To Die in Italbar: by Roger Zelazny
The crime is life, the sentence is death...
To Die in Italbar has been somewhere described as the story of the walker in the valley of the shadow, an epithet which for once does justice to its subject. HvH (an interesting set of initials, almost a formula) is host to a deity named Aram-O-Myra (Miriam, also a formula), a Goddess whose powers encompass the microscopic world of germs, viruses and virulence of all kinds. Her presence inside HvH renders him literally both carrier and cure. When he achieves balance, and this seems to be related to the dynamics of his relationship with Miriam, he can cure; out of balance he is a world-killer. On a mission of mercy to one particular planet he is unable to leave a habitat before his balance tilts and he inadvertently starts an epidemic, resulting in his being stoned and beaten. This seems to be the vulnerable moment that Miriam has been waiting for, as she transforms from deity to devil and encourages HvH to commit revenge fantasy. They are a good match.
Zelazny then gets to work by introducing a host of characters, some old, some new, often dropped into the text mid-point with no previous introductions, but so well-drawn that it hardly matters. Because Zelazny's plots are organised over such swathes of time and distance, economies of scale are sought only in motivations: Malacar Miles, for example, wants HvH so that he can be used as a weapon in his own revenge fantasy to do justice by a destroyed Earth; Larmon Pels, suspended perpetually on the point of death, wants access to HvH for insight into his own condition; and Francis Sandow, late of Isle of the Dead, seems to be a point of continuity between both books and provides a story arc wherein life doesn't so much foreshadow death as stalk it across a universe that is poorly-lit by dissenting suns.
Italbar is not particularly well-regarded amongst Zelazny readers, mainly because the climax of the novel is related at some remove from the action; the confrontation between Sandow and Miriam is a piece of exposition by telepathy, something I first happened across in The Silent Speakers by Arthur Sellings, and which I regard as inventive enough to serve here; in fact, it couldn't be any other way. Also, the last chapter, a brief half-page, may contain a hidden denouement which is easily missed - Give it that much.
I came late to Zelazny, perhaps having been discouraged by his Amber series. But for a long time I had in my possession a copy of The Doors of his Face, The Lamps of his Mouth, and one day on a whim I sat down to read it. And it wasn't very long before I was enthralled. In fact, I was so moved I resolved not to read any more Zelazny for fear of spoiling the experience, a reaction I had also had to Lucius Shepherd. Thankfully, those days have passed. These writers don't spoil with a paucity of good work. Quite the opposite. They are prolific by their excellence. And while I'm still not much enamoured of Amber, the remainder of Zelazny's work is... well, it's not earthly literature - really it's the dark matter of the universe, which the mainstream has yet to detect.