Once Upon a Time in Amber: The Merlin Cycle considered


Don’t Smoke

When the Second Chronicles of Amber were announced, I had ambivalent reactions. On the one hand, the First Chronicles were still among my favourite books, and I was up for more about Amber and its denizens. On the other, I had been growing steadily more disappointed with the quality of Roger Zelazny’s post-Amber novels, for their increasing laziness and sloppiness. Eye of Cat had been a welcome return to his earlier, tougher form, but for it to be immediately followed by another Amber series was a seriously retrograde step.
I had fears, and they were realised.
There are two major differences between the Chronicles, both of which I’ve referred to in re-reading the individual books. One is in the very different characters and situations of their two narrators, Corwin and Merlin. The other is in the very different approaches Zelazny takes in initiating their respective stories.
I’ve already described Corwin as an active character. By that I mean that at almost every point in his Cycle, he has a goal in sight and is actively set on reaching it. What that is may change, but until he has done everything in his power to save Amber, he does not stop in his course. Merlin, in contrast, is purely reactive: at the start of his Cycle his only aim in sight is to goof off. The business with ‘S’ is a temporary distraction but it leads him into a non-stop cascade of things that happen to him, one after another, with only partial rationales, that have him following like an obedient doggy.
Even his outcome is somebody else’s plan for him: he ends up King of Chaos after specifically rejecting the Throne and his only triumph over his adversity is to rule without someone else pulling his strings. They still got him where they wanted him, though.
Then there’s how each story is told. Corwin’s story is a first person narration, being told to an unknown person who, despite very obviously not starting out that way, turns out to be Merlin, the son he’s only just learned exists. Zelazny makes Corwin an amnesiac at the beginning, enabling him to dole out exposition in carefully regulated manner. The audience – both Corwin’s listener and the reader – learns as they go along and the slow accumulation of detail fits the telling to a son almost wholly ignorant about his father.
Merlin’s Cycle is also a first person narration, though as soon as we learn that Corwin has been missing since practically the end of The Courts of Chaos, we understand that there will be the inevitable symmetry of Merlin relating his tale to his father. But the aptness ends there. Corwin may well be aware that Merlin is of both Chaos and Amber, and be in primary need of learning about him as Merle Corey, but the essential elements of Merle’s unusual background then get withheld from the readers who doesn’t already know the Corwin Cycle. This is a set of books for the existing fan and the new reader is left to flounder.
What’s more, there are multiple references to Corwin in the course of this Cycle, his Patternghost keeps appearing and disappearing and the real Corwin comes back in the final third of the final book yet Zelazny doggedly persists in referring to him as a third person, and not the person hearing this story. It’s weak story-telling, a too-lazy pursuit of equivalents in a setting where total equivalency is not possible.
What of the story overall of the Merlin Cycle? Each of the five books differ in detail and in what characters they introduce but essentially they are identical: they consist of things happening to Merlin without ever being fully explained. Whereas Corwin had a goal in mind, conquest followed by defence, Merlin’s only aim is to find out what the hell is going on and why is everybody trying to fuck around with him. Let’s list them, off the top of my head: S, Victor Melman, Jasra, Luke, Mask, Jurt, the ty’iga in its multiple guises, Dalt, Sharu Garrul, Mandor, Dara, the Pattern, the Logrus, Nayda, Coral, even his Aunt Fiona, Pattern/Logrus-ghosts of all descriptions. And let’s not forget Frakir, Ghostwheel and the blasted spikard.
And every time we turn round there are new relatives coming out of the woodwork. Merlin and Random’s son Martin (a waste of space herein) are Third Generation Amberites, to whom we add Rinaldo/Luke, but we also get four more Second Generation children of Oberon in Dalt, Coral and the secret pair of Delwin and Sand, who Corwin forgot to mention, whose introduction is almost entirely pointless.
Even over five books you cannot jam so many characters into a bubbling pot, coming at Merlin one after another without explanation or realistic introduction, some disposed off but most just retiring into the background to either be forgotten or else brought back when Zelazny is stuck for what to do next.
Not without considerably more authorial control and discipline than is displayed at any time in this series.
Stylistically, the most overt influence on Zelazny’s writing from the beginning has always to me been Raymond Chandler: sentence structure, use of similes, the combination of cynicism and dedication. In the Merlin Cycle, Zelazny seems to have borrowed, in fantasy form, another of Chandler’s significant tropes: whenever he thought the story was sagging or he didn’t know what to do next he would have a man barge through the door, holding a gun. The entire Cycle is nothing but men entering carrying guns.
I was critical in Corwin’s Cycle of the constant undermining, the mundaning of the fantasy with Earth references. There is nothing in Merlin’s Cycle so egregiously awful as ‘Does Macy’s tell Gimbel’s?’ but the Earth references reach saturation point. Every bloody Amberite seems to spend half their life there, to the point where practically the whole of Shadow is following them to see what’s so wonderful about the place.
Zelazny underpins this slant with the introduction of Ghostwheel, bringing computing and computers into Amber and Shadow so as to make the whole process more mechanical. He sets up Merlin as a sorceror, as a further contrast to Corwin, emphasises how carefully and selectively magic must be prepared, then gets fed up of that and drops a magical tool into Merlin’s lap so he can produce instant miracles and overwhelm superior opponents without breaking a sweat.
But in the end it’s the sloppiness of the overall writing, the constant chasing from here to there, the explanations that only follow a dozen crises later that makes the Merlin Cycle a flop. And Zelazny loses people and things constantly. In Blood of Amber, he brings Mandor and Fiona together, practically paints the walls with the instant attraction the pair have for each other and sends them off together to ‘investigate’. We then get one brief Trump contact with the pair side-by-side and then that’s it; no follow-up, Fiona practically forgotten, except for a brief mention that Mandor quasi-worships her when we’re rushing to get the end in.
Or Mandor making up to Jasra as if he’s never met her before when we’re later told she started off as Dara’s handmaiden.
Or Frakir, so essential to Merlin for nearly four books then abandoned just like that, with only one vague recollection.
Or Delwin and Sand – what are they about at all? Delwin does come back in a dream that, if you’re being generous, might have been a set-up for a Third Chronicles we never got.
But most of all, what about Coral? She comes in spectacularly midway through, a genuinely attractive character with a reciprocated interest in Merlin (not to mention she’s his Aunt) but the moment she walks the Pattern she’s kicked out of the plot and only allowed back in as a kidnap victim – first the Pattern, then the Logrus – until she’s completely peripheral to what’s left of the story, a mere cypher destined to become Queen of Chaos without even Merlin asking her.
One final point about the two Cycles. I remembered the Corwin Cycle even before I re-read it. I could have named all the characters, summarised the story with a high degree of accuracy for something I hadn’t read in, what, nearly thirty years? I barely remembered what was happening in Merlin’s Cycle immediately after I read it again. I had to synopsise half the series with the book in one hand.
In the aftermath of this Cycle, Zelazny wrote a short series of short stories, palate-cleansers, building up a background to what would have been a Third Chronicles, one in which I would have hoped to see Merlin and Corwin team up to enter a universe created by the Second Pattern. I’d have read it, avidly. Instead, Roger Zelazny died in 1995, of cancer brought on by the tobacco he and all his characters so determinedly smoked. You know how I feel about cancer.
For the last in this series, I’ll be reading those short stories for the first time and passing a few words in conclusion.

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