I’ve heard a lot of people talk about Zelazny as a great sci-fi author, but I never actually read any of his stuff. Technically I still haven’t, because I listened to This Immortal (affiliate link) on Audible, but I’m going to count that as reading for the sake of this review.
With that said, the Audible performance is fantastic, though I’ll get into more detail on that later.
Zelazny’s style is immediately recognizable to me, because it’s like a hybrid of the more classic science fiction style (I think of Asimov as a comparison, because I used to read a lot of Asimov, though it’s been long enough now that I may be exaggerating the similarities) and a more modern style.
I immediately drew comparisons to Richard Morgan, writer of the Altered Carbon trilogy (which is being made into a Netflix show now), but more specifically Broken Angels (affiliate link; I also listened to it on Audible), both thematically and in the sense that it matches the more modern side of the tone. It also made me think of Paul Cook’s On the Rim of the Mandala (affiliate link), largely on a thematic basis though also perhaps a stylistic one. I’ve reviewed it previously.
This Immortal was my first exposure to Zelazny, and I jumped in without doing any background research. Apparently it’s his first novel, and I have to say that it’s a good one.
This Immortal is something of a book for readers. It is rich with allusions, particularly to Greek myth, and also has a very deep plot. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt compelled to talk about the literary devices used by an author in a review before, but This Immortal is thick with foreshadowing, allusion, and clever turns of phrase.
It also uses deep religious symbolism and generally combines a whole ton of clever details from our own universe, combining it with a layer of science fiction elements that doesn’t ever really seek to explain itself but also doesn’t need to because it’s largely self-explanatory.
I would describe Zelazny in much the way that I would a poet: he breaks a lot of conventions because he has mastered them to the point that he knows how. There are so many elements that could be aggravating in a lesser-woven story (foreshadowing is so common that it’s hardly possible to miss it), but I find them endearing.
However, I also have a bit of a craftsman’s approach to fiction; I’m not much of a fiction writer, but I analyze stories constantly. There were lots of times where I “saw through the curtain” as it were and could tell when Zelazny was setting something up.
If you don’t, there are a lot of twists and turns that might feel cheap, and a lot of the less action-packed sequences are going to be kind of boring. There are things that would definitely be cut from a film adaptation, to say the least, because they’re slow. Zelazny keeps any particular instance of exposition to a minimum, but constantly interrupts the action with a light level of exposition (e.g. a scene between two minor characters that Conrad observes).
You need to be the sort of person who buys into stories to appreciate it. I think if I had read it a decade ago, I would have not really gained as much from it as I did by reading it now (with the advantage of a liberal arts degree, experience teaching, and my own independent studies of storytelling and mythology).
I guess to summarize what I mean: it’s not a popcorn read like Richard Morgan or Paul Cook, but it’s not pretentious like Philip K. Dick or as complicated as T.S. Eliot (though it certainly makes a lot of references). If you like both, you’ll love This Immortal, and if you like either you’ll like it but probably not love it.
With that said, Zelazny definitely delivers on a grizzled male protagonist (like Morgan), interesting experiences of immortality (Morgan and Cook), and some of the more fun elements of softer sci-fi (Cook and Dick), so it’s a great read.
The characters are generally deep, though there are perhaps more of them than there have to be and it often feels like there’s superfluous stuff going on outside the main frame of reference (of course, some of this ties into the plot). A common theme seems to be that things make more sense later in the story, and a lot of the minor characters are definitely cases of having hidden importance until later on, but even then it’s sometimes a stretch.
I will say that the main characters are incredibly satisfying; Conrad’s a particularly deep figure (given his longer-than-average history).
Zelazny’s prose is fantastic as well. It’s terse when it wants to be, but also well detailed and capable of carrying vivid imagery. Some of the action scenes are probably the best I’ve read in years.
I definitely recommend it. It’s not terribly long, but it’s long enough to be satisfying without overstaying its welcome.
I tried to keep my review spoiler free, but these reflections are going to be more detailed with regards to later parts of the plot.
I said earlier that this story is really rich with literary devices, and I mean it. Zelazny layers everything really thick, to the point that it would actually be annoying if not for the fact that he executes his story really well.
Everything in the story has a lot of depth to it as well. I think that there’s a little vulnerability in this, since there are things like a deus ex machina ending that gets set up by a hint no more generous than a character’s name.
There are a lot of events that have references that are pretty oblique and may lead to over-interpretation; for instance, in one of Conrad’s “past lives” he faked his death by having his boat break apart on the waters, but then in a later part of the story his boat (a different one) survives a natural disaster alongside his wife, Cassandra, and there are even deeper mythological ties.
In addition to the references made to Greek myth (a large part of the story takes place in post-apocalyptic Greece), Conrad is a sort of Hercules figure, and a Pan figure, and a…
You get my point.
I think that that’s one of the things that actually made This Immortal so enjoyable to me; I was able to draw connections and things sort of naturally flowed from scene to scene. The downside of that was that there’s a predictability, and Zelazny includes so many different instances of unsubtle foreshadowing that it was easy to predict what happened, and actually at times a little disappointing when the payoff was extended too far from the foreshadowing.
There were a few good plot twists that got me, though, and I respect that.