Review: Lord of Light

Lord of Light is a stand-alone novel by Roger Zelazny published in 1967. It holds up really well for its age, and it's a brilliant example of science fantasy. I see this book mentioned more often in sci-fi circles, but I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys the broader speculative fiction genre. I'll definitely be exploring Zelazny's other works.

The story centres on a war among gods, sparked by a rebellion led by one of their own. It's a dizzying and intoxicating blur of sci-fi and fantasy, rife with bizarre anachronisms. It gets a little messy at times, but I loved it anyway. Gods and demons co-exist alongside radio towers and flamethrowers; the flowery, poetic, and dignified language is punctuated occasionally by modern colloquialisms and the rare insult. There's an underlying tension between the ancient and the advanced, between faith and science, and between myth and fact.

The opening lines grabbed me immediately, but the next fifty pages or so were confusing as I tried to make sense of the chronological jumps and the large cast of characters with their many names. This is not a condemnation of the book, but merely a suggestion to stick with it until at least halfway through before you decide whether or not to continue. All is revealed eventually.

Most of the background is delivered slowly through dialogue, and while this skirts a bit more closely to telling rather than showing, I thought it was masterfully done. These bits always felt thematic and natural, answering just enough questions to satisfy without being heavy-handed. The dialogue itself is fluent and snappy and really delightful to read.

Characters don't display black-and-white morality, and their alignments are often vague and flitting, so if you're looking for a straight-laced good vs evil story, this ain't it. Although most characters are fairly one-dimensional, I found them believable and compelling overall, and they added lots of flavour to the story.

If the book could be distilled to a single "what-if" question, it would be this: what if mortal men adopted the positions and powers of Hindu deities? Zelazny demonstrates a broad knowledge of the source material, and he delivers a damning criticism of colonialism in this story of mortal men appropriating Hindu and Buddhist mythology for their own ends. I can't say I'm completely happy with this portrayal of cultural appropriation, but at the very least I'm glad it's sparked some much-needed personal introspection. Another thing to note is that while Zelazny seems to know his stuff, the mythological elements can feel rather superficially transposed onto his story. If you're well-versed in Hindu mythology, I suspect you won't enjoy this very much.

To end with a fun fact: there were short-lived plans to make a film adaptation of Lord of Light in the 1970s. The CIA acquired some of the material and used it for a fake Hollywood project during the Iranian hostage crisis; this scheme was the subject of the 2012 film, Argo.

Day 13 of #100DaysToOffload

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