Rating - 4: worth reading multiple times (buy it)
Lord of Light gets a 4 partly because I will need to read it again to decide fully what I think of it.
On a world that has descended into a dark age after human colonization, one group of the original colonists has maintained the technology to set themselves up as Hindu gods, transferring their minds into improved bodies and developing powers appropriate to their Aspects. Sam fights the deocracy of false gods by setting himself up as a false Buddha, undermining the gods' support as he prepares for a war to shake the heavens. We first meet Sam, however, after he has lost and died and is preparing to try again.
Despite its having won the Hugo award, I would classify this as fantasy. Are there enough of these to constitute a sub-genre, books set in a medieval setting after human colonization of another world? We have already visited this sort with Warlock, and you may have read about Pern or Erna. Any sufficiently advanced technology and all that. It does maintain the classic sci fi approach of making a major change or two and following some implications: what happens when men can make themselves gods? In this case, the relevant question is control over guided mind transfer and cloning, a sort of reincarnation, with the assorted powers being window dressing. Wow, I just dismissed all the action as "window dressing," but it really doesn't matter if Agni's fire is a flamethrower, a mutant power, a spell, or what; the key factor is how Agni maintains his immortality and power.
I read this book as a teenager, and I am sure that I did not understand it all. My knowledge of Hindu and Buddhist tradition and thought must have been shaky. As it turns out, no more than a passing familiarity with either is needed, and more might just confuse the issue. Lord of Light displays a 1960s fascination with Eastern mysticism, along with the surface familiarity that often accompanies it. (Zelazny might have really known more, but it does not come into play here.) You would think that I would have remembered the Christian crusader-necromancer.
What I did remember very clearly is parts one and four. Our story is divided into sections of Sam's life and battle with the gods. Our opening images are evocative, with Sam and Yama and the echoes of a lost war. One cannot speak ill of Zelazny's quality as a writer. Even at a sketch, the lines are bold.
Anyone who knows me will know that I loved Yama. He is a great character, rivaling Sam for the lead in the story at times. He is the tactician, the artificer, a Death who wears his power about him without apology. Even conflicted, he demonstrates a purity of desire and intention. I found the end bit with Murga quite touching, which is to say that I became a huge sap at some point.
The book, however, avoids sentimentalism and treats a battle about power honestly. Some people have power, some people want power, and they come into conflict on an epic scale. Lord of Light might make a great summer blockbuster with big special effects.