Published in 1970, Nine Princes in Amber was Roger Zelazny’s seventh novel and his first non-standalone. It would end up being the first in a sequence of five, forming the first Amber Chronicles, though I’ve long since held the conviction that Zelazny, who had only published his first novel four years earlier, had nothing like so grandiose a story in mind when he wrote this book. Indeed, I get the impression, from how things progress, that Zelazny didn’t have a lot of ideas about how the story was going to end and was, for the first two books at least, making it up as he was going along.
By this point, Zelazny had been a professional writer since 1962, and a full-time writer since 1969. He had won two Hugo Awards for Best Novel and two Nebula Awards (Best Novella – shared – and Best Novelette, in the Award’s first year). He was established, he was feted, he made a living, not typical among SF writers, and especially not those who had been around for less than ten years. I’ll come back to this point later in this series.
Thus far, Zelazny had definitely been a Science Fiction writer. Two of his novels – the Hugo-winning Lord of Light and the experimental Creatures of Light and Darkness – revolved around characters who formed panthea of Gods, Hindu and Egyptian respectively. Both conjured up myth into a form of superficial Fantasy that was nevertheless grounded upon futuristic science. Nine Princes in Amber was his first essay into Fantasy itself, though as events were to demonstrate, this was to be very much Fantasy-with-feet-of-clay.
The world Zelazny creates for the Amber Chronicles is vast, subtle and very individual, but it requires a massive information dump to set up for the reader. Given his overwhelming preference for a first person voice, not to mention cynical, hard-bitten heroes with not a lot of trust for anyone, Zelazny negotiates this by having his narrator, Corwin, Prince of Amber wake up amnesiac but convinced he is being held against his will, and having him play more knowledgeable than he is so that he can glean information in a carefully measured manner over the first third of a basic three Act book.
I, unfortunately, am going to have to infodump fairly heavily to provide an outline of Amber, Shadow and Chaos.
At one end of reality lies Amber the Great City, the only real city of which every city elsewhere is but a reflection of some aspect of it. Amber is a primarily medieval/sophisticated kingdom, ruled since before anyone can remember by King Oberon. Corwin is one Prince among Nine who have survived, the others being Benedict, Eric, Julian, Caine, Gerard, Bleys, Brand and Random. There are also four surviving Princesses, Dierdre, Florimel (Flora), Fiona and Llewella.
Amber is Substance, like a magnetic pole. Its opposite is the Courts of Chaos, the most unstable, twisted, impermanent form of Unreality there is and, by its nature Amber’s enemy.
Between Amber and Chaos lies Shadow, created by the opposing polarities, an infinity of possibilities: Earth is one such. Zelazny makes a philosophical question as to whether Shadows exist in themselves or whether they are created out of the minds of the Royal family of Amber, who can walk through Shadow, adding to and subtracting from what they see, mentally, until they achieve their destination. He also, by making Corwin entirely pragmatic, ignores answering that, and other similar questions throughout the series.
Nearly done. Amber is based upon something called the Pattern, an immense ‘diagram’ of arcs, curves, angles and occasional straight lines that is in some manner encoded within the Royal family’s genes. Walking the Pattern, against its escalating resistance, to its centre unlocks the person’s knowledge of how to traverse Shadow, and enables them to instantly transport themselves anywhere they want. And the family all possess specialist packs of Tarot cards, the Greater Trumps of which are portraits of the family that can be used to communicate over vast distances with the person and even transport one or other to the other’s side, if you trust a sibling. Corwin isn’t the only one who doesn’t care to do that. Take a breather now, if you wish.
So: Act One is based on Corwin learning most of these things, in greater detail. He awakens in a private hospital on Earth, in America, with no memory of himself or his circumstances, except that he has been in a serious car accident, sustaining severe injuries from which he has recovered with unnatural speed, and that he has been over-sedated to keep him quiet.
Determined not to let anyone know his weakness, that he doesn’t know who, what, when, where, why about himself, he bluffs/forces himself out of the hospital, and heads for Westchester, home of the sister, ‘Mrs Evelyn Flaumel’ (aka Flora), who has checked him in, and who is working for his brother Eric, whom Corwin hates.
Thus far, the story keeps closely to realistic bounds but between the cryptic cross-talk and Corwin’s discovery of a Trump deck, it’s starting to get strange. Then Random arrives out of the blue pursued by humanoid-but-not-human pursuers whom the two Princes kill with tremendous strength and mastery of swords. The next day, out driving, without knowing that he’s doing it, Corwin prods Random into taking them to Amber, by shifting the car they are in through an ever-changing series of Shadows. The pair survive an encounter in the Forest or Ardern with hated brother Julian, a master hunter, brothers for preference, who is also backing Eric, and rescue Deirdre, captured trying to flee Amber.
The situation is that Oberon has disappeared, maybe dead, maybe abdicated. Eric has taken the Throne of Amber and is planning his coronation. Corwin, who has already committed himself to opposing his brother, is doing so for the Throne himself.
By now, it’s gotten so complex that Corwin has to confess his true state. The only way for him to recover his memory is to walk the Pattern again. The one in Amber is obviously inaccessible but another exists in Rebma, Amber’s reflection in the deep sea, ruled by Queen Moire. It’s death for Random to go there, he having once committed the minor indiscretion of eloping with Moire’s daughter, abandoning her pregnant, and she suiciding after her son was born. Instead of death, however, Random gets to marry Vialle, a blind member of Moire’s Court, and to stay with her for one year.
Corwin gets to walk the Pattern and recover all his memories. The most significant of these is that his amnesia did not start from the car crash, for which he is convinced Eric was responsible, but from his arrival on the Shadow Earth in England, during the time of the Black Death.
He promptly abandons his two allies to their respective fates and transports himself to Amber, to acquire a pack of Trumps for himself, to fight an unanticipated duel with Eric, who is still the better, stronger swordsman of the pair, and escape via Trump to join brother Bleys, who is the only formal opposition to Eric thus far, raising an Army in Shadow to invade Amber.
After all that, the remaining two acts of the book are almost ridiculously easy to summarise. Corwin becomes Bleys’ Lieutenant, doubling the size of his Army by recruiting easily-persuaded volunteers from a Shadow in which he is worshipped as a God. Corwin leads the Navy, Bleys the Army. Both are cut to ribbons on the long approach to Amber, Eric’s forces and defences – including his mastery of the weather-changing Jewel of Judgement – decimating the attackers. The Navy is lost, the Army reduced to 5,000 men. Their frontal assault, up the Great Stair on the mountain Kolvir, Amber’s home, devolves into a series of duels hand-to-hand. Bleys kills a great many but is eventually knocked off the path, at which point Corwin, in a wholesale change of character, throws him his Trumps, giving Bleys a chance to escape. Corwin makes it into Amber but everyone is killed except him. He is imprisoned until the day of Eric’s Coronation where, after briefly crowning himself first, he is made to witness Eric receive the Crown, before he is taken away and his eyes burned out.
The final act covers nearly three and a half years imprisonment in solitary confinement and blindness for Corwin. He is released once a year to attend Eric’s Anniversary parties, and his monotonous and uninspiring diet is relieved from time to time via his friend and protege, the minstrel, Lord Reyn, bringing bread, meat, cheese , wine, news and the inevitable cartons and cartons of cigarettes (all Zelazny’s heroes are inveterate smokers).
Eventually though, the Amber Royal family’s natural regenerative capacities see Corwin’s eyeballs grow back. He’s still a prisoner but that’s when Dworkin Barimen walks through a Shadow wall that isn’t supposed to exist in Amber itself, into Corwin’s cell, because he wanted to see what was on the other side of his cell wall.
Dworkin is a hunchback, a madman, a Sorceror and an artist. It was he who designed and drew the Trumps, with their remarkable capacity to transcend distance, but he has long been Oberon’s prisoner, held because he had discovered a way to destroy the Pattern. Bored with captivity, he’d literally walked through the wall. He needs to draw a picture of his own quarters to return, but Corwin also gets him to sketch out an image of the Lighthouse at Cabra, which he then uses to escape Amber.
After staying with Jofra, the lighthouse keeper, whilst he recovers his strength, Corwin moves on. First, Jofra shows him a dark, twisted road along which strange creatures are accessing Amber: this is the outcome of Corwin’s death-curse when his eyes were being burnt out. When he rules in Amber, he will have to deal with his own handiwork…
Corwin sails away. When he returns, he swears to bring guns into Amber. He creates two birds of desire, one to fly ahead with the message, ‘I am coming’, the other to fly back with the message ‘I’ll be back’.
What we have here is an unusual set-up with bags of potential buttressing a, so far, pretty unsophisticated and trite story, princes fighting over a vacant throne: that’s never been done before. It’s being written by a writer who, though his style is to a degree poetic, and which has indulged itself in Panthea, has nevertheless previously only written science fiction, and who, by making his narrator a person who has existed on our material Earth for over half a millennium, thinks, talks and uses referents in a modern American idiom.
Add to this the excessive cynicism of a Zelazny hero and we have a mixing of elements that are very difficunt to blend in an organic manner.
There’s an example of this in the second act, when Corwin discovers/creates the Shadow from which he draws an army that sees him and Bleys as Gods. These are two high Princes planning to invade a High and most powerful Kingdom, and how does Corwin describe his loyal Army? As “furry creatures, dark and clawed and fanged, reasonably man-like, and about as intelligent as a freshman in the high school of your choice.” What Zelazny’s trying to establish here, and which he makes explicit in the next sentence, introduced by a nervy, “sorry, kids”, is that they are cannon-fodder, too easily deluded by ‘Gods’ such as him into slaughter. Then, with your ears still ringing from the tinness of that reference to a freshman high schooler, he describes himself as feeling like “the dee-jay of your choice”, which further undermines the atmosphere of Fantasy as well as using the ‘of your choice’ line in the same five-line paragraph, appalling writing in itself.
And after a war fought with swords and shields, magic and trained creatures, Corwin’s reaction is to plan to fight with guns.
There’s going to be more of this to come, including one particularly atrocious moment that I’ll pick out in a later book,and I’ll give more of one of my theories at that time, one that I held when I was an avid Fantasy/Zelazny fan, and not in my older, more analytical years. For now, let me merely remind you of that phrase I introduced before: Fantasy-with-feet-of-clay.
Another intriguing aspect of this story is that Corwin’s first person narration isn’t just a convention or a style, but rather an actual telling of his story to an as yet unidentified listener. We know nothing of this person, save that Corwin is telling him everything. And all we know of the circumstances or place is that auctor and lector are looking at the Courts of Chaos.
The listener’s identity is revealed in the final book, but I’d be prepared to bet a year’s rent on this not being anyone Zelazny had in mind when he dropped those two references into his story, if indeed he had anyone in mind. There are discrepancies of detail between what Corwin establishes with utter certainty in this book, and what turned out to better suit the story later on. There are discrepancies in style between the first two books and the last three. Nor did the sequel appear for two more years.
As I said, I get the strongest feeling from Nine Princes in Amber that Roger Zelazny is making up this story as he goes along. It’s his first story not to be contained in one book, and I get the impression he is dropping in ideas to keep the pot boiling. The book is reasonably coherent in itself but it begs multiple questions and I’m convinced Zelazny was trusting to future ingenuity to unify these as a whole. Since it will become of importance to the next book, let me adduce as example the Death-Curse of a Prince of Amber, a curse of terrible intensity, pronounced in the face of Death and inevitable. Corwin curses and doesn’t even have to die to make it stick. I’m not complaining about that but at the end of the book, it’s explicit that the Black Road cutting through the burned Forest of Garnath is Corwin’s Curse: he recognises it as himself.
Hold that thought: you will get a surprise later on.
Re-reading after so long was interesting. I found myself driven by pure nostalgia and, after a difficult start in which the actual writing was creaky and herky-jerky, narrative propulsion. Originally, I read this book after its sequel, and I thought the sequel was better. Now I’m going to check my memories of that.