Balzan of the Cat People #3: The Lights of Zetar

Balzan of the Cat People #3: The Lights of ZetarBalzan of the Cat People III
Pyramid Books, 1975
Price I paid: $2.39 + S&H

A new world for Balzan to survive, where Orala the priestess plans to seduce him and Androth the Krell king to kill him.

Only the Lights of Zetar, dazzling sentries left over from a civilization dead millions of years, can thwart these enemies and emblazon a path between hallucination and reality.

Balzan wins his weirdest combat yet in a twilight world of slaves and six-legged spider anthropoids.

It had to happen, and it did.

Behold, the thrilling conclusion to the Balzan saga!

(For new readers, here’s a link to #1 and #2)

So, book one was just awful and hilarious, while the second one turned out to be a lot more tolerable. I bet you’re all wondering if the climb in quality continued, making book three a lost Sword and Planet classic. I’m sorry to state that this is not the case.

Balzan #3 was pretty meh.

It lacked a lot of the mindless stupidity that was standard issue with the first two books. Balzan is now less reckless and impulsive, but he’s also lacking that introspection on the matter that came with the second book. He just kind of exists, doing his thing and repelling people trying to kill him.

Oh, but I have to comment on the back cover really quickly. This is a doozy.

For one, that first paragraph is just so badly constructed. I figured out what it meant, but I had to noodle it for a second or two. But it gets better than that.

“Orala the priestess” is not in this book. Never mentioned. I don’t know where that name or position came from. Yes, Balzan is the target of an attempted seduction, but it’s by a woman named Lenor, who is also the princess (not priestess) of the Krells and Androth’s daughter. So Androth is there, and he does want to kill Balzan (because who doesn’t?), but I get the feeling that at some point a character got renamed or maybe even dropped altogether, but that was in a later draft of the book that came about after some copywriter had written the jacket. Hilarious.

Also the back makes it seem like the “Lights of Zetar” are a bunch of dinglydangs that Balzan will need to use to defeat his enemies. This is not the case, but it’s kind of close. I don’t think anybody in the book actually refers to the titular lights, but there is a thing named Zetar, and it’s the thing that Balzan needs to destroy to save the day. So yeah, it would be used to thwart some enemies, but only in the negative sense.

“Six-legged spider anthropoids?” Totally a thing. The bit that makes the least sense is also the bit that is actually in the text. Fantastic.

So Balzan’s doing his wandering schtick, thinking about how there’s nowhere he can live and he must be a perpetual loner and so forth, when some people show up and try to kill him. So he kills them first. This is a common theme in this book.

I swear, at least two or three times there’s this big setup, where Androth or someone like him will be all “You, take four of my finest men and kill this Balzan. I have ultimate trust in you, my greatest commander. You will not fail in this, and when you return, great rewards will await you.”

And then we cut to Balzan waking up and finding some guys standing around him. Balzan kills them over the course of, oh, a paragraph.

Another time we see Androth trying to kill Balzan with a monster. Androth has all these powers like necromancy and, I dunno, dracomancy. Androth makes a dragon-thing out of thin air. I think it might be the thing that’s on the front cover. Androth forms it and sends it off, saying that when it returns successfully he’ll create it a mate and stuff. Whatever.

The thing flies off and we cut to Balzan a-walking down the street. By this point he’s got a pal, Jem. The dragon dives down, Jem hits it with a sword, and Balzan rams his own sword down its throat. Like it’s nothin’.

The whole point of this book is that Balzan met some “Krells” at first. They were the folks who tried to kill him for no reason. Based on that, he allies himself with the “Orathians,” a slave race of the Krells. Both races are humanoids, and it’s hilarious (sarcasm) how often the members of each race think he belongs to the other. Krells are all “Get back to work Orathian” and Orathians are all “Please no Mr. Krell don’t hurt me.” It’s probably the most consistent thing in the book.

But eventually things settle down and Balzan decides to help the Orathians shake off the shackles of slavery. He meets a young lady, Tarlene, and they do the Horizontal Hammertime. Her brother, Jem, turns out to be his greatest ally. The rest of the Orathians are cowardly and subservient. This tends to get Balzan angry, along with most other things.

One thing that’s pretty neat, though. It’s probably the best thought-out bit of the book. Krells carry these things called “carons.” Basically just a metal stick. There’s actually nothing special about it at all. BUT. Through psychological terror and maybe a bit of magic, all of the Orathians think that this stick is incredibly painful. Even whipping it out is enough to send your standard Orathian into apoplectic terror.

So it’s fantastic when one of the Krells, early in the book, brings out his caron to use on Balzan. Balzan is all “What?” and the Krell just keeps wiggling it around, thinking that Balzan will fall to his knees and beg for mercy. It even gets to the point where the Krell moves forward, grinning, and just puts the end of it on Balzan’s forehead. So Balzan grabs it and kills him with it.

Balzan actually meets Jem in the dungeons of Manator. Manator is the city from which Androth rules. Early in the book, Balzan gets captured and taken there by Lenor after he kills her husband, some governor schlub, over the course of about three sentences. In Balzan fashion, she tries to seduce him, because that’s how things work on this world, but when he rebuffs her she goes “Fine, have some of this drink” and Balzan takes a sip before thinking “Hmm, I wonder if this is poooooiiissssooonnnnn.” He wakes up in the dungeon. Jem breaks him out.

This book made a big deal out of Balzan’s “youth.” He is apparently a young man. Maybe nineteen, twenty? If that’s the case, it makes a lot of sense that he does such stupid things. I know I did some really stupid things right after reaching the age of adulthood. I tried to be a physics major. But I just don’t imagine Balzan as that young, and that’s because of the cover art. On all three books he’s depicted as a dude in his thirties or so. Look at that face! That’s not the face of a “youth.”

The majority of the book reminded me of a beat-em-up video game, where Balzan just dispatches the sub-bosses before coming up on the real bad guy. I would play a Balzan video game.

He and Jem and a party of less useless Orathians, as well as some Corillians they met along the way, work their way toward the city of Manator. What they don’t know is that Androth, their true enemy, isn’t there.

This big deal is made about Androth and how he’s getting old. His powers, as well as his health, are waning, and every time he does one of his magic spell things he actually ages more. It’s never explained how his powers work. At one point he resurrects an army of dead soldiers to fight Balzan. Did I say army? The book made it out to be an army in the works, but then it turned out to be, oh, four or five dead guys. They actually came after the dragon, so I guess we were supposed to have a feeling of uh-oh, but despite having a few more sentences in the fight it was just as anticlimactic as all of the other ones.

Unlike other Balzan books, the point of view jumps around a lot. Often it cuts to Androth and his aging problem. See, it turns out that he formed a “pact” with a “god” named Zetar. Zetar grants Androth a return to youth every ten years. All Androth has to do is sacrifice somebody. It’s not a bad deal. Also I think Zetar might be the source of Androth’s unexplained magic powers.

So while Jem (minus the Holograms) is fighting his way into the city, Balzan visits Lenor again. He ends up pushing her off a balcony when she attacks him. He does this thing where he regrets killing a woman. I thought that was kind of dumb.

He leaves the fighting and goes to the mountain of Zetar to take on Androth. There’s a monster, the six-legged spider from the back of the book. Note that there’s only one of them. He kills it.

Androth uses a combination of magic and wits to take on Balzan. He eventually manages to regenerate himself, which I guess means that this is a tiered boss battle. It goes about like you’d expect.

Balzan enters the mountain himself and finds out that Zetar isn’t some kind of god, it’s actually…wait for it…



What I like is that Balzan isn’t all freaked out by it. He’s just “Yeah, I thought so.” He knows about computers because the space ship that brought him to this planet had one, and he was able to learn things from it. One of the things he learned is that all computers have a self-destruct mechanism.

All of them.

This old Dell laptop that I’m writing this on has a self-destruct mechanism, apparently. I just have to find it.

The computer itself isn’t evil, it just responds to whoever’s using it. Because Androth was evil and wanted evil things (I want to point out that in glorious villain fashion, he’s all about evil and says so), the computer granted him those evil things. So Balzan destroys it. He escapes just before the huge explosion.

Oddly, there’s one person left in this hierarchy of slavery and terror. A guy named Emor takes over the city and flies his airship (there are airships) to kill Balzan. It goes…well…you know.

Whereas book two of this series actually had some moral ambiguity throughout, dealing with things like racism and prejudice, book three holds all that off for the end of the book. Balzan gets back to the city to find that Jem has succeeded in his quest. Now he’s sitting on a throne, ordering the execution of Krells left and right.

Balzan is all “What the hell, dude?”

And Jem is all “It’s our turn now, man, and we’re gonna give the Krells a taste of what they did to us. Now the Orathians are in charge. Chop chop chop.”

Balzan goes “Oh, come on, I didn’t help you out so you could be the next evil emperor. This is just ludicrous.”

So he takes a sword and chops off Jem’s arm. And then he leaves.

I expect that Gerry Conway (as Wallace Moore) fully expected to continue writing these books, because the ending doesn’t offer much closure at all. Balzan just wanders off, thinking again about how he’s a stranger in a strange land. Will Balzan ever find a home? Some people who don’t turn out to be just as evil as the folks they’re fighting?

I guess we’ll never know.

That’s probably for the best.

In case you’re thinking it, because I know I did, yes, “The Lights of Zetar” is, in fact, the name of an episode of Star Trek. The two things don’t seem to have anything in common. I don’t know if it’s coincidence or not. It’s pretty weird, though, I’ll grant that.

But what’s weirder is this bit of exposition from page seven:

Balzan had realized when he was five years old that he was different, that his features were hairless except for his head and genitals…

Guys! Balzan had pubes when he was five!

Well, that’s that series, then. It’s been a wild ride. These three books were three different kinds of bad. We’ve got

  1. Lazy and stupid, with the solution to the problem hinging on a grammatical error in a book filled with typos.
  2. Heavy-handed preaching while Balzan is still reckless and dumb, but at least people comment on it.
  3. A hastily strung together plot completely lacking the action that made the other two books fun to read.

A part of me wishes the series had gone on. Maybe that’s because I’m a masochist. But it kills me that there’s actually some potential in these stories, if not as great science fiction then as pure entertainment. These books couldn’t ever be any kind of high literature, and for that I love them. They’re unpretentious. They’re goofy and banal, but at least they didn’t try to be anything else. Thank you, Gerry Conway.

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