This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
If you remember my review of To Die In Italbar, you’ll remember that one of the things I complained about in that shoddy piece of work is the random inclusion of Francis Sandow, the protagonist from Isle of the Dead. I’ve gotten around to reading Isle of the Dead now, and I’ve got to admit that I’ve come to like Sandow – although if anything, his misuse in To Die In Italbar is even more grating.
Frank is a one-man interstellar superpower, one of the hundred richest men in the galaxy, and the only man born in the 20th Century who’s still alive in the 32nd. He’s gained his wealth through various business ventures, the most impressive being his planet-building enterprise: he learned the secret art of channelling the alien gods of a Santeria-like religion from the extraterrestrial Pei’ans, and uses this power to create worlds. The Pei’ans are ancient, wise, and benign… except for their deep-seated cultural tradition of vengeance, and a renegade Pei’an has occupied one of Sandow’s worlds, subverted it, and populated it with dead friends and enemies of his in order to lure him there.
This sets us up for a hybrid of SF and fantasy, with copious amounts of hardboiled detective work and shamanic vision-questing in the mix. Zelazny’s always been good at anthropology and myths – Lord of Light, Eye of Cat, the Amber series and myriad short stories testify to that – and he doesn’t fail here. The alien Pei’an culture is described briefly and evocatively, and – typically for Zelazny – the action is tightly-paced and well-written, without a trace of padding or filler. Characterisation is light on the ground, with the exception of Sandow, because really the story isn’t about anyone else; through encounters with Sandow’s adversaries and his dead acquaintances we learn about his past and his present, and the first-person narration lets us follow his thought-processes and philosophies, from his Big Tree model of the galactic economy to his powerful fear of death.
Incidentally, aside from Sandow himself, the Pei’ans, and the Pei’an religion, there’s absolutely no sign that this is in the same timeline as To Die In Italbar: the warring superpowers of that book are conspicuously absent. It makes me suspect that Italbar was cobbled together from several different, abandoned books in order to make a quick buck.There’s no middle ground with Zelazny: his substandard books, like To Die In Italbar, tend to be awful, and his good books tend to be absolutely excellent. Isle of the Dead is one of his best, and should be sought out avidly.