Once Upon a Time in Amber: The Guns of Avalon

‘Horned God’ First British paperback

The Guns of Avalon was the book that introduced me to the Chronicles of Amber, sometime in 1974, when I was eagerly exploring as much SF and Fantasy as I could carry home from the Library. In this case, it was Manchester Central Library, the one we all called Central Ref for short. I caught sight of Patrick Woodruffe’s splendid ‘Horned God’ cover, read the blurb, chanced the book and introduced myself to Roger Zelazny. It was the only book of the Chronicles that I read out of order, it was the most recent book to have been published, in 1972.
When I finally got to read it, on order from another branch, before buying my first copies for myself, I thought Nine Princes in Amber was not as good as this. Nearing fifty years on, I still think that. The Guns of Avalon has the advantage that all the complex exposition as to the characters and the setting has been laid out. It doesn’t need to do any more than provide brief recaps at various points and thus can concentrate on being a more direct action story. Furthermore, it doesn’t have to bounce around so many places and scenes, so Zelazny can take things more slowly, more smoothly, and vary the pace so that, overall, Avalon is a slower but more solid book, leading into a more cliffhanger ending.
Storywise, the book again offers the traditional three Act structure. Act One sees Corwin of Amber land after his sea-voyage and set-off to find a Shadow of his favourite Shadow, the land of Avalon, long since collapsed into Chaos. He is diverted to the land of Lorraine, ruled by Ganelon, once an adherent of Corwin’s in Avalon, long since exiled here for betraying him. L:orraine is affected by something called the Dark Circle, home to monsters and evil that is slowly expanding to encompass all the realm. The Dark Circle is the local form of Corwin’s curse: he stays to regain his former fitness and to defeat the Circle in this place.
In Act Two, Corwin completes his journey to Avalon, now accompanied by Ganelon as his aide. Guns don’t work in Amber because gunpowder is inert there, as are practically every other form of accelerant. But long ago, by accident, Corwin discovered that jeweller’s rouge from Avalon burns in Amber. He plans to lay in stocks. But Avalon has just defeated a Dark Circle kind of threat of its own, defeated – at the cost of a severed arrm – by its Protector. And that Protector is Benedict of Amber, Corwin’s oldest brother, the one for whom he has the most liking and respect, not to mention fear: Benedict is the Master of Arms for Amber, its greatest tactician, strategist, General and fighter. Corwin is welcome to rest in Avalon but not to further any attack on Amber, which is under constant attack from strange, foul creatures along a Black Road that cuts through Shadow, whose further end would seem most likely to be the Courts of Chaos. Corwin gets his rouge, takes a sidetrip to an equivalent of South Africa’s diamond fields to just pick them up out of the sand, and leaves. But before doing so, he meets Dara, a fresh, attractive 19 year old who he learns is Benedict’s great-granddaughter. He teaches her about Amber and Shadow. He also seduces her. When Benedict pursues him, Corwin assumes that it is this that has enraged his brother enough to want his head. Instead, Benedict accuses him of murder. Thanks to a trap involving the local manifestation of the Black Road, Corwin disables Benedict and escapes.
The final Act begins with an interlude on Shadow Earth. Corwin arranges for his special military equipment and even visits his former, still-intact home as ‘Carl Corey’, where he finds a message from Eric, asking his alliance against Amber’s enemies, or at least his forebearance from attacking until this threat is dispelled. Naturally, Corwin rejects the idea. He recruits a guerilla army from the hairy clawed Shadow he used before and leads a sneak attack over the mountain, Kolvir. This coincides with a massive attack along the Black Road, forcing Corwin to intervene on Amber’s side. But Eric is wounded, fatally, leaving Corwin in charge for practical purposes.
But his foray is interrupted by Dara, obsessive about reaching Amber and walking the Pattern, unrealistic about the reasons why she can’t. During the battle, she bursts through, aiming for the Palace. Benedict disowns her, filling Corwin with dread. He gets to the Pattern in time to watch Dara complete it, changing shapes a dozen times. From its centre, she tells him he is exactly too late. She disappears with the words, ‘Amber will be destroyed’.

US trade paperback

Up to and including this point, The Guns of Avalon is a direct sequel to Nine Princes in Amber, linearly and thematically. Until the very end, Corwin is still pursuing the throne of Amber. We meet two more brothers in Benedict and Gerard, we meet Dara, who purports to be a much younger generation of Amberite, we have our first, but by no means last ‘hellride’, that is, a passage during which Corwin travels in Shadow in an accelerated state, depicted in an abstract sequence of changing images.
But we don’t add much to the original set-up, until the irrationally obsessive but young and inexperienced Dara reaches the Pattern and transforms into an enemy intent on the destruction of Amber.
I’ve already stated my belief that when he started the First Chronicles, Zelazny had either no specific ending in mind, or that he had an ending that he later abandoned, realising that it was inadequate as underestimating the richness of possibility that Substance, Shadow and Chaos presented. And it’s my belief, based on the change that hits the series as of the next book, that this came now.
The two books still, to me, read and feel like the first two books of an enjoyable but underambitious trilogy. The Guns of Avalon has served the purpose of a middle book, extending the story to a turning point that sets up a grand finale: more of the same but sufficiently different to keep them reading.
There’s still the overuse of cheapjack Earth similes at nearly every turn, though nothing quite so egregious as in Nine Princes. There’s the Black Road, and its forerunner, the Dark Circle, openly established as the outcome of Corwin’s curse and no other, creating the ironic set-up that, now he has all but secured the Crown of Amber, he must defend it against his own work.
There is a relatively minor change of detail in the book. When his memories – true memories – are restored via the Pattern in Rebma, Corwin is adamant that there are/were a total of twenty-three siblings: fifteen brothers, six of them dead, eight sisters, two, possibly four of them dead. Here, the total is reduced to the thirteen live ones and a handful of deceased, who barely matter (these will be further reduced to brothers Osric and Finndo, senior to Benedict, who died ‘for the good of Amber’). Zelazny never tries to explain the discrepancy.
And there’s Ganelon. Ganelon was exiled from the real Avalon by hellride, centuries before. It’s one hell of a coincidence for Corwin to be diverted to Lorraine, where he is its protector, though the means by which Ganelon loses his hatred for Corwin is not merely plausible but well laid out. He’s a trusted aide, a sounding board, and asker of questions useful to the reader.
But he’s not what he seems, and when it becomes clear that a hidden hand is operating, it’s not hard to work out the truth. But that’s only in a later book. In The Guns of Avalon, Ganelon may not be only what he seems to be, and nothing more: he’s perfectly placed to be revealed as an imposter. But he’s not who Zelazny decides he will be, not yet, not whilst we’re in the first stage of the series.
It would be another three years, and two more intervening novels, before Sign of the Unicorn was published, time for ample thought. Ample thought indeed.

Second UK paperback in themed covers

8 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time in Amber: The Guns of Avalon

  1. I remember my middle-school self thinking The Guns of Avalon was the best written of the first 4 books. It was my favorite at the time. I haven’t re-read it since, so I don’t know how my chronologically adult self will react.

    I do remember thinking early on that Corwin was being manipulated by Ganelon, probably for good reason and to good end. That Ganelon was playing Corwin in ways that moderated Corwin’s impulsiveness and helped focus him. I don’t believe that makes the younger me an unusually perceptive 12-year-old reader. Instead, I think that Zelazny had some mastery of subtle character work in his writing, and that he deliberately telegraphed that to the reader.

    Time to go back and re-read!

    1. Very interesting comment, Kevin, and one that makes me wonder. I never saw any of that myself, not even in this current re-read. Unless you’re referring to the later part of the sequence in Avalon, touching on Dara’s access to Corwin, and the murder of Benedict’s servants. In retrospect, those are Ganelon’s first steps, though even now I don’t see any telegraphing. On the other hand if you mean earlier, in Lorraine, then you’ll need to be a bit more specific.

      Off topic but my Cranky Old Man has arrived today. One more…

      1. Off topic response: WooHOOO!

        It’s been decades since the spring of 1978, so I don’t remember exactly what I was reacting to. I smelled something fishy about Ganelon by the 2nd or 3rd scene with him, plus the fact that Corwin couldn’t completely control the circumstances that drew him to Lorraine, but it’s a memory of an impression of a memory, so distant and hazy. Ganelon before his true identity was revealed was my favorite character to read up to that point.

  2. Interesting. I’m loathe to respond in too much detail as it drags in things from later books and I don’t want to pre-empt readers who might not have read the series before. Once Corwin arrives in Lorraine, Ganelon makes a pitch for him to stay and fight, but then he would.

    To be honest, I really don’t want to re-read the bbook again, anything like this soon (at present I only have the post Second Chronicles short stories to read, none of which I have read before). We’ll see.

  3. Liked it almost as much as 9 Princes. Throughout the 1st quintet I liked each book a little less than its predecessor. Maybe I was getting bored with constant complications. Then I liked the 2nd quintet substantially less than the 1st because Merlin just wasn’t as interesting as Corwin.
    Avalon is really close to 9 Princes, though. I love the family reveals and the Hellrides are my favorite things in the entire series. Makes me wonder what Damnation Alley could have been if he’d stretched himself.

      1. Does it seem to you like he stretched himself a little bit less with each book?

        OK to qualify that statement I looked at his bibliography, and it’s not a straight linear progression. Dream Master followed This Immortal and was certainly less of a stretch, but both were followed by Lord of Light and Creatures of Light and Darkness, which both stretched not only his own writing, but indelibly reshaped Science Fiction. But yes, in my opinion, for what it’s worth (that and a buck will get me a cup of cheap coffee), those two novels were his literary peak, and the last of the Merlin books if not his nadir, at least near his least.

  4. Of the first two, i both prefer Dream Master and think it the more intense book, but I wouldn’t diagree with the rest of your suggestion. I don’t think i read ANY of his novelds after the Merlin Cycle.

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