Roger Zelazny
& Jane Linskold,
(HarperCollins/EOS, 1998)

Donnerjack is Roger Zelazny's penultimate novel, followed only by Lord Demon, also ably completed by Jane Linskold. No matter the collaboration, Zelazny shines through in this book, one of his most original and inventive. It is to Linskold's credit that her contribution is transparent, although she is a more than capable storyteller in her own right.

The plotting of this book is intricate and episodic, a series of small revelations that become more closely intertwined as the story progresses. The realm of Virtu arose when the World Net crashed and was restructured. It is the realm of virtual reality that also contains dreams, nightmares and the gods: some call it the locus of the collective unconscious. Those of the realm of Verite believe they created Virtu (which is disputed by the Virtuans) and use it for storage, bookkeeping, entertainment and vacations.

John D'Arcy Donnerjack, one of the men who created -- or salvaged -- Virtu, embarks on a quest, first to regain his lost love, Ayradyss, whom he met and courted in Virtu, not realizing she had no existence in Verite. He bargains with the Lord of Entropy, otherwise known as Death: the price for her return is their first-born child. Donnerjack, thinking there will be no offspring of a marriage between Virtu and Verite, agrees. In due course, John D'Arcy Donnerjack Jr., known as Jay, is born.

In another part of Virtu, Lydia Hazzard, vacationing before beginning college, meets a mysterious piper, Wolfer Martin D'Ambry, and falls in love. The result is another impossible pregnancy, which Lydia undergoes while in a transfer coma, waking just in time to give birth to her daughter, Alice.

The Church of Elish, rumored to have been founded in Virtu, is the fastest-growing religion in Verite. It promises actual manifestations by the gods -- a possibility that begins to worry some, both within and outside the church; the gods in question, of ancient Sumer and Babylonia, are not noted for gentleness or compassion.

The second half of the story focuses on Jay, orphaned as an infant, raised by robots and educated through trips into Virtu via the Stage in his castle. Jay learns gradually that there was a bargain between Death and his father involving him, and that he has a destiny that is not necessarily under his control. He also learns, as he begins to travel in Verite, of the Church of Elish, its rapid growth and its promises of real gods. His story becomes the Heroic Quest as he begins to unravel the many mysteries around his very existence and the fates of his mother and father.

Donnerjack is a richly inventive book from a richly inventive author, invoking a kind of "deep poetry" in the sense of Robert Graves' The White Goddess. Zelazny based his stories on mythological themes from many cultures throughout his career, bringing them to a new level of immediacy, and Donnerjack continues this tradition while continuing to probe beneath the stories for the real truths.

On beginning this book, one might be tempted to proclaim "Zelazny Does Cyberpunk!" -- which is much too narrow a view. Zelazny has remained true to himself, combining science fiction with fantasy, objective with virtual reality, myth with history as a context for a complex and absorbing story of love, death, sacrifice, heroism and everything in between. Echoes abound as one reads: Orpheus, Faust, Rumpelstiltskin, the Argonauts, the Dirty Dozen, Pegasus, Ragnarok and probably more that I've forgotten to mention. There are many thought-provoking passages in this novel, speculations on reality, deity, the vagaries of history and belief. Virtu, in particular, comes to vivid life -- not merely a land of circuits and codes, but a stunningly realized universe of independent intelligences and constructed environments, each with its own genius loci, its own rationale and integrity, its own strengths and terrible vulnerabilities. The story twists and turns through one revelation after another as the many strands of the tale combine. Almost every character seems to partake in some measure of archetype while becoming a fully formed person.

Roger Zelazny was a writer of immense vision; in the canon of his work, Donnerjack is quite possibly that vision's most breathtaking statement. It is enjoyable on many levels: structurally, it is a tour-de-force; the language is tight and lucid; the satire is sharp; random and disparate details are juxtaposed in a way that is surprising but natural; and dialogue, long one of Zelazny's weak points, is fluent and realistic. The story is engaging, the adventure compelling. This is a richly poetic, tremendously exciting book, and without doubt Zelazny's finest.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 10 January 2004

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