I believe that someone has just begun a game,’ Death said as he headed across Deep Fields through a meadow of blackest grass, black poppies swaying at the passage of his cloak, ‘and, next to music, they have invoked a pastime for which I have the highest regard. It is long, Dubhe, since I have been given a good game. I shall respond to their opening as none might expect, and we will try each others’ patience. Then, one day, they will learn that I am always in the right place at the proper time. — from Donnerjack
I’ve been reading the works of Zelazny for some twenty years or so. I think that I’ve read everything he’s done for novels, save the second set of Amber novels which I have not tackled yet. Reading this novel was the result of finishing an excellent set of tales set in the Hellboy universe which resulted in me looking at the thousand or so volumes of fiction we have in our third floor library. On a whim, I picked it up a novel and started reading it — it felt like classic Zelazny such as The Isle of The Dead, so I kept reading. Now keep in mind that this never before published Zelazny novel was finished posthumously with the help of his co-author and companion, Jane Lindskold. But unlike so many of this sort of collaboration, Donnerjack has Zelazny written all over it. This is important to emphasise as the online reviews that I looked at for it generally trashed it as not being true to the spirit of Zelazny!
Here’s a review that captures the flavor of these whining complaints: ‘In reading Donnerjack, I came upon feelings that flip-flopped and changed back and forth. Some parts were unbearably awkward, lame, and badly written, totally un-Zelazny and just plain unappealing. Then there were some parts that seemed to just flow by because they were so exciting. I know that a lot of readers have commented that Zelazny only wrote the first part, but I don’t think that’s true. Zelazny has a certain bold flair in his writing most of the time, as if he’s utterly confident that what’s he’s writing won’t be termed as lame or otherwise. There were certain sections in the second part of Donnerjack that I know weren’t just Jane Lindskold, because Zelazny’s style was so clearly stamped upon them. Although it’s also true that Lindskold dominates much of the second half of the book, and her long and winding style is pretty apparent for any reader to see. I would recommend Donnerjack to only long-time Zelazny readers, or at least people who have read other Zelazny works, because this piece is definitely not his best one, and it is just so LONG and winding at times.’
Now I can kvetch with best when need be, but this is simply stupid. Most of the reviews seem to be bitter tirades against Lindskold for daring to finish a Zelazny novel. Bullshit. Though I cannot say for certain that Zelazny told her to do this, she was the executor of his estate, so I can make a reasonably good guess that he trusted her to do what was right.
A hero, John D’Arcy Donnerjack, a Scottish laird and a cyberspace engineer who is better at this than any other mortal, confronts something that claims to be Death to regain a love from his realm that Death has taken away, in exchange for their firstborn. The two writers weave together many, many threads including a cyberspace well beyond what we have imagined, ancient ill-mannered gods, legends and a 22nd century America that is a chilling projection of what exists now. Zelazny and Lindskold manage to tie them all together in a satisfyingly complete manner. At it’s core, it balances an incredibly dark subject matter of trying to best Death and eventually the costs of failing to do so. (Characters that you like will die here. Some quite permanently.) Now bear in mind that after a long illness Zelazny actually died before the book was finished. But Jane in her 1995 biography of him, aptly called Roger Zelazny says ‘He has also begun work on a three-book series tentatively titled Donnerjack of Virtu, The Gods of Virtu, and Virtu, Virtu. This ‘parable for the machine age’ is to consist of his longest novels since Lord of Light.’ What is known is Zelazny himself had written a few hundred pages of this work before he passed away, and he left behind him a detailed outline for the rest of it.
George R. R. Martin reported the sad news of his passing when it happened: ‘I have been asked to post the sad news that Roger Zelazny died in St. Vincent’s Hospital in Santa Fe early this afternoon, of liver failure brought on by colon/rectal cancer. Jane Lindskold, his beloved friend and companion of this past year, was with him when he died, along with his son Trent, and several of Roger’s friends from the SF community. His other children, his son Devon and his daughter Shannon, had sat with him for much of the night. Roger had been fighting the disease with chemotherapy since it was first diagnosed, and the tumor had been in remission for a year, but a few months ago his condition worsened. Roger was an intensely private man, and told only family and a few close friends of his illness. He remained hopeful and optimistic until the last, and was writing right up until a few days ago, and gaming with Jane and his friends from Santa Fe and Albuquerque. He had recently completed an unfinished novel based on a fragment left by Alfred Bester, had done a CD/ROM game with Jane, and was hard at work on a major new science fiction novel, Donnerjack, which he was extremely excited about.’
As I’ve read damn near everything he’s written but not read any Lindskold to date, I can only judge it by how close it hews to his writing style. It’s clear to this reader that although they had spent a great deal of time discussing Donnerjack, Lindskold did some additional research into his writing, both style and content, before completing the book. So the answer is clear — it’s a true Zelazny novel as good as anything he wrote by himself. Colorful personalities, strange locales, fanciful situations that nonetheless feel real, and plot lines that quite frankly no one else could do this well are all here. What I’ve always liked about his novels are the heroes like John D’Arcy Donnerjack who struggle but often fail against overwhelming odds. He’s comfortable in both realities, Verite (our reality) and Virtu, another reality apparently created after the global cyberspace net crashed and rebooted itself. (There’s actually a reference to the loa which might be a homage to those beings in William Gibson’s Neuromancer trilogy.) Well, perhaps too comfortable as he can cross back and forth at will — he even convinces Death to make his Virtu lover a true Verite female. And the cost of that proves to be very, very high.
Telling you anything more would spoil the joy of your reading this novel as you too should be surprised at what happens here. Suffice it to say that I found it to be as entertaining as both of my favorite novels by him, Isle of the Dead and To Die in Italbar. I certainly will revisit this novel again, and now I must seek out Demon Lord, the other Zelazny novel that Lindskold assisting in finishing!
(Avon Books, 1997)