Friday, June 23, 2017

Book Review: Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

I'd been meaning to read the 1968 Hugo-award-winning novel Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny for several years now. However, since it wasn't available on the Kindle store and I lived abroad, I relied instead on checking bookstores whenever I traveled. Unfortunately, as an old book, it was never to be found. Now that I'm a bit more settled down, I just took the plunge and ordered it online. The blurb alone should be enough to interest avid readers:

Earth is long since dead. On a colony planet, a band of men has gained control of technology, made themselves immortal, and now rule their world as the gods of the Hindu pantheon. Only one dares oppose them: he who was once Siddhartha and is now Mahasamatman. Binder of Demons, Lord of Light.

Keep reading for my full review.

Overall Impression
This was a great book; I'm glad I finally got around to reading it. The setting, with it's mix of fantasy, science fiction, Hinduism, and Buddhism, is exceptionally clever and well written. The characters and plot are likewise engaging; you really feel like the main character is a figure out of legend. I can certainly see why this is an often-cited book among the science fiction community.

The narrative style of this novel is rather interesting. Each chapter stars with a bit of poetry and some text evoking legends and myths. These things are related to the contents in the chapter, though it may not be immediately obvious how. The book starts out with the "return" of Sam into the world, with plenty of mentions of his legendary feats in the past. After that, we get to see exactly how those events unfolded as the book jumps in time to the various key parts of Sam's life. Thanks to that style you get to see how history shaped the legend as well as how it started in the first place. While the concluding chapter seems a bit short, it nevertheless is very focused on the important aspects to resolve the plot.

Chief among the characters is Sam, or as he is also known, Siddhartha, Mahasamatman, Kalkin, Maitreya, Tathagata, the Buddha, Binder of Demons, Lord of Light. With all these names and titles you can expect his story is a rich one. In addition to him, we also have a few other gods/demigods/humans including Yama the deathgod, Tak of the Archives, Ratri of the Night, Taraka, Nirriti the Black, and of course, the Trimurti- Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. The idea of characters as the gods of the Hindu pantheon is clever and brings it an extra sense of mythos. I'm not very familiar with that mythology, so it's possible I missed really obvious connections or deliberate juxtapositions and readers more familiar with this might get an extra treat.

Setting / World Building
The setting and ambiance of this book is amazing. I'm a fan of stories that involve (and humanize) gods along with their physical manifestations and this is a main focus in this novel. While the premise is clear (humans have made themselves the gods of the Hindu pantheon), as we read the story we realize there is more than just this. Thanks to technology, humans have managed to get Aspects and Attributes that are akin to supernatural or at least psychic abilities, which play directly into their roles as gods. Combined with powerful weapons and the machinery to place their souls in new bodies, this makes them near-all powerful and near-immortal. Naturally, this is all wrapped around mysticism and mythology so at a glance it feels like legitimate religious or fantasy fare, but it's only as you explore further that you realize it's more complex than that.

The idea of people taking new bodies when their current ones grow old is actually quite interesting and sets up some fascinating conflicts. It's not just gods that have this right, after all- the righteous can also be reincarnated. Who judges who is righteous or not and who control the machines? Naturally- the temples and their gods. So, if you oppose the gods in any way, brain scans will reveal your sympathies and that will hurt your chances of reincarnation. You may still be reincarnated, but perhaps into an old or damaged body, or even into the body of an animal instead of as a human. This all but guarantees an unbreakable grip on the development of society that is firmly on the gods' side.

There's also a bit of an interesting religious conflict in the book as Buddhism rises to subvert the influence of Hinduism and, in a far-off continent, a devout Christian gathers an army of zombies to fight the Hindu gods.

Final Thoughts
This was an excellent read and I strongly recommend it to avid fans of science fiction and fantasy. It can be a bit hard to find, so your best bet will be ordering online through your favorite retailer. Once you do, you will be rewarded with an engaging story, heavy with mysticism and fantasy. The characters are great and you'll wish you could have seen more of Sam and friends' exploits.

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