Dilvish, the Damned: Zelazny does #NotTolkien Fantasy


You might argue that Roger Zelazny’s brand of fantasy is plenty infected by modernism, as some would put it. You might also argue that he was doing some hard drugs when he wrote it. But it’s not the apple that fell from the Tolkien tree of Fantasy.

Earlier this year I revisited Zelazny for a foray into one of his less-known works – Dilvish, the Damned. When I get some more time to read and knock a few more books out of the queue, I really need to pick up the sequel. Dilvish is a great palette cleanser, like those little pieces of pickled ginger (it’s called gari) you’re supposed to eat between sushis.

The Dilvish stories are both episodic and epic. They’re short and sweet, and full of great quotes. A couple of my favorites:

“I have outlived the one who presumed to lay hands upon me, which is as it must be. Know that it was written that eyes would never see the blade that could slay me. Thus do the powers have their jokes. Much of what I have done shall never be undone, O children of Men and Elves and Salamanders. Much more than you know do I take with me from this world into the silence. You have slain that which was greater than yourselves, but do not be proud. It matters no longer to me. Nothing does. Have my curses.”

“Have my curses.” Damn, son, that is cold-blooded. Nice death monologue. Also great it its own right, but also because it comes from the same writer and the same collection:

“Traveler, draw rein!” the man shouted. “I’ll have your purse!”

Dilvish glanced quickly to both sides of the trail. The man appeared to be without companions.

“Up yours!” he said then, and drew his own weapon.

I think I did a triple take when I read that, then guffawed out loud. Can you imagine something like that in another “serious” work of fantasy?

“I am a servant of the Secret Fire. Up yours!” said Gandalf.

Nothing against Lord of the Rings or Tolkien, of course. But sometimes it’s nice to get something different. Oh, and the hell with soul-eating swords that must draw blood – how about invisible swords destined to slay gods? Man, now I really want to reread Dilvish.


  1. Hey! Soul-eating swords that must draw blood are fucking bad ass. Although invisible swords are pretty interesting too. I just love these otherworldly ideas authors had in the past, and how they could actually make them work.

    That said, while Zelazny does contain some “Modernity” in his stories, he is one of the few authors who made it work in the context of the worlds he has created. The only other authors who did this well are Michael Moorcock and to a lesser extent Poul Anderson(lesser in the sense that he did a good job in NOT adding too much Modernity in his stories), as far as I’ve read. Everyone else it was just cringe worthy. If it’s a good story, then I am ok with it personally.

    Anyway, I wanted to ask you something about Jack Vance since you’ve had with nothing but praise for him.

    Right now, I have a copy of Tales of the Dying Earth, Emphyrio, Big planet, Blue Planet, The Dragon Masters and Other stories, and tomorrow should arrive a copy of Planet of Adventures.

    I haven’t read anything by Jack Vance despite haven’t acquired quite a number of his stories.

    Which would you suggest to start with from the above list of stories?

    • You’re right – soul-eating swords are cool. I’ve just been jaded after finding several similar swords in my readings. 😉

      Oh man, you’re in for a treat with Vance. I started with Dying Earth and was blown away (though if I were to do it again I’d probably just read the first book of that collection first and return to Cugel and Rhialto later).

      Blue Planet might be one of my favorites, though I’d have to give some thought to articulating why.

      Planet of Adventure is amazing, but once you get hooked, you’ll have to commit to reading all 4 books. =P

      I’ve heard that Dragon Masters is a great place to start, too, but I haven’t gotten to it yet.

      In conclusion, I don’t think you can go wrong wherever you start, but I might recommend the first Dying Earth short stories so you can get a taste of what’s coming.

      Definitely let me know what you think!

      • Thanks for the reply man, seems like The Dying Earth is the best one to start with. I’ll definitely post here what I think of it after I finish it.

      • So… The Dying Earth was fucking amazing.

        I was a bit worried getting into it because not all classic SFF stories lived up to their reputation. My worries were quickly dispersed by the first story in the collection and by the last one my mind was blown away. What an amazing combination of condensed writing and huge amounts of story! I can’t believe this is only 133 pages long and yet Vance left no stone unturned as far as telling a complete story.

        Books like this are the reason why I love reading. Stories that expand the imagination, which, like a muscle, needs to be exercised regularly and given proper, wholesome food or it will shrivel and grow cynical and bitter.

        There is more wonder, poetry and a sense of adventure in this slim opening volume than in many so called epic doorstoppers published in the last thirty years. The secret ingredient that colors every landscape and every character portrait is a deep seated melancholy, an awareness of the fragility of life and the ‘unavoidable’ coming of Death. The scenery plays as much a role in the story as the heroes who move like ants among gigantic ruins. This is what I consider true speculative fiction.

        His knack for language is just pure joy; he uses words that aren’t well known but add a different type of depth to the story. The dialogue is unique. It’s very formal yet at the same time very witty and full of sarcasm. I’ve read reviews that condemn the stories for the florid and formal dialogue, mostly because it’s not conventional. To me, this is precisely why I like it so much. Modern dialogue is garbage. I’ve also read some reviews that give these stories a poor rating because of the “lack of character development”. I wish more modern authors followed Vance’s style rather than the 800 page soap opera of characters full of development while lacking on real plot, substance, and setting. With Vance you get to know enough about the characters, but the focus is more on story. I’m in the minority, I know that, because it seems most novels these days get rave reviews based on how many characters there are and how much detail you learn about their motivations. For me, that’s not so interesting.

        All the stories were wonderful, and the characters memorable; my favorite probably being Ulan Dhor, followed closely by Guyal of Sfere, one of the most bizzare stories I’ve ever read, yet also satisfying. I love that Vance gave it the most archetypal, mythical and timeless concept of all the stories. Blikdak is one of the creepiest characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction.

        Ulan Dhor was simply amazing in how it unraveled the mysteries of the city, and T’sais was the most heartfelt. I like the way Vance concluded the character’s story.

        This was my first foray into Vance, and I can safely conclude that I am already a fan, and that I can’t wait to read more of his fiction. So congratulations; you turned one more person into Vance.

        P.S. Sorry for the long rambling

        P.S.S. Chun the Unavoidable. *shivers*

        • Great to hear you enjoyed it! Good news – he wrote a ton of stuff, so lots more out there to delve into!

          I think most people know pretty quickly whether they like Vance or not. Either you love his writing style or you hate it.

  2. I second your recommendation for starting with the first Dying Earth stories, but there really isn’t a wrong place to start reading jack Vance.

    Dilvish the Damned is one of my favorite Zelazny characters, but I’m not sure I can articulate why. Definitely worth reading all of the short stories and then the novel The Changing Land, which concludes the story cycle.

    I think magic swords are pretty cool just in general.

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