The Courts of Chaos is the shortest book of the First Chronicles, and very much the simplest. There are no more flashbacks, no more revisions of the backstory, but not that much less debate. Just a couple of preparatory chapters, one tidying up a loose end to no apparent benefit, and then setting the story in motion, throughout all of which you can sense Zelazny’s straining to be done with such mundanities and to get to the flaming point!
The book first appeared in Galaxy magazine, serialised in three parts (November 1977, December/January and February 1978). I never was a buyer of SF magazines but I bought these three, just to read the end that much sooner.
The story picks up with Corwin having locked himself away in the Library and, quite frankly, throwing what can only be described as a hissy fit about his father returning and not immediately taking everybody into his confidence. This is a prelude to a rather awkward scene in which Dara has been trumped into Amber by Martin, is in the throne room with him and Benedict when suddenly we get a replay of the scene at the end of Unicorn where Corwin cuts the mechanical arm from Benedict and it now disappears. No reason is given as to why the arm should be removed, except that it’s clearly served its sole purpose, nor is there any explanation of why everything in the scene should be slightly different from the scene in Tir Na Nog’th.
Dara claims to have come from Oberon, with orders, and his signet ring to prove her bona fides. She admits to having sided with the Court of Chaos as long as they were planning a balancing exercise, levelling the playing field of Shadow between them and Amber, but broke with them when she realised their idea of levelling was to take it all back virtually to Amber’s door.
Oberon has been planning a strike against the Courts of Chaos, but not necessarily with Amber’s full strength: now his orders via Dara are to start immediately.
Corwin doesn’t trust her, even after Oberon confirms his instructions direct. He trumps to Dworkin’s workshop, which irritates Oberon. The King has decided that he will attempt to repair the Pattern. This will trigger distraction tactics from Chaos, hence the strike to preoccupy them. Whether he succeeds or not, the effort will kill him. He has decided to nominate Corwin as his successor.
Corwin, partly because he started to like Oberon as Ganelon, partly out of a sense of duty to Amber, but mostly because he has decided he no longer wants to be King, snatches the Jewel and runs for the Primal Pattern, intent on making the attempt himself. Between them, Oberon and Dworkin paralyse his muscles: he wakes to find Oberon holding the Jewel.
Now Corwin has refused the throne, the succession will have to depend on the Horn, whatever that is. But Corwin must now hellride as far as he can from Amber, towards the Courts. When Oberon has finished, successful or not, the Jewel will be conveyed to Corwin who has to get it to the Courts, for purposes he will not understand until they occur.
That is the book’s main purpose: Corwin’s journey and the various obstacles placed in his path, both repeated attempts by Brand to stop him, including claiming Oberon failed, that there is no Pattern and he must urgently draw one, and people in his path wanting to slow him down, stop him, etc.
In the end, his horse shot and killed, absolutely exhausted despite the continuing drawing of energy via the Jewel, Corwin arrives in sight of the skies above the Courts, but with forty miles to go. The only option left to him is to do what Brand proposed: to draw a Pattern. Corwin infuses his Pattern with his memories, in particular of Paris in 1905, when he was happy. He completes his task and collapses, exhausted. Brand trumps in, kicks him in the head and steals the Jewel. Now there is one more Pattern for him to destroy.
But Corwin can not only draw energy from his Pattern, he can also teleport himself from its centre, taking him to where he can overview the battle at the Courts. He can see armies directed by Benedict, Julian and Bleys, he can see his brothers and sisters in armour in their colours, though he can’t identify the knight in green.
Brand is trapped on the edge of the Abyss by this group, but he has a hostage, Deirdre, Corwin’s favourite sister and true love (we’ll not go there), whose throat he threatens to slit. Corwin, unseen, gets close enough to turn the Jewel against him, but loses control when Brand slashes Deirdre’s face. The distraction enables Deirdre to create a clear shot, which is taken by the knight in green, who shoots Brand in the chest with a silver arrow. Brand falls into the abyss, with the Jewel, but his clutching hand grabs Deirdre’s hair, and he drags her with him.
The knight in green turns out to be Caine. His ‘death’ was a cover: he killed a near-Shadow version of himself to go underground, trying to locate the threat to Amber. It was he who stabbed Corwin, being then convinced he was working with Brand.
The battle is over and Amber has won, but the chaos-wave that has spread through the former Shadows on Oberon’s death (like the Anti-Monitor’s antimatter wave in Crisis on Infinite Earths, and who’s to say Wolfman and Perez weren’t inspired by this) and threatens to sweep over everyone. It’s progress halts to allow the passage of Oberon’s funeral cortege, for interment in the Courts, where he was born.
No sooner is it gone when the Unicorn rises from the abyss, with the Jewel of Judgement on its Horn… She delivers it to the new King, the youngest brother, Random.
An absolutely exhausted Corwin enables Random to attune himself to the Jewel, and watches as the new King causes the storm to flow around, not over them. Shadow lies behind it: Oberon successfully repaired the Pattern and Amber has survived. Only now there are two Patterns…
Corwin is introduced to the young, dark-haired man he briefly encountered at the Courts in Oberon, who let him leave unscathed. This is Merlin, raised and trained to be King in Amber once the city was reduced. Like his father he does not want to be King but rather to explore Shadow. His mother is Dara. His father is Corwin. With nothing more pressing to do, Corwin starts to tell him a story starting in a private hospital after a car accident.
The final chapter has Corwin considering his family, both dead and alive: who they were, what they are, those who have changed, those who have not. He and Merlin rise to ride into the Courts of Chaos.
So the sequence was over. It had been a big and popular success for Zelazny and transformed his career. There was every reason why it should have: Amber/Chaos and the infinitely mutable Shadows between is a major conception, allowing unending variety. It fascinated me forty-odd years ago, enough to overlook what are now obvious glaring flaws to the modern me. Nor has the series fared well in face of the changing nature of the best fantasy fiction now (I have to say the best as I don’t read anywhere near enough to generalise). It did the kind of things fantasy did then, and did it mostly energetically, and it’s not like Zelazny was unique in cutting the legs from under his creation by being unable to go the whole hog and write clear medieval High Fantasy instead of stuffing in scientific and mundane earthly material.
The Courts is, as I’ve already said, about Corwin’s extended ride to the battle and the dramatic conclusion. The initial, set-up chapters come over as the product of an author itching to get at the good stuff. The opening chapter, replaying the Corwin/Benedict swordfight in Tir Na Nog’th, serves to introduce Dara to Amber (with one final revisionist twist as she’s now a quasi-ally, trusted by Oberon) but is otherwise otiose. It’s easy to understand the chain of manipulation that retrieves the mechanical arm, gets it to Benedict and he to the point where it’s the only effective weapon, though it requires some incredibly precise and in places highly implausible foreseeing of causality, but the point of then removing so highly effective a device is lost on me.
Similarly, since Dara and Corwin’s son Merlin is being groomed to rule in Amber, and Oberon has determined on Corwin as the interim King, it’s easy to construct a rationale for she who said, “Amber will be destroyed” at least semi-swapping sides. Though this introduces an unresolvable contradiction given that if Oberon is so foresighted as to set up the mechanical arm, howcum he can’t tell that Corwin no longer wants the throne?
No matter: their last conversation is only there to set up the scheme for the rest of the book. The actual hellride aspect is comparatively brief, all sentence fragments and geographical/ meteorological changes with oneirological logic, no different from any other hellride we’ve already read and as boring as all of them except maybe the first, and then we have a long long ride with obstacles.
Apart from Brand’s attacks, Zelazny populates the obstacles with scenes drawn from various mythologies: Irish, Arthurian, Norse, undercutting the potential power of each with flip, cynical responses from our narrator. There’s an argument to say that long journeys are irrelevant when the only thing that matters is the point of arrival. That’s far from being always true – Genly Ai and Estraven in The Left Hand of Darkness springs vividly to mind – but the only significance to this journey is that it exhausts Corwin to the point where he cannot go further. The actual incidents are largely meaningless and most could be swapped for other scenes without any practical difference, but in their defence they lead to the book’s best – indeed, the series’ best – chapter, the inscribing of a new Pattern. This is powerful, intense and yet meditative, and for once the largely Earth-oriented imagery of Paris 1905, in the golden days before the Great War, romantic rather than mundane, lends the piece a very distinct flavour.
It is, of course, Corwin’s finest moment, an inevitable step, and one that I believe was nowhere near Zelazny’s mind before the conclusion of Avalon.
After that, the victory over the Courts could easily have been an anticlimax so full credit to Zelazny for making sure it was not. Brand’s death coming from elsewhere in the family was a skilful extension of the Frodo-esque ending of Corwin’s ride, and the death of Deirdre, with whom Corwin was in love, full-sister or no full-sister is intended to demonstrate the devastation Brand has caused, and to give our hero something he loses.
For me, that falls a little flat in its impact. Corwin’s told us, often enough, of his feelings for Deirdre (though nothing of her feelings towards him), but the Prince in Amber’s innate cynicism and aversion to sentimentalism of any kind, spelt out often enough, makes every such moment so brief as to be prime Tell-not-Show and we see far too little of Deirdre to form any real idea of her as a person to be liked, respected or loved (ok, we discover she fights with an axe), so we cannot feel at her loss the way we ought to and Zelazny wants us to.
Two final things: the decision of the Unicorn to select Random, the runt of the litter, the youngest of the Princes, may have been intended to be a surprise, but Zelazny has done so much building up of him as a right-hand man in the last three books that he becomes the only sane choice.
And the choice of Merlin, as the person to whom Corwin relates the books we’ve been reading, becomes only logical and correct by the time we get to this point but, pointing this out for the last time, I would swear that this is not who Zelazny intended as the auctor throughout the first two books, nor victory and survival the setting for the telling of this tale.
So that’s the First Chronicle, the Corwin Cycle. After a short interlude, to discuss philosophy and the development of a writer’s career, we shall turn to the Second Chronicles, the Merlin Cycle.