Once upon a Time in Amber: Trumps of Doom


To the best of my knowledge, there is no-one who has compared the Second Chronicles of Amber to the First and said it stands up just as well. I certainly never did, not even when I was collecting the individual volumes in a rather neat set of themed covers in the British paperbacks. Coming to the first of these again, after a gap of maybe three decades, I’m not yet seeing anything to update that opinion.
The Second Chronicles is the Merlin Cycle, told in similar fashion by Corwin’s son, Merlin, the once and former intended King of Amber. Merlin introduces himself under the name of Merle Corey, which he’s been using for the last eight years or so on his father’s Shadow Earth: Merle is just finishing up a job as a Computer Designer.
Soon he’ll be off to do something else, that we are not immediately made privy to, but before that Merle has one outstanding task to complete. For the last seven years, some unknown individual that he’s tagged as S has been trying to kill him on April 30. Merlin desires to know who and why, though the latter is of only minor importance, especially beside the part about S not being in a position to try again next year.
It’s the same basic set-up as the Corwyn Cycle, except that there Zelazny made a deliberate thing of Corwyn’s amnesia, giving the story a direct and immediate point as well as an accelerable linear path. Merlin knows who he is, and returning readers know very well what to expect, but anybody not familiar with the First Chronicles is on a hiding to nothing trying to work out what’s going on, and not in a good way.
And Trumps of Doom doesn’t develop in any kind of progressive way, but rather just has Merlin bouncing from set-up to set-up, pursuing something not clearly defined, without ever getting to anything recognisable as a goal.
So Merlin goes charging around, alternately in pursuit and being pursued, accumulating scenes and people. These include his workmate, salesman and (we later learn) fellow Olympic candidate Luke Rinehart, his ex-girlfriend Julia, recently dumped but now found dead with half her face eaten off by non-Earth creatures, painter, mystic and weirdo Victor Melman.
Merlin faces a sorceress named Jasra, who bites him with a poison tooth. He escapes with the aid of a small number of new Trump cards showing unknown locations. These are the Trumps of Doom of the title, though only one is used, taking Merlin to the location of a sphinx who plans to riddle him and eat him. Merlin talks his way out on the basis of the Sphinx appearing to be stupid.
During his absence, at a faster time differential, Melman’s place has burned down. Merlin flies to Santa Fe in response to a message from Luke, eager to speak to him. Whilst he is awaiting Luke’s return, he is approached by a man asking questions about Luke that Merlin is cagey about answering. The man catches him offguard, leaving on asking if Merlin has ever heard Luke mention either Amber or the Courts of Chaos.

The UK edition

The stranger claims to be a potential investor checking out Luke, who denies all knowledge of him. Yes, he’s looking to work with Merle on a project called Ghostwheel, a bizarre computer system designed to work in unusual, non-earthly environments, but Merlin disclaims Ghostwheel as purely a theoretical exercise. Their conversation is interrupted by the stranger shooting at one or other of them, only to be killed by Luke. Luke forces Merlin to flee on threat of death, naming him with his true name, then disappearing with the body.
Now, you and I who have read the First Chronicles have already figured Luke for someone connected with Amber, and it’s not spoiling any dramatic tension to confirm that we’re correct. The new reader has only the aforesaid mentions of Amber and Chaos to go on, and has no idea yet of Merlin’s status, though they will be aware that there is a mystery about Merlin’s father, who is missing.
Merlin’s next move is to visit Corwin’s old friend and now attorney to Amber, Bill Roth. It’s meant to be a chill-out but one of the neighbourhood youths is acting weird (as if he’s on serious drugs), and not sounding like his real self. The next day, out walking with Bill, Merlin is summoned by Trump to return to Amber by King Random. With the boy running towards them, trying to stop him, he takes Bill with him for his first visit to Amber. (This is the self-identified ‘minor character who gets shuffled off without ever really finding out what’s going on’).
Merlin has been summoned back for a funeral. All the family are required to be present. Caine has been assassinated, and Bleys attacked, wounded but surviving. A mysterious stranger attempts to drop a bomb into the royal party at the funeral but is spotted too early by Merlin, causing the bomb to explode too high in the air. But he has succeeded in bringing working explosives into Amber. And when tested, Corwin’s Avalon-powered bullets, and a couple of rounds Merlin has retrieved from Luke, fire in Amber.

The US edition

With the assistance of his Aunt Fiona, Merlin returns to Earth to keep a mysterious rendezvous at Corwin’s old country club. Nobody arrives, but he picks up an attractive woman and goes back with her. After, they are disturbed by her husband’s unexpected appearance. When he contacts her later, she sounds completely different and doesn’t know him. Mysterious. Fiona recognises something in Luke’s photo but refuses to share her knowledge: she and Bleys disappear overnight.
Random’s main fear is of a recurrence of plotting amongst his siblings but he gets another headache when Merlin explains about Ghostwheel. This is a kind of computer-Trump, embodying the principles of the Pattern and its Chaos-equivalent, the Logrus, both of which Merlin bears within him. It can identify and locate objects in Shadow and open windows through the same. Since those widows could be used to transport the full force of, e.g., a Shadow Storm, Random orders Ghostwheel shut down.
Reluctantly, Merlin sets off to Ghostwheel’s location. This requires a very long hellride or rather hellrun as Merlin is running the way rather than getting on a horse. He keeps being faced with obstacles and orders to Go Back, but not until he is joined by Luke, who identifies the voice as Merlin’s, does he realise it is Ghostwheel, thinking for itself.
Ultimately, both are blasted away. Merlin wakes to find himself taken into a blue-crystal cave, where Luke shows him ample supplies before exiting via the roof, which he then blacks off. Before doing so, he explains that the blue crystal is completely impervious to Trump communication etc. He wants Merlin where he can find him, whilst he gets on with the business of destroying Amber’s royal family. Luke is S. He is also Rinaldo, son of Brand.
The book ends with Merlin having been a frustrated prisoner for a month.
I’m not going to go further than that for this entry. Trumps of Doom is but a template for the Second Chronicles and there will be ample time to comment on this approach when we get to later books in the series. For now, just contrast this synopsis with those for the Corwin Cycle, and meditate upon one already obvious difference between father and son: Corwin is telling an active story and Merlin a reactive one. How big a difference does that already make?

6 thoughts on “Once upon a Time in Amber: Trumps of Doom

  1. Corwin does turn up, eventually, but I wouldn’t enter any btreath-holding competitions waiting. This is Merlin’s cycle and (SPOILER ALERT) I don’t have much that’s nice to say about it.

  2. I read the first I think two and a half of this series some ages ago. In preparation for your review, I borrowed an e-copy from the library of this first Merlin book and re-read it, hoping I would have something intelligent to say. Oddly I could not remember the book from my previous reading. Having just re-read it, I still don’t remember anything striking from it.

    However, I do remember reacting to the book when I first read it, and I still reacted the same way this time. I felt annoyed when Merlin was being completely clueless in response to situations where the reader had been supplied the information to leap to the obvious conclusion. Zelazny avoided having Merlin react intelligently in order to force him into the next set-up situation. It always bothers me when I read a character forced unbelievably through situations. It feels like the author has a dim view of the reader’s intelligence.

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