Lord of Light

by Roger Zelazny

Cover image

Publisher: Eos
Copyright: 1967
Printing: March 2000
ISBN: 0-380-01403-3
Format: Mass market
Pages: 279

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I've been planning on reading Zelazny for years, as many of my friends love his work, but for some reason I'd focused only on Amber and it hadn't occurred to me that he probably had unrelated novels. So he'd been waiting and waiting until I felt in the mood to start a long series and had acquired more of them.

Lord of Light is entirely unrelated to Amber, so if you'd been caught up in the same erroneous belief that I have, this is a decent place to start with his writing. And the premise is an excellent one: on a world other than Earth, far into the future, the founders of a colony live as Hindu gods, constantly reincarnating through advanced technology, secure in their power and their well-defended city, maintaining a hold over a planet of people kept in medieval technology (not to mention the captive native inhabitants of the world). Most of them do, that is; others ply their trade as normal humans, again and again, and then there is the one people call Buddha, who never claimed to be a god, but who never claimed not to be a god either.

I don't know nearly enough about Hinduism and Buddhism to catch all of the parallels and play in this story, and I think my enjoyment of it suffered some because of it, but it even with what I know, the way that Zelazny plays with the ideas and flow of religion is fascinating. This is a book that for much of the story works well on two levels at once, both as a story of men and gods and a story of technological lords, set in their ways, trying to cope with or head off change.

Almost everything has two ways of looking at it. For example, there are mythical demons trapped in the bowels of the earth, with which brave men can bargain, but should still fear for their lives; and there is a native population of pure energy beings, trapped, immortal, and angry, who may make deals but who still have a slightly alien way of looking at the world. There are living Hindu gods in their sacred city, and there are men who still command advanced technology and use it to secure their paradise while taking on roles to keep their hold over the population secure. The story can be read both ways, and many times the characters themselves struggle to decide which defines them, or stride confidently with one foot in both histories.

I can highly recommend this book for the concept. The story is somewhat more pedestrian, following the adventures of Mahasamatman (who prefers Sam), the Buddha, who doesn't believe in religion, let alone in himself, and yet manages to be a credible religious figure at the same time. The plot elements are mostly excuses for Sam to be either cunning or oddly honorable at right angles to the world, which definitely enhances the religious parallel.

I had a rough time with the language of the book at the beginning, but after a while the mix between slightly archaic, formal speech patterns and descriptions and the oddly blunt, modern-sounding, sarcastic wordplay in an occasional description or comment started mostly working. It was still occasionally jarring, however, and not everywhere do the two levels of the story blend smoothly. The other primary flaw in the book was that I found the cast endlessly confusing; someone better versed in Hindu mythology would likely remember the names better, but I kept getting lost between Kali, Kubera, and Krishna, among others, and it definitely did not help that multiple characters use the same name at various points in the story.

The setting is, outside of the brilliant basic idea, unfortunately forgettable, or, more accurately, purely a backdrop. The places in the world feel like the hints of a stage setting, rolled out behind the curtain during intermission, sufficient only to set a certain mood and remind the audience of a context. The world never came alive, never became a character in its own right, and I missed that (although again this does fit the paradigm of a series of stories about the Buddha).

Overall, there is no mistaking that this is a great book. I found it to be a great book with distracting flaws, and how deep one finds the flaws will likely vary greatly from person to person, but I doubt anyone would not agree that under them is brilliance.

Incidentally, something that may save you some confusion: The first chapter of this book takes place much later than the second and subsequent chapters, at least until the end of the book. There is some signal of this in the book itself, but I missed it completely, and then spent half the book very confused about the order of events. Maybe this will help someone else avoid the same fate.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2004-05-30

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21