Once upon a Time in Amber: Between Two Cycles


The First Chronicles of Amber had taken Roger Zelazny eight years to write. They represented five books in a total of eleven published by him in that period, one a ‘fix-up’ novel consisting of three novellas about the same character. The Courts of Chaos was his seventeenth novel overall. Each of the others were science fiction, although the trappings of fantasy were overlaid on two novels in particular, each utilising a pantheon of Gods (Indian in Lord of Light, Egyptian in Creatures of Light and Darkness) as templates for once-humans to populate.
Amber had proved to be massively popular and Zelazny’s career was already tied to this sequence. It’s influence, and especially the concept of travel throughout Shadow and alternate worlds, had a marked effect on his writing. Roadmarks translated the notion into a road through time, and his next four books (discounting collections and collaborations) were all in the fantasy mould: Changeling and its sequel Madwand utilising the same mixed formula as Amber, the second pair, The Changing Land and Dilvish, the Damned (the latter a ‘fixer-up’ chronologically preceding the former) were more straight fantasy, albeit with Zelazny’s signature cynical, hard-bitten, pragmatic protagonist.
They were, universally, unsatisfying. Compared to the level of work Zelazny had produced at the start of his career, even in minor but nevertheless taut and economic novels as The Dream-Master and This Immortal, they were loose and flabby.
I remember a contemporaneous interview with Harlan Ellison in which he praised not just Zelazny but the fact that he had been recognised early, had been allowed to progress freely and expansively, without having to claw out recognition step by step, like most writers of SF had had to do. And I remember, not all that long after, when surveying this sequence of novels, wondering if that really had been a blessing. It’s a pain in the arse, having to struggle to meet editor’s expectations, but don’t you learn a lot more from adversity that you do acclaim?
The proof of my theory came in the form of 1982’s Eye of Cat. Once again, Zelazny was writing SF, overlaid by a structure imposed by a pantheon, this time the Navajo gods. An interplanetary hunter is tasked with trailing a menace. To succeed, he needs the tracking abilities of an alien creature he previously captured. The creature’s price for co-operation is not merely release but the chance to hunt. Once the menace is taken, the creature – Cat – hunts the hunter, to the death.
It was brilliant. Fine, taut, severe, without wasted words or anything even approaching a hellride. It was Zelazny back on his original form, a recovery of all his old skills. It was, or it could be, a turning point in his career. I looked forward anxiously to his next book. I had been a fan of Zelazny for a decade, I had everyone of his books, including the crappy, barely readable collaboration with Philip K. Dick that I only managed to get through twice at most. I wanted my favourite writer back and here was his chance.
His next announced book was a sequel to Amber. He never wrote anything major again. Indeed, apart from two minor stories, one of them what would be called a Young Adult novel now, he never wrote anything that was not a collaboration again.
Was the Second Chronicles that bad? Let’s see.

2 thoughts on “Once upon a Time in Amber: Between Two Cycles

  1. I was also hugely relieved by Eye of Cat, after not only the other 5 disappointments you cite, but the way the Amber series (which none of us, probably not even Roger, realized would go on) ended.

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