Once Upon a Time in Amber: Prince of Chaos


A word first about the title. Thus far, Zelazny has been using a (something) of (something) formula, four titles, eight different terms: Trumps, Blood, Prince, Knight, Doom, Amber, Chaos, Shadow. For the last book, we get a repeat of Chaos, coupled this time with Prince. It’s apt, for both Merlin and the final book, but the reuse of Chaos makes it automatically sound weak, as if Zelazny had run out of new ideas and could only revert to something already applied.
We pick up directly from the end of book 4, explaining that Coral is indeed Luke’s wife, by reason of an infant bethrothal years earlier, that the two are entirely amenable to an annulment, once the coronation is over, and then we hurry off to rush through said coronation and Merlin and Coral end up spending the night together, though Zelazny doesn’t mention whether they make love (which in most countries would be regarded as an act of High Treason, and probably not covered by diplomatic immunity) as well as talking and sleeping.
Then Merlin gets summoned to the Court of Chaos, and Coral gets dropped on the spot. Why is Merlin so urgently needed at home? Because he’s under Black Watch. Behind his back, people have been dropping like flies and now King Swayvill has finally died. Merlin is now third in line in the succession. He and the two ahead of him are being guarded.
Merlin doesn’t want to be anywhere in line for the throne of Chaos, or the throne of anything. Unlike his still-missing Dad – and Zelazny drops a substantial hint to the readers but not his narrator, as to where Corwin has been all this time – Merlin has no interest in ruling anything except himself. Unfortunately, his mother, Dara, and his elder step-brother Mandor have a different idea on that subject.
We’re here in the Courts properly for the first time, and credit Zelazny for the portrait he paints of how different the place is. Old friends, servants and serpents come out of the woodwork, pieces of Merlin’s childhood that he’s never talked about, and who arrive with relationships of a sort established that are not explained for us. And the Courts itself, with its non-Euclidean geometry, it’s concealed and twisted geography, is a place where homes and houses are known as Ways and hide behind plain sight.
As well as Mandor and Dara, Merlin’s main contact in the Courts is his Uncle Suhuy, Master of the Logrus. Suhuy at least is a neutral figure, with a regard for Merlin, who is not out to influence him, rather inform him. He provides a small spell to open Merlin’s mind to possibilities via a dream visit to the Corridor of Mirrors, which adds yet more layers of uncertainty, but who are we to object to this now, after four books of avoiding concrete answers?
Merlin objects to becoming King of Chaos, despite being told he is the choice of the Logrus, a thing that makes him only more determined to avoid the job. Indeed, later on Dara will effectively advise that Corwin was the choice of the Pattern as King of Amber, and that Merlin’s birth involved nothing of love or even desire, merely the selection of the appropriate genetic material to create the new King of Chaos.
Because what underlies the whole of the Merlin Cycle, and which is now extended retrospectively to underpin the Corwin Cycle is the struggle for balance between the two Powers, the Pattern and the Logrus, the Unicorn and the Serpent, Order and Chaos.
Without both, Shadow cannot exist. Both sides pay lip service to balance, both retaliate in turn to steps tilting the balance one way or another but both sides ultimately seek to establish an overwhelming dominance, rolling the other back indefinitely. They demand Merlin choose between them but that’s the one thing he refuses to do.

UK paperback

Right now, the Pattern has a distinct advantage: not only has the balance been tipped to it by Merlin repairing the First Broken Pattern, there is the matter of Corwin’s Pattern. Currently it’s remaining inactive, but not for much longer. It was drawn when the Pattern was being repaired, the only time this could possibly happen: in any other circumstances, the Pattern would have absorbed it and it’s tried to do so since but failed. Still, two Patterns, one Logrus, the maths are simple.
A pattern-ghost of Luke comes to Merlin in the Courts to deliver a message. Merlin sustains it with his blood. Corwin helps the pair escape the Courts, to ‘his’ Pattern, but this is another Pattern-Ghost, only produced by Corwin’s Pattern. As the only one ever to walk it, it is more durable as it has all his Pattern’s energy behind it. This is the Corwin who’s turned up here and there. The original is still missing.
All three walk the Pattern, en masse, which enables this one to sustain Luke. Luke-Ghost stays to guard it, Merlin trumps back to the Courts to meet Dara, but is diverted by another old playmate to discover a hidden shrine to Corwin. The meal with his mother does not go well. He probes her over what happened to Corwin but gets nowhere. He reveals that his father’s Pattern is becoming active, which disturbs her.
Returning to explore hidden parts of the Courts, Merlin is approached by Jurt, who he’s decided to kill on sight. But Jurt has undergone a total change of heart, apparently. The game is getting too big and too dangerous, he no longer wants the throne: not only does he think he wouldn’t be competent, but if he got there he’d only be a puppet of Dara and Mandor. As would Merlin be. So, reluctantly, they team up.
Jurt reveals that Dara plans to kidnap Coral, bring her to the Courts to become Merlin’s Queen, and bring the Jewel of Judgement, the Serpent’s Left Eye, the however many names you give it back to the Logrus. Merlin and Jurt decide to foil this, though their efforts are hampered by the need to attend Swayvill’s funeral, where they are to play prominent and visible roles.
During the funeral, the two candidates above Merlin in the succession both die. This places Merlin in pole position but gives him and Jurt the chance to sneak out to save Coral. They’re too late. A posse forms of this pair, Luke (who’s already fed up with being King) and the ty’iga possessed Nayda, who’s now gloriously happy since she’s shagging Luke, who she always fancied most. It also includes the mercenary Dalt.
For reasons left unexplained, Merlin wants the Luke-Ghost to do this, so he persuades Luke to swap places with the Ghost, who Merlin now renames Rinaldo for convenience, whilst Luke guards Corwin’s Pattern.
While they travel, Merlin reveals his spikard to Luke. The spikard is the ring of multiple magical powers and sources that Merlin’s been sporting since the last book, which caused him to tie faithful Frakir to a bedpost, never to be seen again. Luke, naturally, knows a bit more about spikards, that they are ancient and not to be trusted: he wonders if the spikard has been driving some of Merlin’s decisions since he donned it. Certainly, he feels weak and diminished without it on his finger, so it is, blatantly, something addictive, if not parasitical, or symbiotic if you want to be pleasant about it.
The pursuers catch the kidnappers at a tower being beseiged by two quartets of ghosts: four from Amber and the Pattern (including Eric and Caine), four from the Courts and the Logrus. The Amberites win. The pursuers surround a drugged Coral and defend her. The two Powers demand that she must go to one or other of them but Merlin is fighting to preserve Coral’s independence like his own. The pursuers are dragged to the Primal Pattern, where Luke negotiates their release by slashing his arm, cupping his blood in his hand and holding it over the Pattern.
Once back in Kashfa, Merlin goes off to sleep and have another of those dreams in which he’s addressed by various relatives. One of them is Delwin: you know, of Delwin and Sand, the mysterious Uncle and Aunt introduced into Corwin’s generation books ago for no apparent reason. Delwin’s here to tell Merlin that a spikard formerly belonging to Swayvill was introduced into Amber for him to find, bound with compulsion spells that would force him to claim Chaos’s throne and accept the orders off Mandor and Dara. Delwin bears a spikard of his own. He has the portentous line that they may never meet unless certain ancient powers are unleashed (a hint towards a putative Third Chronicles?), invites Merlin to touch his spikard to Delwin’s so they may meet but instead he’s blasted back to the Courts and another old playmate who delivers the other half of Delwin’s message, that the problem spikard left by Mandor was switched for the one Merlin bears, this by Bleys who makes a cameo to hand over the difficult spikard. Is Bleys a pattern-ghost? Was Delwin? God knows, this is getting so flimsy.

US Paperback

Anyway, the subtlety of the treacherous spikard turns out to be simple, crude chants of take the throne, listen to Mandor, do what Dara says and the like: easily resistible now.
Suddenly we’re rushing at the end. Merlin has finally woken up to where Corwin is. He and the Ghost invade the Courts. After the defeat by Amber, many prominent Chaosites started worshipping certain Amberites, setting up shrines to them: Mandor’s is of Fiona, someone else has Benedict, Dara has one of Corwin. Which is where Corwin is prisoner, in a locked cell in total darkness. Merlin releases him, his ghost replaces him. None of this is in the least characteristic of the Corwin of his Cycle but do we care by now? Corwin’s free.
And Merlin has one last task to do: he sets up a spot where he can work his spikard to the max, knowing it will attract Mandor and Dara. They challenge him, fight and lose. Merlin has Ghostwheel on his side. He faces down the Logrus. He will become King of Chaos but he will rule, not reign. He will be in charge. And nobody has any option but to accept it. Mandor and Dara don’t get the chance to ‘advise’ behind the scenes, unless Merlin proves to be crap at his new job and gets deposed.
So, offstage, Merlin tells Corwin his long story, to provide a final symmetry to events, and Corwin heads of back to Amber. End of story.
What do I say? What do I even begin to say? The Merlin Cycle is a mess, its infrequent good moments overwhelmed by its sheer incompetence? This is the point at which to begin an analysis, but to be honest it will have to be displaced to an unintended additional post. For that, you’ll have to wait another week.

Once Upon a Time in Amber: Knight of Shadows


At long last, something of an overall story is starting to form, though we still have a long and slow start to the penultimate volume before we begin to see anything of it.
We left Merlin, Mandor and Jasra in the ruins of the Keep of the Four Worlds, after the partially enhanced Jurt, and Mask the Sorceror, finally revealed to be Merlin’s ex-girlfriend Julia, have departed, the latter with Merlin’s dagger in her kidney. Jasra binds the Keep’s former master, Sharu Garrul to the Fount of Power as it’s Invisible Guardian, and leads everyone off to a place of rest where Mandor conjures up a culinary delight for the background to yet another of those frustrating question-for-question sessions where nobody discloses anything more than they have to.
We do learn that Julia became interested in magic when Merlin showed her various glimpses of power without ever trusting her enough to explain: Julia turned out to be a powerful natural sorceress and studied under Jasra whilst concealing her wider ambitions.
Jasra’s own power derives from the way of the Broken Pattern: up to nine such Patterns exist in Shadows close to Amber, in diminishing degrees of reliability. Becoming an initiate requires walking the interstices, not the Pattern, and Jasra led Julia through this, eventually enabling her to attack and overcome Jasra and seize the Keep.
Ultimately, the talk turns to Kashfa and Begma. Jasra knows the Prime Minister and his daughters, and also the rumours about Coral’s parentage, which Merlin confirms. The trio pool their concentration to contact Coral, in a very dark place, held by a massive concentration of power, which lashes back at them through Shadow. Ghostwheel disperses all three, removing Merlin to a very obscure place in Shadow, surrounded by wards.
First Dworkin, then Oberon, try to summon Merlin to a task involving Coral. Both are pattern-ghosts, unreal representations taken of the originals when walking the Pattern. Both are dissolved by the wards but the next to appear is Corwin, who is more real, passes the barriers and knocks Merlin out. He wakes in a black and white desert without sound, his Trumps useless. When he summons the sign of the Logrus, it knocks him out.
The Logrus summoning temporarily enables his strangling cord, Frakir, to talk, and give him directions as to where he must go. It leads him to a chapel in which he must firstly guard armour overnight, then don it to progress. Merlin must choose between Chaos and Amber. He refuses to do so, even in the face of the Serpent and the Unicorn, but a Chaos dagger is sneaked onto his person, deciding for him.
Merlin travels on, interminably (we will get to the objective, I promise, but this is ninety percent filler so far). En route he meets further Pattern-ghosts of Brand and of Deirdre. Brand explains that these can be stabilised by the Blood of Amber, but when Merlin cuts his wrist it bleeds fire and consumes Brand.
Next, he meets and races Jurt. For a time they team up, putting their differences aside. Merlin sustains Jurt’s ghost with blood. The next ghost is Caine, as an antagonist, then Duke Borel. At long long last Merlin is vouchsafed access to Random and Vialle’s bedroom in Amber and required to steal the Jewel of Judgement. Borel reappears, to attack him, and Benedict, to defend him. It is slowly becoming clear that this is some form of contest between the powers, the Pattern and the Logrus.

UK edition

Merlin and Jurt trek on still, until they find a door that gives them access to a Pattern. Merlin realises this is the first of the Broken Patterns. Coral is at its centre and to reach her, Merlin has to walk the Pattern, using the Jewel to reconstruct it as did Oberon with the Primal Pattern. His way is blocked by a Logrus-ghost of himself, but Jurt sacrifices himself to remove him.
Once at the centre of a repaired Pattern, he finds Coral sleeping. The Pattern will not send them away until they have sex. Despite being three-quarters asleep, Coral welcomes Merlin’s attentions, and then they can return to Amber. Merlin sends her to find her father and get him off that hook whilst he recovers from his exhaustion.
Before he can sleep he has to confront the voice of the Pattern, towards which he is disrespectful, then Dworkin – the real Dworkin, fully sane – comes looking for the Jewel. He warns Merlin that to remove the Jewel now will probably kill him.
So Merlin goes off for a long sleep in the blue crystal cave, where time flows far faster than Amber, before attuning himself to the Jewel.
Back in Amber, he tries to replace the Jewel without its absence having been noted. He also tries to contact Luke, but Luke is preoccupied. Then he is distracted by Coral, who wants to see her sister. Ghostwheel summons Mandor to lift his spell, but the moment Nayda sees the Jewel, which she terms the Left Eye of the Serpent, she grabs it and runs.
Merlin pursues. The ty’iga confirms it was sent to protect Merlin by his mother, Dara (that Merlin never even considered that possibility is evidence of the level of stupidity this Cycle operates upon) but it has a higher purpose if it gets the chance: to grab the Jewel and return it to the Logrus. Within Amber Castle, the two powers confront each other, hurling accusations about actions that have tipped the balance between them. Ghostwheel stands between them, refusing to pledge to either. The signs meet, causing a massive silent explosion that blows a hole across two floors of the wing. Mandor sustains a broken arm, Coral damage to her right eye. Merlin realises with disgust that the Powers have no concern for their servants, only their rivalry.
Everybody makes shift to sort things out. Dworkin operates on Coral. Random updates Merlin on the situation in Kashfa where his nominee was supposed to be crowned today. Unfortunately, a mercenary horde under Dalt has attacked, captured the Duke and installed a new King to be crowned: Rinaldo, aka Luke, exactly as he and Dalt had cooked up. Random wants Merlin to represent Amber at the new coronation.

US edition

After a symbolic dream-diversion in the Corridor of Mirrors that stalls things for the penultimate chapter, and a search of the semi-demolished quarters of Brand during which he finds Brand’s old sword and also a ring of potent powers that he keeps for himself, Merlin gets to Kashfa and contacts Luke secretly. Dworkin and Coral have disappeared, operation outcome unknown. There’s a suggestion Corwin’s been using his quarters in Amber secretly. Merlin meets Luke in a Chapel, hands over a coronation present of Brand’s blade. They are attacked by the powered-up Jurt. He steals the sword but is injured. He takes hostage a shrouded woman in the chapel, threatens her life. She is Coral, wearing an eyepatch. She is also Luke’s wife. She thrusts Jurt away from her, torments him before he trumps out. Behind the eyepatch is the red glow of the Eye of Chaos, the Left Eye of the Serpent, the Jewel of Judgement…
The bit about being Luke’s wife? Long story…
As you may have gathered, much of my response to the Second Chronicles is exasperation. We are now four books in, yet the amount of useful, purposeful story is not yet enough to fill one. Increasingly, the books are filled with scenes that strike me strongly as filler, such as the Corridor of Mirrors chapter that does nothing but bulk the book out to its required length. And to take three and a half books to introduce your point is, I would argue, amateurish writing. All we have had to date is puzzle after puzzle and a determined effort not to solve any of these, which is an acceptable technique for a first book, provided resolutions start to appear in the second. Instead, we had yet more puzzles and the equally infuriating profusion of people having answers that they refuse to disclose, for little better reason than cussedness and a schoolyard I-know-something-that-you-don’t.
I’d also adduce the business with the powerful ring, which we’ll later learn is called a spikard. For nearly four full books, Merlin’s most reliable self-defence weapon is Frakir the strangling cord. It even gets a voice in the first half of this volume. Yet the moment he finds the spikard, Merlin ties Frakir to a bedpost and leaves it, for good.
And the spikard is a concentrated cheat. Zelazny has tied up so much in this Cycle in Merlin being a sorceror and sorcery being a thing of study, preparation, time and strength. Then he gets tired of all that and throws in a Wham Bam Thank You Mam, instant Magic-on-a-stick device that can do anything on a second’s notice. That’s what I call cheap cheating.
One book to go. I wonder if my self of the mid-Nineties was as uninvested in finding out what and why as I currently feel.

On Writing – What they don’t tell you about


Sometimes, you can get sick to death of the sight of your own work.

I spent much of 2019 working on a third novel featuring the characters of Love Goes to Building on Sand and And You May Find Yourself. The book was complete in Second Draft by January, but I was unhappy with some aspects of it so I put it away for a couple of months whilst I worked on something else. Over the Easter weekend, I pulled up the Working Draft again and started going over it.

That meant going through it chapter by chapter, a combination of proof-reading, some revising, correcting slips (I had gotten lost in the timescale at one poit and needed to push the start of the book back two months to accommodate and there were still remnants of the original dating to correct). The final chapter was where I had really let things get away from me, and the most extensive work was needed to finally put the book to bed.

Then there’s the process of putting the book through publication at Lulu.com. This meant extracting each chapter individually to create individual word documents. Then eliminating widow and orphan controls en masse for each chapter (which just doesn’t work on documents of greater size). Then setting up a Lulu template for an A5 book, with titles, copyright, publication details and dedications. Then, one chapter at a time, converting the font from the 11-point Arial I use on screen to the 11-point Palatino Linotype I use in print and pasting the result, one chapter at a time, into the template, checking after each chapter to ensure there are no widow-orphan white spaces, balancing each chapter heading centrally.

Which means that over the past ten days I have read, or skimmed, through every bloody chapter four or five times, until, as I said at the start, I am sick to death of what I have written and never want to look at it again!

But the next step is to upload the print copy to Lulu where, despite the fact I am using the specific template for the book-size I want to create, it will come out wrong and they will re-size my text for the PDF that will be created, meaning that I will have to skim-read through the whole damned thing as many times as necessary to ensure no orphan-widow issues  creep into the print-ready text (if I have done things exactly as I believe I have done, it should all work out correct first time, but I’ve published too many print volumes through Lulu to believe that will ever happen).

Then I can go on to the cover designer to complete the process and order a print copy for my own library, where I will not touch it for a minimum of twelve months because, as I may have mentioned this, I AM SICK TO DEATH OF WHAT I HAVE WRITTEN!

This is one of the aspects of writing a book that they don’t tell you about often enough.

Once Upon a Time in Amber: Sign of Chaos


Still more of the same only different, but it would be fair to agree that, very slowly, the overall story is starting to gather something of a shape to it.
Thus far, it’s been an accumulation of mysteries, plates that are set up to spin and then left running whilst Zelazny rushes around new scenes, setting more plates into motion. Merlin is constantly failing to make much sense of what is going on, constantly having thoughts he doesn’t explain, constantly getting nowhere, leaving any overall story to turn and turn in a widening gyre.
There’s not much sign of this changing at first in Sign of Chaos. Merlin and Luke are hanging out at the bar with all the Lewis Carroll characters, including a Bandersnatch, a Jabberwocky and, rather more immediate to Roger Zelazny, a Fire Angel, a very destructive Chaos creature.
What they are on, jointly, is a bad trip. Luke’s attacked the Keep of the Four Worlds, been beaten and captured and subdued by having some LSD dropped on him. The Bar is his trip but it’s powerful enough to drag Merlin in with it. Using the Logrus against the Bandersnatch clears enough of his head to start escaping. He kills the Fire Angel with the Vorpal Sword, has to abandon Luke until his acid wears off, and Trumps out, not to Amber but to Chaos: his elder ‘brother’ Mandor (son of Dara’s husband by an earlier marriage).
Mandor is an intelligent, highly-composed Machiavellian figure with a soft spot for Merlin. He’s prepared to spirit his ‘brother’ off to a secret place to chill out for a couple of years until this all blows out, ‘this’ being a sudden bout of succession fever, with Swayvill, King of Chaos, looking finally likely to die and all manner of poisonings etc going on as everyone shifts for position.
And as Prince Sawall has formally adopted Merlin, whilst he’s been gone, Merlin is in the line now, another reason for Jurt to hate him, because he becomes higher in the succession.
Their conversation is interrupted by a Trump call for Merlin from Fiona, calling Merlin to Corwin’s Pattern. She includes Mandor in the invitation: the pair intrigue one another. Merlin admits to lying about being unable to walk this Pattern and still refuses to, arguing with Fiona over her anxiety that it is responsible for increasing the number and nature of Shadow stoms. Merlin’s case is favoured when Mandor eliminates one persistent storm, which is under external control, by amplifying it with ultimate Chaos via the Logrus.
They go off to investigate further. Merlin trumps back to Amber to catch up on sleep. He learns how to release Jasra from her spell before seeking food, in company with Queen Vialle, Cousin Martin (now a punk rocker of stereotypical appearance, ten years late) and Aunt Llewella. Random has departed for Kashfa, Jasra and Luke’s home, following the death of its ruler and Random succeeding in getting his candidate accepted. A trade treaty, bringing Kashfa into the Golden Circle of trade with Amber, is to be completed, all of which will head off Jasra’s return.
The meal is interrupted by the premature arrival of the Prime Minister of Begma, Kashfa’s local rival and an existing Golden Circle country, arriving with two daughters, Nayda and Coral, plus staff. Merlin, though no diplomat, is roped in to greet them and fend off importunate questions. Nayda resembles her father but Coral looks completely different. She attracts Merlin, and the attraction appears to be mutual.
Ahead of the State Banquet, Merlin shows Coral around Amber, taking her down to the beach along the stairway on Kolvir that Corwin and Bleys scaled in Nine Princes. Coral is intelligent, pleasant company, so much so that Merlin assumes she is the latest manifestation of the spirit, whatever it is, that possesses people and follows him. In this, he’s wrong, though his spell to drive out possessions comes in handy in foiling another attempt by Jurt to ambush him. Jurt is allied to Mask, current holder of the Keep of the Four Worlds.

The UK edition

Merlin has already told Coral that he knows what she is, leading her to assume he means her real secret. What that is only comes out when she gets him to take her to see the Pattern and she sets foot on it: Coral is a daughter of Oberon, via an affair he had with her mother. She walks the pattern, commands it to send her wherever she ought to go and vanishes with no means of communication other than Merlin’s Trump. Her disappearance is likely to cause a diplomatic incident.
Before that, Luke contacts Merlin to offer a deal. He has ended his vendetta after Caine and wants to settle with Amber to get Jasra freed. He proposes a deal whereby Mask and Jurt are cleared out of the Keep and Jasra retakes it. Some urgency is required, since the Keep contains the Fount of Power, a super-energising, dehumanising source that was responsible for Brand’s unusual powers: keeping Jurt from bathing in it is very important.
Merlin thinks this over throughout the Banquet, at which he is subjected to the earnest attentions of Nayda, offering him her personal contacts to set up a free and guaranteed assassination of anyone bothering him. Like her sister, but less appealing, she also seems eager to get something going between them, and not just because marriages into the Amber Royal Family can advantage small countries.
Vialle interrupts the Banquet, summoning Merlin to a Counsel of War. Dalt is present, threatening attack on Amber but willing to withdraw if Luke and Jasra are handed over to him as prisoners. Julian and Benedict are ready in force to wipe him out but Vialle wishes to avoid death for anyone. Merlin summons Luke by Trump to consult with Vialle, who places him under her personal protection.
Luke offers to parley with Dalt to secure agreement. Merlin goes with him to ensure that Julian doesn’t act on his own vendetta. Luke and Dalt agree on a fistfight, the loser to be taken as prisoner. Dalt knocks him out and withdraws: Merlin realises it has all been a complex set-up by Luke.
As agreed, Merlin visits Nayda’s quarters after the meal. After some preliminary kissing, he gets down to brass tacks with her. She is the possessing entity. He draws a Trump for Coral, contacts her in total darkness, but loses the connection quickly. It and Luke are blocked thereafter. Merlin is contacted by Mandor and brings him into Amber. Mandor recognises the creature possessing Nayda as a ty’iga. It is charged with protecting Merlin but can’t say by who in front of him, only to Mandor alone, and he won’t tell.
(Given that the book makes much of being a multitude of interlocking puzzles in which nobody’s motives have been established, even when their identities have been, this question is just one of many but it’s such a damned obvious solution that it’s disappointing that Merlin can’t even come up with one guess.)

The US edition

There’s another complication: the ty’iga took possession of Nayda at the end of a serious illness, so serious that Nayda had just died. It can’t be forced from the woman’s body right now: Merlin is already on the hook for one daughter’s disappearance…
Mandor agrees to aid Merlin. They awaken Jasra, negotiate her assistance in attacking the Keep, which she only agrees to after she gets to hear Nayda’s story.
Leaving Nayda behind, under a paralysing spell, the trio attack the Keep. Jurt appears to have at least partially bathed in the Fount of Power. Merlin gets close enough to Mask to drive a dagger into ‘his’ kidney, but Jurt Trumps both away to safety. Before he does, Mask’s mask comes off. Merlin recognises him. Mask is his supposedly dead ex-girlfriend, Julia…
Once again, it’s a cliffhanger ending, but this time of a different order, a revelation of information essential to the overall story, such the endings to Sign of the Unicorn and The Hand of Oberon in the Corwin Cycle. For the first time, we can perhaps begin to see the outline of an overarching story, into which the multiple elements we’ve bounced around might combine organically.
What are the main elements of the story so far? Someone is trying to kill Merlin; originally it was his cousin Rinaldo, who prefers Luke, then his mother, Jasra, and now it appears to be his half-brother Jurt – who hates him for no better reason than that he’s half-Amber – working in collusion with Merlin’s former girlfriend who he confused by taking her on a shadowwalk without explaining.
Someone has sent a Chaos entity that can transfer from body to body to protect Merlin: from Chaos, protection imperative, can’t guess who it might be.
Amber may face attack from differing forces, led by some combination of Luke, Jasra and/or Dalt.
Four more children of Oberon have been brought into the picture, two male, two female, two newcomers, two pre-existing but not previously mentioned.
Corwin hasn’t been seen since the end of his Cycle and Merlin has invented a sentient Shadow computer he calls Ghostwheel.
It’s not much to show for three books. But it’s only to be expected in that Corwin was a directed character, with a purpose: to take Amber’s throne at first, then to save it from a clear, present and equal danger. Merlin is completely undirected. He is passive, with no goal in sight, and is bounced continually from pillar to post by the actions of multiple others, with individual aims he still can hardly begin to work out.
The Merlin Cycle is a very flat cycle, spinning in place and progressing only laterally. With two more books to go, can it be redeemed?

Once Upon a Time in Amber: Blood of Amber


It would be fair to summarise Blood of Amber as ‘more-of-the-same-only-different’. It’s a series of incidents with minimal advancement on the major plot purposes, which to this point amount to who is trying to kill Merlin every April 30, and just what the heck is going on anyway. This instalment looks likely to be mostly synopsis again.
Zelazny left Merlin in a blue crystal cave, the properties of which block any extra-natural communication or transportation, and the immovable boulder over the hole in the roof preventing any physical egress.
What ingenious method of escape would Merlin devise to get himself out of this trap and this stasis? I don’t want to sound too critical too quickly, but I was genuinely disappointed to find that what Merlin did was to wait for someone to come and get him and set up an ambush. It’s definitely below the standards of Corwin’s Cycle, when you could always rely on a mad hunchback magician walking through the wall.
The troops trying to retrieve him are brought by Jasra, Luke’s mother, not Luke. Merlin disposes of them ungently and catches Jasra by the neck with his pet strangling cord, Frakir, but before he can get any answers out of her, Luke Trumps in and Merlin has to escape via the first available relative, which is Flora. Who knows and hates Jasra over past ‘romantic’ clashes in Jasra’s homeland of Kashfa and is well up on the region’s political history.
Merlin tries to contact both his brief inamorata and George, the kid from Bill Roth’s area, but finds that both of them have experienced temporary bouts of amnesia and Meg in particular really doesn’t want Merlin calling round again. Still at Flora’s, he receives a mysterious Trump contact from an unknown, very cagey person, who will apparently be an enemy: it ends with him being flooded with flowers.
Flora drives him to the home of his late girlfriend, Julia, where Merlin detects a magical gateway. This takes him to a position overlooking the Keep of the Four Worlds, a source of magical power from its position astride the corners of, you guessed it, Four Worlds. The Keep is under attack from mercenaries. Merlin learns something of the Keep from a dirty, smelly deserter-hermit called Dave. (Dave? Dave? I ask you, Dave.)
Merlin learns that the Keep once belonged to a wizard named Shara Garrul, who was defeated by Jasra, turned to wood and kept as a coat-rack. He also learns that Jasra is Luke’s mother. That the current attackers are led by a six foot six inches tall mercenary called Dalt who hates Amber worse than Jasra.
Parting from Dave, gratefully, Merlin attracts the attention of the sorceror now in charge of the Keep, a figure wearing a cobalt mask like a hockey goalies’, who sets out to destroy Merlin with a shadowstorm. Merlin escapes by Trumping to Random, followed by another delivery of flowers.
After updating Random, who recognises Dalt as the son of a former enemy of Amber, Deela the Desicatrix, who ought to be dead given that he was last seen being run through by Benedict, Merlin sleeps off his shadow ‘jetlag’, awakening in the dark, eager for food.
In pursuit of fresh fish, he follows a recommendation to Bloody Bill’s, in the less salubrious part of the Harbour. He gets a friendly warning from ‘Old John’, an agent of first Oberon then Random, who is clearly intended to be Timothy Truman’s Grimjack. Despite his precautions, he’s attacked in the street but saved by men working for Vinta Bayle, Caine’s last mistress and daughter of Amber’s premier vintner.
She offers him sanctuary at the Bayle family estate, far to the north, which they reach by sailing through the night. Merlin dreams of a duel in the Courts of Chaos with his younger half-brother, Jurt, who hates him as a spawn of Amber, and which ends, despite all Merlin’s attempts not to hurt Dara’s youngest son, with Jurt losing an ear.

UK paperback

Merlin finds himself puzzled by Vinta’s attitude to him. Her eagerness to help is explicable in the context of wanting revenge for Caine, but she claims her concern is to protect him. They trade information piece by piece, much of which Vinta should not have. Merlin learns that the blue crystal can be made into stones, various of which he has collected, and used to track someone through Shadow, without Trumps. Shortly after calling the game off, Merlin receives a transmission from Ghostwheel, wanting to know if he should trust Luke: Merlin doesn’t know if his No gets through.
Merlin agrees to stay another day. Vinta is starting to get more overtly friendly to him. Later, he is interrupted by an urgent Trump Call for aid from Luke, badly wounded after Dalt has unexpectedly turned on him. Merlin tends his wounds and keeps him safe, from Vinta as well. He also takes Luke’s Trumps, which include faces he doesn’t recognise. One is Dalt. Two others are Delwin and Sand.
This pair are hitherto unknown children of Oberon, by a potentially bigamous marriage in a Shadow where time flowed quickly, placing them between Gerard and Random in the succession. But after their mother’s death, they withdrew from Amber, wanting nothing to do with the place, and still don’t. Why are they introduced? No reason pertaining to the story is given in this book. Later, whilst Luke sleeps, Merlin contacts Dalt, who wants to finish the job he started on Rinaldo. Merlin has to summon Chaos’s Logrus to sever the connection, which wakes Luke. Luke wants Merlin’s help to rescue Jasra from the Keep of the Four Worlds, in return for which he will disclose a piece of information vital to Amber’s security.
It also attracts Vinta, who reveals herself to not be Vinta but rather someone possessing her, someone who was Meg, George, Luke’s old girlfriend Gail and a certain Lady in a Lake. But she will not disclose who she really is.
By rights, Merlin should turn Luke in to Random but he allows him to remain free, having his own plan. This involves moving Luke to the blue crystal cave, though without the boulder over the entrance. He rides back to Amber overland, but en route is approached by a mysterious figure declaring itself to be his enemy.
There is a very annoying turn here. This declaration is the last line of Chapter 8. Zelazny spends the whole of Chapter 9 on various flashbacks on the theme of power; brought by Fiona to Corwin’s Pattern and pretending not to be able to walk it, hunting with Jurt, being attacked again and this time Jurt loses an eye, debating civilisation with Luke, Julia and Gail, avoiding the first April 30 attack, and being taken by Suhuy, Master of the Logrus to see ultimate Chaos. Then, after a complete chapter of irrelevant distraction, not letting us have a single clue as to who this enemy might be, said enemy is fought off with incredible ease and no clues as to who he/she might be, except that it appears to be a wolf. Where do shape-shifters come from?

US paperback

Merlin builds up an array of spells to further his plan, which is to walk the Pattern, transport himself to the Keep of the Four Worlds, retrieve Jasra (who is also doing coat rack duty by now) and bring her back without Luke being involved. Despite opposition from Mask, he succeeds. He is then abruptly summoned by a drugged-out Luke, via an irresistable Trump contact, to a crazy Alice-in-Wonderland bar where he is trapped. Luke’s vital information? Dalt is a son of Oberon, by rape of Deela the Desicatrix.
Once again we are subjected to a last moment cliffhanger, this one even more abrupt and out of left field. How much further forward are we to reaching the Cycle’s ultimate goal? Not a bit. How nearer are we to discovering what is the Cycle’s ultimate goal? Even less. Maybe in the next book.

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?

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.

Once Upon a Time in Amber: The Courts of Chaos


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.

UK Edition

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.

US Edition

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.

Once upon a Time in Amber: The Hand of Oberon


When The Hand of Oberon arrived at Compendium Books in 1976, I was expecting it. I had learned the title in advance. And for the first and only time in my life, I read the last page of a book first. Because the title had already alerted me to the fact that Oberon, King of Amber, would stand revealed in this book as having been working undercover. And I was confident I knew as who. The check confirmed my guess (well, it wasn’t as if there were any credible alternatives) and I could settle down to read the book happily.
Try it yourself if you’ve read all my reviews thus far: who do you think a disguised Oberon will turn out to be?
Or perhaps you can beat me to the punch on a summary of the story. Which begins in the true Amber, beside the Primal Pattern, hidden a Shadow away from the Amber we’ve always known, the subject of much educated guesswork among Corwin, Random and Ganelon, the last of whom isn’t even from Amber. This Pattern is marked by a black area, running from its centre to its perimeter, obliterating part of the Pattern and corresponding in shape to Corwin’s Black Road, which is not, after all, the consequence of his curse.
Something is in the centre of the Pattern. Ganelon runs in alongside the breach to retrieve it: a playing card, a Trump, of an unknown young man. Ganelon theorises that the Pattern can be destroyed by the blood of Amber, which he proves by letting a drop of Random’s blood fall on the Pattern.
This triggers recognition: Random realises that the card is of his unacknowledged son, Martin (nice name), grandson of Moire of Rebma. If he has been killed, Random wants revenge, if not, to know him. He and Benedict, who knows Martin, head off into Shadow to try to trace him.
After speaking with Random’s wife, the blind Vialle, Corwin sleeps, then takes a decision. He descends to the dungeons, in particular the one where he was kept, blinded. Dworkin’s two Trump sketches still exist: Corwin uses the other to gain access to Dworkin’s ‘cell’, in reality well-appointed rooms that exist close by the Primal Pattern.
Dworkin mistakes Corwin for Oberon, shape-shifting, playing on his sentiment. Corwin learns that Dworkin is Oberon’s father, that the two were refugees from Chaos, seeking to establish Order. Dworkin inscribed the Primal Pattern, creating both order and Shadow, but it may be destroyed by spilling his or his line’s blood on it. As the Pattern is marred, so too is Dworkin, being the Pattern in one sense. The hunchback wants to destroy the Pattern entirely, begin anew with a fresh Pattern, inscribed by Oberon using the Jewel of Judgement. Oberon demurs, as does Corwin. Cannot the Pattern be repaired? Yes, but it is far harder than a fresh inscription.
He also identifies Martin’s Trump as having been drawn by Brand, not himself.
Unfortunately, Dworkin’s control is slipping and Corwin is forced to flee, using one of a number of ‘place’ Trumps. This takes him to the Courts of Chaos, where time runs much faster than in Amber. He kills a pale man who challenges him but is allowed to go by a dark haired human man.

US Edition

Returning to Amber via Gerard’s Trump, Corwin discovers he has been gone eight days and that Brand is demanding to speak to him. Brand wants to use the multiple Trump contact to break through Fiona’s defences so he can stab her. He admits to stabbing Martin. Corwin’s refusal to agree infuriates him and they part on bad terms.
Corwin’s next move is to retrieve the Jewel, left on ShadowEarth in his compost heap. He checks with Benedict, planning a massive attack on the Courts to put them in their place. Before he can depart, Gerard trumps in and attacks Corwin: Brand is missing, his room wrecked, blood spots found: Gerard believes Corwin has killed Brand and is prepared to kill him. But Ganelon intervenes in the fight and, despite Gerard’s fabled strength, knocks him out.
Corwin’s route leads him through the Forest of Arden, where he encounters Julian. This time, Julian is more concerned with news from Amber than with his hated brother. Indeed, the hatred is gone. Julian explains that he, Caine and Eric had formed a triumvirate to protect the Throne from Bleys, Brand and Fiona after Oberon disappeared. Eric did not want to seize the Throne but was forced into it by events. Corwin had placed himself in great danger by siding with Bleys (who still lives). It had been Julian’s idea to burn out Corwin’s eyes, relying on his regenerative powers, as the only feasible step short of killing him, the one act that could not be justified should Oberon return, to save his life. He also fills Corwin in on strange powers Brand possesses over Shadow.
Corwin hellrides onwards to Earth, only to find his house is being done up for sale and the compost heap gone. Contacting Bill Roth again, he finds where it has been taken but too late: Brand has the Jewel. If he can attune himself to it he can then destroy the Pattern and inscribe one of his own.
Fiona contacts Corwin and leads him to the Primal Pattern, which Brand has already started to walk. En route, she provides the final realignment of the background: Brand saw Corwin starting to remember himself again, railroaded him into an asylum where electroshock therapy was being used to destroy not recover his memories, shot out his tires, and was working out whether he needed to throw Corwin back in the lake when the police arrived. It is Brand, not she or Bleys, who have remained allies with the Courts of Chaos.
Corwin follows Brand, uses the Jewel to force him away and has watches set on all the other Patterns, in Amber and Rebma. That leaves Tir na Nog’th, to which Benedict, who now has the mechanical arm retrieved from there attached to him, travels as soon as the City in the sky appears.
Brand appears, trying to talk Benedict round, approaching slowly by increments until his partial attunement to the Jewel enables him to paralyse Benedict. Brand is about to kill him when the mechanical arm, acting on its own, seizes the chain holding the Jewel, lifting Brand off his feet. He only escapes strangulation by snapping the chain and leaving the jewel with Benedict, who is brought clear by Corwin.
The fact of the Tir Na Nog’th arm being the only weapon capable of use against Brand, and Benedict being the one on the spot, at the tactical suggestion of one person, is a coincidence too many for Corwin. He sees the hidden hand manipulating everything, the hand of their father. He and Benedict try to contact Oberon by his Trump.
Ganelon responds.

UK Edition

It didn’t bother me that I knew from the outset that Oberon had been posing as Ganelon, though I maintain that that’s not who he was in The Guns of Avalon. Nor does Zelazny make much effort to pull the wool over our eyes throughout this book. Ganelon is here, there and everywhere, the leading light in analysing the Primal Pattern, outpunching the superstrong Gerard, directing tactics even with Benedict, the Master of Arms of Amber, on hand. Even down to ensuring the magic mechanical arm is on hand to be surgically attached to Benedict, early on. As cliffhanger endings go, it comes with a safety net about five inches below.
The Hand of Oberon contains more action than its immediate predecessor, but it’s still at heart a book about filling in the background. Except that this time it’s all about overturning almost everything learnt in Sign of the Unicorn. The obvious example is Brand, who is revealed as the baddy on all levels instead of the good guy, to the extent that Bleys and Fiona’s part in what is essentially treason against Amber gets to be overlooked, because despite initially allying themselves with the Courts of Chaos (no doubt under Brand’s influence) they decide to go it alone.
But there’s also revisionist work to be done on the Eric-Caine-Julian side of things. They are defenders, not aggressors, Eric didn’t actually want the Throne, and whilst Julian argues a very convincing case for blinding Corwin being the least worse option from his perspective, it doesn’t sit well alongside the actual scenes in Nine Princes in Amber. Doubly revisionist is the conversion of Julian to ally and friend, not to mention the fact that the Death Curse of a Prince of Amber, Corwin’s work, the Black Road, turning out to have practically nothing to do with him; a bit of shape maybe.
Whilst misdirection is all very well, the amount of time and detail spent in setting everything up in Unicorn, only to be overthrown a single book later, becomes frustrating. And renders large chunks of the series to date redundant. It’s one thing to feel the ground shifting beneath your feet because the author intends it to be so (Gene Wolfe springs to mind here), and another because the author is changing his mind as he goes along.
A couple of times in this series, I’ve used the term Fantasy-with-feet-of-clay. There used to be a lot more of this about in those days, or perhaps that was just because I was reading so much more fantasy. It was something that used to affect American writers, an inability, almost a fear of taking fantasy too seriously, of drawing on its mythic roots for genuine resonance. European writers, enjoying an unbroken history that extends back into folk-tale, folklore, mythopoesy, seemed more in touch with what lies at the root of their writing, able to treat it more seriously, or at least not being so afraid of people thinking they take such things seriously.
American writers, removed from that tradition in the most part (Ursula le Guin was another shining example of the opposite) tended to shy away, to want to salt their work with harder-headed elements, borrowing from a contemporary, novel-rejecting world. Zelazny’s already used dozens upon dozens of Earth-like terms, constantly dragging his fantasy back towards mundanity.
And there are two such examples here, one of them an absolute nadir.
The first is an in-joke. Corwin, descending to his former dungeon, approaches a guard for a lantern. The guard’s name is Roger, he’s lean, smokes a pipe, is writing a book down here… He couldn’t be more telegraphed as being Zelazny himself if you decked his hat out with a neon sign. In 1976, I found it clever, in 2020 it’s too obviously an in-joke that it jerks the reader out of the story at a point when seriousness is required, backing away for an aren’t-I-so-clever snigger that undercuts the mood.
The other is in the Forest of Arden, an evocative name. Corwin, Prince of Amber, on a mission to save his realm, discourses with Julian, Prince of Amber, defender in many fashions of that realm. They discuss threats to Amber, exchange information of high purpose. Julian enquires of his brother how he, blinded, escaped from an inescapable dungeon in Stygean blackness. And Corwin replies, “Does Macy’s tell Gimbel’s?”
Let’s leave it at that. Next up, the conclusion of the First Chronicles.

Once upon a Time in Amber: Sign of the Unicorn


It was another three years before Roger Zelazny returned to the Amber Universe, in 1975’s Sign of the Unicorn. In the interim, he had published another two standalone novels. I found Sign of the Unicorn in Manchester’s then leading comics and SF shop, Compendium Books on Peter Street, a block from the Free Trade Hall. It was an import copy, and I would continue to get Zelazny’s books as imports from Compendium for the rest of the decade.
I was 19 for most of 1975, transitioning from the second to the final year of my Law Degree at University. I’d got Grade 2 at English Literature at O-level and an A at A-level. Despite my grades, I’d largely wasted both courses, being a long way from developing the kind of analytical mind that I now have. But even then, I knew that I was reading a book that was very different to the first two, which I’d re-read a few times by then. There was a different approach, a different atmosphere and, most of all, a near-complete rejection of the type of story-telling Zelazny had employed thus far.
For one thing, Nine Princes‘ span had covered years, Avalon months and Sign of the Unicorn covered about four days. For another, the two previous books had driven relentlessly onwards, salting their actions with the philosophical musings Zelazny came up with as to life, the Universe and Shadow, but Unicorn was almost completely static, spending over half of its time in flashback, where the ‘action’ came from the retrospective reminiscences of characters other than Corwin. And Unicorn ends with something neither of its predecessors had done: a cliffhanger revelation of truly mammoth proportions
So: Zelazny picks things up about a week after Corwin’s return. He’s been decoyed to a quiet spot on Kolvir to supposedly meet with Caine, arriving to find his brother dead. Corwin kills and brings back the assailant to get Random (and Flora) to confirm it is one of the beings who pursued Random into the story in Nine Princes. He then gets Random to spend a chapter explaining just how he got these creatures trailing him, which involves Random trying to rescue missing brother Brand from imprisonment in a fairly chaotic Shadow.
Corwin then walks the Pattern (repeat performance) to attune himself to the Jewel of Judgement before going to retrieve Caine’s body with Gerard. Partway, Gerard stops them and forces a fist fight on Corwin, using his legendary strength to defeat him. This is to make the point that he is not convinced that Corwin is on the level, and to remind him that if he is guilty, Gerard will find and kill him first. As they leave to continue their journey, they see the Unicorn, Amber’s symbol.
Once the body is recovered, Corwin calls the entire family together to bitch, moan and whine at each other (that’s an exaggeration, but only in degree), whilst discussing recent developments. Once everyone is up to date, Corwin proposes a mass attempt to contact Brand via his Trump: this succeeds, and physical intervention from Gerard and Random brings him back to Amber, only for one of the family to sink a dagger into his side, a potentially fatal wound.
Gerard treats Brand and stands guard over him as everyone else retires to trade blame. Fiona drops some hints as to the real nature of the Jewel of Judgement to Corwin, that it is not just a weather-working tool. When he retires to bed, Corwin finds himself moving and reacting faster than usual. It saves his life when he enters his quarters, by enabling him to react too fast for an assassin waiting there to stab him.
Corwin is alive, though seriously wounded, but finds himself having jumped into Shadow, to the bedroom of Carl Corey’s home in America. Corwin manages to crawl out to the main road, stashing the Jewel in a compost heap en route, for safe keeping, and is found by an old friend who gets him to hospital.

US edition

This friend of Corey’s, Bill Roth, an attorney and fellow military history enthusiast, has been taking care of ‘Carl’s affairs since he disappeared seven years ago, Earth time. Corwin learns that when he had his car crash, he had escaped from a mental institution to which he had been committed by his brother, Brandon Corey, and where he had had electroshock therapy. He’d also, apparently, been pulled from the lake into which he crashed by a red-headed man on a white horse: both are clearly Brand. Bill is curious about Corey’s true nature, but regards himself as a minor character in a book who gets shuffled out of the way without ever learning what’s really going on.
Since time on Earth is running at two and a half times the speed of Amber, Corwin recuperates for as long as he can before being summoned back by Random, using his Trump. Brand is awake and asking to speak to Corwin, and both Julian and Fiona have fled.
Now it’s Brand’s turn to tell his story, as slowly and with as much circumlocution as he can. It boils down to a conspiracy to get Oberon out of Amber and seize the throne, between the three full-blood siblings, Bleys, Brand and Fiona. Brand claims to have broken with his co-conspirators over their decision to ally with, impliedly, the Court of Chaos. His subjection of Corwin to electroshock therapy was an attempt to restore his memories, interrupted by his former allies, with Bleys, not Eric, taking the shot at Corwin’s car.
There’s more to this but we are not made privy to it. Again, it heavily implies that Amber’s woes and foes come from the Courts of Chaos.
To further buy time to recover his strength, Corwin gives out that he is to visit Tir Na Nog’th that night, meaning he can spend the day in solitary contemplation. Just as Rebma is Amber’s reflection in the deep sea, Tir Na Nog’th is its reflection in the moonlight night sky. He takes Random and Ganelon with him, Random to recover him by Trump if cloud obscures the moon whilst he is up there.
Tir Na Nog’th is a place of dreams and portents, alternate possibilities and twisted presents. Corwin ends up in the throne room, where Dara is on the throne, Queen of Amber, guarded by a Benedict whose missing right arm has been replaced by a mechanical version, a fantastically supple creation that, unexpectedly, can touch and grab Corwin where nothing in Tir Na Nog’th is supposed to. Fortunately, his blade can sever dream-Benedict’s arm and he is Trumped back with the artificial arm.
Shaken, the trio have a morning coffee. Ganelon quizzes Corwin on the actual order of succession, a genealogy that which differs in several respects from the one Corwin gave in Nine Princes. But as they set off back, to Amber, the way seems different. There is no Shadow in Amber to work with but it is as if they are travelling in Shadow. They see the Unicorn and follow it to a place of level rock in which the Pattern is inscribed. Physically, this Pattern is in the same place as that in Amber.
Corwin realises that this Pattern is the true Pattern, and they are now in the real Amber.

UK edition

You see the difference. The whole book is recaps, reminiscences and multipart conversations, with the action limited to Random’s escape from the creatures guarding Brand, Corwin’s punch-up with Gerard and his one-sided swordfight with the image of Benedict. It’s a catch-up book, going into detail about things Zelazny raced past unheedingly, and from the very first reading, I had no confidence that Zelazny was revealing secrets he’d built in in 1970 and 1972. The whole thing read that he was now trying to construct a narrative background for a larger story based on the little information he’d previously given us, and that the fit was not in any way seamless.
If I’m wrong in this belief, as well I might be, the book then becomes an example of clumsy writing. Unicorn contains a massive wedge of exposition, doled out in lumps. Indeed, it’s successor will replicate this pattern to a large extent. The contrast to the first two volumes and their brisk, lightweight pace, cannot be stressed enough. It’s like having a ton weight dropped on the reader’s stomach, for painful digestion.
And Zelazny was not, in my estimation, a clumsy writer at any time until much later in his career.
Having read the first two books before Unicorn appeared, I experienced the seismatic shift in tone first hand. I am only aware of one parallel experience, being Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series, where it is generally accepted that Farmer underwent a change of purpose at, curiously, the same point: two short, brisk adventure stories succeeded by two mammoth, wide-spreading books, multiple plot-points and storylines and and increased sense of purpose, plus a fifth novel of similar dimensions when book four didn’t adequately explain what was happening.
Zelazny’s books don’t expand in size in anything like the same manner, but the effect is the same. I have been convinced since 1975 that, during the intervening period, Zelazny was overtaken by the concept of Amber and Shadow, that only then did he come to a full realisation of what he had created, and that the original third volume – to what extent it was actually conceived, about which I also have my doubts – became too shallow to live up to the possibilities now apparent.
For the moment, let’s move on to the fourth book, to supplement my case, and I will adduce further evidence once the First Chronicles are complete.