As a bibliophile, I thought I have the ability to judge the enjoyability of reading a particular book from only its cover and the back cover blurb, especially if it is a science fiction or fantasy novel. Well, this book (which I rescued from the garbage bin via Freecycle) had blown that self-image to smithereens.
The book tells of a world that had stopped rotating on its axis. The half of the planet bathed in light lives in a world of science and technology similar to ours, while the dark half lives in a world where magic rules. The titular character is a darksider, whose other alias, Shadowjack the Thief, bears testament to his magical ability (i.e. he draws his power from shadows) as well as his profession (a compulsive thief). The story tells of his death and resurrection, his quest for vengeance from those that did him wrong, his exile from the dark into the lightside, and his search for the powerful Key that was Lost, Kolwynia. After obtaining the Key, he eventually rose to power and ruled all of the darkside. But his actions, especially against the other darkside lords, had doomed the world, and thus he have to find a way to save the planet.
The mark of a true speculative fiction writer is the ability to paint alien landscapes, fantastical worlds and unusual characters in such way that readers will be helplessly hooked in this strange new world. Thus, mark of a brilliant speculative fiction writer is doing the latter without falling prey to predictability and clichés. While I recognize that Roger Zelazny is one of the best-known speculative fiction writers, I had made the gross mistake of labeling him as a fluff writer, his novels as fun but cheap, dime-store stock. I was wrong, and "Jack of Shadows" had forcibly put me in place.
The story is a novella and many would complain that it is too densely packed and the ending is too open-ended. While I do not think that the story is too rushed, I would have loved it to be longer, or better yet, have a sequel, just for the pleasure of reading more about Jack and his world. While Jack is complex character, the secondary ones could have been better if they were more fleshed out. The best aspect of the story, aside from Jack himself, is the characterization of the world - a hybrid of both typical science fiction and fantasy settings, vaguely formulaic but somehow, in its totality, it is not.
All in all, while I would recommend "Jack of Shadows" to other science fiction and fantasy readers, I would not suggest it to those new to the genre (who would be lost to the fast-paced and unpredictable plot), nor to those that require their science fiction to be more "science-y". I give this a five out of five stars.