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.
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.
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.