joins the gods because he figures he has already won the culture war — once people no longer view the gods as inviolable, their power will be basically broken. It’s still less satisfying though.)

Conclusion

It’s fun when authors know what style they’re aiming for, and then go whole-hog in nailing that style in the bull’s-eye.

Lord of Light is an evocative, atmospheric fantasy (glossed with scientific explanations)…The manipulation of philosophy for political ends was a clever plot device, and the ideas raised by the technology were honestly explored.

What with the “questionable” scenes, and the worldview implications, I would recommend this for mature readers who are ready to intellectually confront the ideas presented to them.

You’ll also get a part-epic, part-character-piece that melds battles, adventure, and intrigue.


Lord of Light is available on Amazon.

Dear Diary….well that was anti-climactic…

Alert: Contains spoilers for the adventure “Temple of Elemental Evil”

So we can invade the Fire Node next, Ezekiel gave us a short lecture about the enemies one of the clerics we rescued told us about.

A Bodac is apparently some kind of demon, and can kill you if you just look at it…so he says the plan is for us all to stand back while he tries to hit it with the mace (while protected from evil). There are supposedly efrete there, too, which he says are relatives of the geni…they won’t be necessarily Evil, but it’s safer to be careful around them.

Everybody should be protected from heat, either with a ring, Tressarian, or one of the clerics’ spells – so we head in tomorrow.

****

We made sure Lydia was ready, then gathered around Ezekiel while he touched the gem we assume is the key-stone of fire. Sure enough, we found ourselves in an eight-sided room – four corners and four points like a star. Even with our magic, the heat was sweltering.

Firelight peeked through chinks in the walls, and eight heavy stone doors with brass handles lined the corners of the room. Ezekiel always says to take the right turn, and since north is front on the map, the east is the right (and I drew the map, so I got to pick which way was north). Continue reading

Dear Diary….there are water things, and there are water things

Safe and sound in Hommlet. Master Ostler was very impressed by our new badges. Heiron and I both decided to keep them in our locked chest at the inn, so they don’t get lost or messed up while we’re traveling in the nodes.

We asked Master Elmo up to our rooms for a “drink,” and we discussed our upcoming strategy. The last guy we rescued told us about the sea-hags in the Water Node, but none of us sounded really excited to fight them (not even Ezekiel, for once — he just thought that maybe they could tell us where the grus and water-demons were, but we weren’t sure we wanted to do business with them).

Bottom line, Lydia’s going to try to scry us back to our raft in the Water Node, and we’ll continue searching along the wall in a counter-clockwise direction – like we were before fighting the dragons. Continue reading

Dear Diary….special snowflakes every one of us

Alert: Contains spoilers for the adventure “The Temple of Elemental Evil”

We have rescued another inhabitant of the nodes.

When we got back to the fortress after all the dragon stuff, there was a guy knocking on the fortress door. His shield had the green dragon of Sir Robilar, but he says he just found it somewhere in the node…along with his chainmail and weapons (which explains why it doesn’t fit him well, and looks so beat-up).

We introduced ourselves, and turns out his name is Ashrim (former priest of the Air Temple)…says he was betrayed by his brother, Alrim (priest of the Fire Temple, I think – now dead) and sacrificed to the nodes.

We told him we were invaders of the nodes, and Ezekiel said we could get him out – for the price of telling us what he knew. Ashrim says there’s a vegemoyd in the Water Node (whatever that is), also some sea-hags (Ezekiel seemed intrigued…maybe they have the key-fragment?).

He also said there’s a bodak in the Fire Node, plus some red dragons; Earth Node has basilisks and black dragons. So sounds like we’ll be fighting more dragons…though I’m not looking forward to the basilisks, either. Ezekiel’s told us too many freaky stories about them.

We gave A. food and drink inside the fortress, and Lydia told him that as long as he behaved himself, what he did wasn’t our business…unless he did something that made it our business. I still don’t trust him, but he says the Mushroom Queen has abandoned him, and we all know what a cleric with no spells is worth (!). Ezekiel and Mikael encouraged him that maybe he should serve a deity who actually cared about him – like maybe Obed-Hai, who actually showed up at Mikael’s prayer when Ezekiel was being stupid and trying to get himself killed. Continue reading

Dear Diary….first ever dragon fight—impressive??

Digging through my pack (and the bag of holding) I realized I have a potion of heroism (it might be from the sticky cloth that makes a storage hole, but I’m not sure…). According to Ezekiel and Lydia, it makes you stronger and tougher, and “unlocks” something-something-lets you attack more efficiently, or something.

Bottom line, I gave it to Elmo, in case he judges it would be useful. (I mean after all, he chopped a giant in half last battle, and I barely did anything. Besides, Heiron and I are planning to go in with our bows, and more muscle wouldn’t really help us there – except maybe break the bowstring by accident (which would not be helping).) Continue reading

Dear Diary….die, learn, win, repeat

13 Wheelsun

Nice party last night. Raven made the most extraordinary cookies. (He made up a box to leave with Lydia, I guess to keep her company while we’re busy.)

Wonillon found a caravan traveling in his direction, so he’s joining up with them this afternoon. (He did let me buy the necklace of adaptation.)

We’re going over to Lydia’s at the tower so he can say good-bye (and so we can do some planning…meaning Ezekiel and Lydia do planning, and the rest of us look pretty).

**

Lydia has adjusted her face! She looks more-or-less the same, just without the burn scars. I thought it was funny that she had her veil loose in the tavern last night, but I couldn’t put my finger on why it didn’t bother anybody (especially her). I guess she’s forgiven us and consented to wear the hat. Continue reading

Dear Diary….Wonillon’s grand finale

We had just sent the bandits off through the mirror, and Ezekiel had just spotted what might be a raft on the coast-line, when Raven reappeared – right about the spot where the bandits disappeared. He says he got our last two rescued prisoners safely on their way home…and, of course, picked up some cheese (which he passed around).

We talked a bit about how we could get the Dragon-Turtles out of the node and into the Near Div. It might be possible with a couple potions of Diminution, a spell of Mikael’s, and the river near Nulb…but we should definitely check with them first. And anyway it should be a while before we’re ready to collapse the nodes.

We also talked about ways to fight the Demon-Rays (or Ixixaktl). Ezekiel says it’s going to be harder, because some of them have the abilities of clerics (like casting spells and stuff) and others of them even have the ability to suck your life-force (he says it’s like vampires, but none of us have ever met those, either – thank goodness!).

Demon-rays are water-breathers, so Wonillon suggested casting “Airy Water” on them, making them at least sink – and maybe suffocate. Ezekiel isn’t sure he can use the spell on something other than himself, though.

Naturally, shooting my bow underwater would be basically useless – even inside the Airy Water.

****

We investigated the raft – and sure enough, it floats. Looks like it was cobbled together from bits and pieces of everything, with a couple rough paddles that might have been carved with a battle-ax. It looks rickety and uneven…but it does float, even with all of us on it.

We paddled toward what we’re calling south until we hit a new island (small and uninhabited), where Mikael tried to “Commune with Nature” or something (it’s supposed to make him one with the environment and tell him useful things about the surrounding countryside or something). He’s been sitting with his eyes closed and humming a little for almost ten minutes.

Ezekiel took the time to look for any hidden caves near the shoreline. He didn’t find any, but he did find a pretty shell.

****

Mikael didn’t learn anything…I guess this place isn’t much like the “natural” outside. (He doesn’t seem to like Ezekiel’s new shell.)

We continued south until we reached the wall of the node. I assume that’s what it is…it’s a wet, glinting wall of rock that rises up and arcs toward the fake stars overhead. We took care not to get too close with our raft.

Something attacked us shortly after we turned east. I just know it had wings and dove out of the water very suddenly. Wonillon and Ezekiel killed it (with Mikael’s help).

**

Well. It’s been an afternoon.

We were following the rock wall “east” a rocky formation rose up ahead of us. There must be an underwater cave entrance, because next thing we knew, humanoid things with fins and gills started swarming us.

We were a bit taken aback when Ezekiel hit one and his mace didn’t light up or anything (though it was also amazing that he’d hit two things today), so Mikael called out to ask them if they were Evil…though they never stopped attacking us long enough to answer.

Then I hit a couple with Tressarian (he was in my hand since we were sniffing for magic and Evil) and I could tell by the way their skeletal structure came apart – they’re related to hob-goblins somehow. I’m not sure exactly how the fins and gills came into it, but at least I didn’t have to guess where the major arteries and organs would relate to each other.

Not like it mattered a great deal – the others were chewing through them, even without my know-how. Heiron was shooting down two or three of them every minute or so…and they noticed. They gabbered in their own ugly language, and charged through the water to get at him (by the way, the raft is sturdier than I gave it credit for, and I’m very grateful that it didn’t tip us all out during the battle).

Things were going peachy…Mikael and Raven both used magic ropes to catch prey, and Ezekiel kept touching Heiron with healing whenever a weapon caught him. We were stacking up the bodies in the water all around us. And then the giant sting-ray things showed up.

Ezekiel tells me they’re “demon-rays,” but of course we never saw them real clearly while fighting them. They just jumped out of the water, took a bite out of something, and dove back down. Most of them seemed most interested in the dead marine-hobs (koalinths, I guess) and would take off an arm or foot as they passed a body. So I guess they’re not all that bright.

Others were more effective. One of them charged up and took a bite out of Wonillon – and he staggered back, looking pale and green.

A couple water-hobs knocked Heiron’s bow away and struck him to his knees. Although that made me see red, switching to my bow would take too long (even though I could kill more of them that way). Besides, Tressarian was having such a good time.

Ezekiel stepped over to Heiron and put his hands on him, and I tried to look dangerous by killing even more of them.

The stars disappeared for a few moments, and the fog around us seemed to intensify…Ez tells us that was a darkness spell, but I guess the continual light on our two shields was too much for it (thanks Elohnna!).

I slashed a ray in two, and realized the water-hobs had fled back to their cave (those who were still alive, obviously).

Ezekiel waved his sheep-symbol around, and I guess a few bubbles floated to the surface or something (of course in all that chaos it’s hard to tell)…he says there were some water-ghouls that noticed the power of the lamb.

I’m just wondering how many other things feel the need for a water-gimmick. What’s next, water-squirrels?

We were finishing off the last of the moving ixixaklt when I saw Raven holding his hand in front of his eyes and throwing a dagger.

At first I thought he was just trying to make it look more impressive…then I saw his dagger imbed into a…

[partial sketch]

Floating eye thing. So that’s a thing, too.

It bubbled and dropped into the water, and Heiron and Wonillon shook their heads and rubbed their eyes a little. (Heiron asked me, “How could a giant eye just float like that, Master?” and I told him to ask Lydia.)

Wonillon still looked kinda shriveled and green (and he’s just naturally small anyway) so Ezekiel said we had to get him back to the world to find a healer.

Not fancying the idea of sitting right outside the koalalynths’ front door, we paddled for about ten minutes until we found another bare island that would fit the fortress. We had time to bandage Heiron before Lydia waved us through.

He seems in a bad way. Even with the dodging and push-ups he’s been practicing, there’re only so many bites and stabs a man’s body can take. It’s not fair that just because I’m not as tall as he is I somehow seem less intimidating. Ezekiel says I shouldn’t tempt fate.

Ezekiel has also been talking with Father Yra and some other people at the tower…and the news isn’t good for Wonillon. As Ez said at first, it looks like the demon-ray sucked a bit of his life away. Not sure how that works, but I guess it means Wonillon forgot a few things…and isn’t as healthy as he used to be.

There is a spell that could help him…but it would take someone in Verbobanc to cast it, that they’d probably want a lot of money for the trouble (according to Father Yra). Like, a lot of money – even more than Mikael has (and he doesn’t have to pay Master Geru to share the “secret druid knowledge!”).

Wonillon’s done some thinking, and he thinks he’ll “quit while he’s ahead”…he got his revenge on the temple, and he says he’s richer than anyone in his hometown could ever dream. So he might as well retire while he’s still a young gnome in his prime, and enjoy his earnings.

Ez made a big speech that basically meant, “Good to know you; stay in touch.” We’re going to hang out for a few days (Heiron has to rest up anyway) and throw a farewell party. (Lydia will be happy…she says it’s super boring just watching us flex through the mirror.)

I want to ask Wonillon if he’ll sell me the Necklace of Adaptation. After all…he probably won’t need it…and it would come it super handy in the water node (and possibly in some of the other ones, too). Lydia and Ezekiel tell us that the elemental grus can’t cancel the effects of magical items, so having that would make me much more confident about being able to breath.

Tressarian says it was a worthy fight, but would have been even better if they were Evil fire creatures. He’ll just have to wait until the fire node.

(Lydia skeptical that Ezekiel turned some water-ghouls…she says the Demon Prince that the demon-rays serve is usually bitter enemies with the Undead King. Then again, maybe they weren’t working together? They just happened to be hanging out in the same area? The demon-rays sure weren’t “working with” the sea-hobs in any sense that we would recognize…)


Find the previous entry here.

Dear Diary….Ezekiel is trigger-happy and Mikael is a dolphin

We talked with our rescued slaves while waiting for Lydia to answer our chalk circle (good thing we’ve never used it for an emergency evacuation).

One of them (Dwr) says he was captured from a merchant caravan, and thrown into the pit as a sacrifice. Says he’s the only one left of his group.

The other one (Dirat) was a bit more evasive…says he came to the Temple for work, but displeased one of the leaders and was “given” to the giants in the node (the Temple gave him tools on the other side, and the giants were waiting for him when he arrived).

Wonder what the giants needed slaves for? Digging out a cozier cave in the rock? Continue reading

Character Perspective—Jerk Is in the Eye of the Beholder

When an author chooses to write a story in a certain character’s point-of-view (POV), it’s because the author wants the audience to bond with that particular character – and see events from his or her perspective.

As the old saying goes, “a villain is the hero of his own story.” The choice of which character is in charge of the telling will play a vital role in how the rest of the story plays out.

We will examine this more closely using two examples: the opening of Ten Thousand Thorns, and the “Yellow Trailer” for the RWBY web series. These two pieces of fiction affected me in very different ways, and I think it all comes down to perspective.

Case 1: Sleeping Beauty is a Martial Artist Princess in China

Character Perspective: Jerk is in the Eye of the Beholder — Kimia WoodThat’s Ten Thousand Thorns in nine words. (Check out the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon.)

On page one, we are introduced to a secretive young man hiding in the corner of a tea tavern. (He thanks the serving girl politely when she pours him some tea.)

On page three, a delicate young girl kicks a hole through the wall. She snaps at the tea the waitress gives her, generally acts like a terrible customer, and ends by kidnapping the village elder.

The author has one perspective on this scene:

Character Perspective: Jerk is in the Eye of the Beholder — Kimia Wood

“there are many, MANY reasons why I so deeply love Ten Thousand Thorns, my kung fu Sleeping Beauty baby, but the first scene in which my heroine blasts a guy through a tea house and then gets snobby about tea is one of them” [via Twitter]

And I have another perspective

Namely, that I feel sorry for this mysterious young man, sorrier for the tea establishment who’s out both a free cup of tea and a wall, and utterly unimpressed with this cocky little “Iron Maiden” who seems to have the manners of a whirling dervish.

I’m certainly not prepared for the young man to fall in love with the Maiden over the course of the story (which is what happens). In fact, if someone came along to kick this chick’s butt, I’d be okay with that. Put it down as a gesture to retail associates everywhere.

Case 2: Mz Punchy McPowerhouse on a Power Trip

Now let’s check out RWBY: “Yellow” Trailer…our grand introduction Yang Xiao Long, one of the four main characters (disclaimer: this wasn’t really my first time meeting Yang, so that might have colored my reactions a bit):

What a jerk! What a pompous bimbo! What a…What a cool character!

I don’t like Yang – but I like Yang!

Who’s Head is This?

In my own over-analysis, the reason I like “Yellow Trailer” when I feel I really shouldn’t, and why Ten Thousand Thorns struck me as so very “meh,” is…perspective.

In TTT, the first person we meet is the male wanderer protagonist. Our baby chick brains “imprint” on him…so when he’s stunned and nervous about this sassy little girl kicking through walls, so are we.

In “Yellow Trailer,” our first image is of Yang on her motorcycle. We’re “in” her head. Through the whole rest of the scene, she’s the character we’re psychologically tied to and identified with. Yeah, she’s beating up people for no reason…but it’s a power trip we can have fun with.

In TTT, the second person we meet is the unnamed tea waitress – who never appears again! We see things from her perspective before we even meet the “Iron Maiden” – let alone understand her point of view.

Just who’s going to pay for that wall, anyway?!

Author Responsibly

It could be I’m just weird. I get that a lot. But the responsibility of “who tells the story” is a heavy burden, and a choice we as authors must make deliberately.

Not to brag – but, yeah, totally to brag – my choice to tell Transmutation of Shadow in first person is a big part of what makes it work. Trying to make Eric Kedzierski “Mr. Tall-Dark-and-Mysterious” would kill the tone, and distance readers from his thought processes… In a book that already starts with Eric murdering a senator for the mob, that kind of distance would destroy author-reader trust.

And that’s pretty much the one thing that’s absolutely fatal to a work of fiction.

Comment! Is there a book you’ve read, or a movie you’ve watched, that would work way better for you, if it just followed a different character?


Character Perspective: Jerk is in the Eye of the Beholder — Kimia WoodKimia Wood lives somewhere in the American Midwest with her family – including the brother people mistake for her girlfriend.

She’s bracing for the collapse of society by knitting, baking, writing, and other excuses for not gardening.

Dear Diary….something something giants

I suggested that, since Lydia apparently used Taki to home in on the Air Node, that we could draw a picture or something on one of the cliffs here to help her find it, if we ever need her to send us back here. So this morning, Mikael asked for stone-shape, and made a statue of Nori on the side of this cliff here.

[sketch]

We had a little excitement early this morning. Ezekiel and Mikael were on watch, when Mikael suddenly started poking us and shouting us awake. Heiron and I grabbed our bows and followed him up to the battlements. There, we saw a huge blue man-thing (actually a Cloud Giant) clutching Ezekiel with one hand and trying to climb down the fortress.

A moment later, Raven’s rope snaked out of an arrow slit below us and wrapped around the giant. Heiron and I let loose into him, and he dropped like a stone – still clutching Ezekiel. Continue reading