"To Die In Italbar" is the sequel to "Isle of the Dead," but this story stands on its own two feet. While familiarity with "Isle of the Dead" will probably help the reader understand certain events in this second and final book in the series, it is by no means required reading.
"To Die In Italbar" contains just about everything that Zelazny fans have come to appreciate about his writing-- complex characters who are nonetheless easy to get a handle on, crisp and vivid writing, lurid imagination, and a sense of purpose and destiny as the events of the book unfold. It's all here. This may not be Zelazny's best novel, and it isn't my personal favorite, but it really has an endearing quality to it. In fact, "To Die In Italbar" is probably one of Zelazny's most enjoyable reads-- a piece of quality fiction that doesn't read like quality fiction.
Roger Zelazny once said that he thought "To Die In Italbar" was a disappointment-- that he'd been in too much of a hurry when he wrote it, and that it lacked the subtlety and nuance of "Isle of the Dead." Frankly, "To Die In Italbar" is easily the better of the two books for this very reason! While "Isle of the Dead" is a great work because it lets the reader enter the complicated mind of Francis Sandow, experiencing and learning about the complex Pei'an pantheon of dieties from his unique vantage point, at times Sandow's philosophical musings slow the novel's pacing a bit. It's an amazing novel, and Sandow is a fascinating character, but readers should be forewarned that "Isle of the Dead" is anything but a light read! Having thus set the stage, however, Zelazny then rewarded his readers with "To Die In Italbar," a straightforward science fiction romp set which is set against this rich tapestry-- but without being weighted down by it.
The story weaves several pointedly different characters together into a single tale. All of these characters stand out, for one reason or another: Captain Malacar is the last inhabitant of a bombed and pitted earth, waging a one-man guerilla war against the human government that laid it waste; Dr. Pels is a brilliant pathologist who managed to stop all of his personal bodily functions at the exact moment of death, allowing him to continue his research in a sort of medically-induced undead state; Jackara is a prostitute, bitter and angry about being forced into this profession by a community which refused to accept her; Francis Sandow, avatar of the Pei'an god Shimbo, is a famous builder of worlds and the wealthiest man alive; and last, but certainly not least, Mr. H. is imbued with an odd power over life and death which he doesn't understand and cannot completely control. As the novel progresses, these characters' individual dramas slowly merge and meld, becoming secondary plot elements in a much larger struggle.
Towards the end of the book, Zelazny really plays with the reader's perceptions. The story's climax is basically described from a third-party point of view, as one character describes events to another-- and that character is terribly confused about what he witnessed, making his account of events somewhat suspect. In short, the reader doesn't really know exactly what happened at the end of this novel, and Zelazny only fills in enough very broad details for the reader to make a pretty educated guess. Somehow, though, instead of making the book less fulfilling, the book's open ending only adds the ring of truth to Zelazny's storytelling. Sometimes life doesn't provide us with easy answers! Zelazny gives enough of the story to satisfy, but withholds enough details to preserve a sense of mystery. Brilliance!
I can't say enough good things about "To Die In Italbar." This is truly one of Roger Zelazny's most enjoyable novels. I'd strongly recommend this book to anybody who is looking for lighter, smarter science fiction.