Jack of Shadows

Roger Zelazny
Jack of Shadows Cover

Jack of Shadows


This swords and sorcery adventure tale was written as a tribute to the Dying Earth books of Jack Vance. It was nominated for a Hugo and a Locus, and was originally serialized in Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It is primarily a tale of revenge, with the main character decapitated in the first chapter!

The world is somehow fixed in place, with the light side having all the science and the dark side the magic. Jack is from the dark, and cannot die - so decapitation leaves him alive and helpless at the dark edge of the world, where he fights his way back to society and his eventual revenge. This adventure and the ending are the strongest parts of the story. Once his initial revenge is enacted, the story slows considerably. Jack also becomes considerably more evil (black instead of the dark gray he had been earlier). Some of that maybe due to the serialization also.

Zelazny's descriptions of the world are well done, and the dialog is excellent. At times, Jack's words and thoughts connect to philosophy. Jack muses on the value of a soul, of consciousness, and obeying societal norms in a world that doesn't agree with him. Shadow Jack doesn't always play by the rules, and sometimes that comes back to bite him.

In addition to its merits of the time, this story was included in Appendix N, the list of inspirations for D&D. Both the thought of adventure and some of the prowess of a thief can be found here. There is also information in the game about character retirement, and Jack's actions post-revenge match that quite closely. I can't say how good an homage it was to Dying Earth, which I haven't read yet.

This is a slim volume, and might only be considered a novella today. It is worth seeking out for a quick read, and maybe a bit of philosophy. "I wonder as to the value of consciousness," said Jack, "if it does not change the nature of a beast."