Creatures of Light and Darkness by Roger Zelazny
Posted Winter 2019
Before I get into my discussion of how I came across this book and the review itself, I want to get into a quick discussion of its appropriateness for /r/fantasy, mostly related to a comment I received on my review for Ship of Fools. First, this is a forum for speculative fiction, which includes sci-fi (soft sci-fi, at least). Second, this book is a complete mish-mash of fantasy and sci-fi, to the point where the sci-fi elements are diminished in extremis. I am of the opinion that this book is predominantly fantasy, though the setting is space opera-esque, futuristic,and people can become machines and vice-versa pretty much at will.
I sought out this book after finishing Lord of Light, a predecessor book that deals with the Hindu pantheon of gods (click here for my review). This one, on the other hand, is all about Ancient Egyptian mythology. I am far more familiar with Hinduism than I am Ancient Egyptian mythology, aside from having a passing knowledge gleaned from seeing Anubis in a video game from time to time and having watched the entirety of Stargate SG-1. In this sense, I came in rather cold.
The review - 4/5
Roger Zelazny was a fan of ye olde poetry, and it really shows in this book. Its narrative is extremely loose, though engaging, and he riffs on nearly every element of spirituality I am familiar with - including some that were introduced to me through this book. Where Lord of Light was a more nuanced nod to the fact that Zelazny was a bit of an enlightened being, channeling beauty through his font of irrational truth, this book knocks that notion home with a vengeance.
That's not to say that it's opaque. It does have a plot, and that plot follows Wakim, a pawn of Anubis, the lord of the dead, simultaneously with Horus, the son of Osiris, the god of life. The entire Egyptian pantheon is here, from Set to Isis to... well, like I said, I'm not all that familiar with Egyptian mythology. The crux of it is this: there was a great antagonist that nearly killed the world, and Set sacrificed himself to kill it. This happened ages in the past, and Anubis and Osiris rose to the top, taking over. Whether or not these gods were people once, as was the case in Lord of Light (and it is implied that they are in Creatures), is not really the issue. The 'issue' has to do with syzygy, the polar nature of life (life and death, chaos and order, light and dark, up and down, left and right, etc.) Thrown into the mix are the nature of resurrection, the necessity of chaos to temper order, the necessity of death to move life forward, the unity of all things...
Like I said, it's very spiritual.
Like Lord of Light, the gods are filled with caprice, unpredictable and self-interested. Anubis, in particular, is a son of a bitch (get it - because he's part jackal... nevermind). The gods that are 'good' are only mildly so - everything exists in a kind of grey area. 'Good' in this book means opposed to the utter destruction of all life, I guess? There are some funny parts, like a sex computer that needs a boning before it will start answering questions, and pop culture references various and sundry. Overall, though, I felt like it did not have as much verve as Lord of Light. In Lord of Light, main character Sam was an easy touchstone as the protagonist. In this one, aside from Anubis being a shit-head (or is it dog-head?... I'll stop now), there is no one to whom I grew particularly attached.
The science-fiction parts are very high-level, making this a soft sci-fi, but again, it is fantasy in my book. People can become machines and machines can become people, and one of the characters can transport himself anywhere in the universe instantly, but aside from god powers and transport ships, the technology is window-dressing to the plot... except perhaps insofar as the interchangeable nature of flesh and machine calling into question the nature of consciousness.
The book is not very long, clocking in at just under 200 pages (199, to be exact). It was one of those books that I started and then did not finish for a while, having to restart because my memory had staled in the interim. That said, when I was reading it in earnest (on the plane and thus able to devote my attention entirely to it), I really enjoyed it.
If you've read Lord of Light and want more Zelazny, I would recommend it. If you haven't, I would start with that one first. You might get turned off by how weird this one is. Being an avowed weirdo, I lapped it up like a jackal-headed god of death... sorry, that really is the last one.