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.
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.)
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?
I was at the Dermatology Clinic the other day, concerning a mole on my right cheek that I wanted a) to confirm was not a melanoma and b) to get shot of. It’s duly been confirmed that it is only a mole and my right cheek is currently stinging where it’s been blasted with liquid nitrogen so that, over the next few days, it will turn black and drop off. Lovely, can’t wait.
What amused me was that initially I was expecting to be seen by a Doctor Zelazny, the amusement coming from the fact that for many years, my favourite writer was Roger Zelazny, the American writer of SF and Fantasy who died in 1995 of cancer.
I discovered Zelazny in 1974 or thereabouts, in the wake of first reading Lord of the Rings and searching for similar experiences. I’d lately started visiting Manchester’s Central Reference Library, whose General Fiction was far, far bigger than Didsbury and Burnage Libraries put together and multiplied.
My eye was caught by the ornate lettering and exquisite Patrick Woodruffe cover painting on a book called The Guns of Avalon, which turned out to be the sequel to something called Nine Princes in Amber. From internal evidence, the books appeared to be the basis of a trilogy, a first person narration to an unidentified listener as the central character, Corwin, Prince of Amber, faced seeming death and destruction.
I fell for Zelazny’s style immediately. It was fresh and smart, lean and hungry, a mixture of poetic intensity and Chandlerian cynicism, though I was years away from reading Raymond Chandler and identifying that influence.
I made it my business to get Nine Princes in Amber (which surprised me by being a less interesting book), and from there everything of Zelazny’s that I could find, until I had read practically everything bar a handful of uncollected short stories. But though I remained a fan for almost twenty years, by the time of Zelazny’s death I had begun clearing out the more minor books from his career, and going on to remove practically everything but the Amber Chronicles, and even those went eventually, not too many years after he passed on.
Sometimes, I muse about acquiring some of them again, but not for long, not unless I come into enough money for unlimited acquisition and (even more important) shelf-space. Despite the regard in which he was, and in many people’s eyes is still held, I came to recognise flaws in his work, central and ineradicable flaws that, as such things do, once seen spread backwards, infecting work I’d previously loved unconditionally.
The Amber series – or rather Chronicles – would eventually run to five books, though it’s clear from reading them that Zelazny underwent a massive change of plans between The Guns of Avalon and its successor, Sign of the Unicorn, and that the person eventually identified as Prince Corwin’s auditor is not who Zelazny had in mind during the first two books.
Amber is what defined Roger Zelazny’s career as a writer and which defines his reputation. It took over popular imagination, leading to two well-received Sourcebooks, with which Zelazny collaborated, and to a Second, and less successful Chronicles, which again ran to five books. At the time of his death, Zelazny was engaged in writing a succession of linked Amber short-stories (one, in collaboration, unfinished) intended to lead to a collection that would, presumably, have led to a Third and final Chronicles.
Amber is what dominates any consideration of Roger Zelazny, whose career started in the very early Sixties and who was speedily recognised as a writer of distinctive, well-formed, imaginative SF and Fantasy. Such recognition, which enabled him to become a full-time writer by 1969, was celebrated. I, as one who has been under the spell and who was as avid a fan as any for a good fifteen years at least, hold the contrary opinion that these two factors are directly responsible for his failure to realise his considerable potential as a writer.
To illustrate this, let me analyse the First Amber Chronicles. As I said, I came to this after reading its sequel so the gradual uncovering of the true situation was rather spoilt for me. It starts with an unknown man waking up in a private nursing home, aware of three things: that he has recovered uncannily quickly from a very bad road accident, that he is being kept over-sedated… and that he has absolutely no idea of who he is or where he is from.
The first half of the book consists of Corwin playing a deep game as he tries to recover his memories. He meets two of his siblings, sister Flora and brother Random, and instinctively keeps from them both his vulnerability. He also finds a very unusual set of Tarot cards, cold to the touch, in which the Greater Trumps have been replaced by portraits that he recognised instantly: they are of his family. His father, Oberon, nine brothers (including himself) and four sisters (there is passing mention of other siblings who have died but the numbers are inconsistent with the parties Zelazny goes on to establish, which supports my belief that his original plans were discarded after Avalon).
Eventually, after being led on a strange journey through shifting realities – the first introduction of Shadows – to within sight of Amber itself, Corwin has to admit to Random just how clueless he is. This leads to his first walk through a replica of the Pattern, a mysterious, massive geometric shape that, when walked by someone of the Royal blood of Amber, enables them to walk through Shadow, mentally shaping – or perhaps creating – it to their desire as to where they want to be.
This is Zelazny’s cosmology for the series: that Amber is the only True Reality, casting Shadow in every multi-dimensional direction, until the furthest and most fractured Shadow leads to its opposite pole, the Courts of Chaos, which neither Corwin nor Zelazny understand at this point.
Walking the Pattern restores Corwin’s memories, especially with reference to his place in the succession, which he describes as himself being first in line. Ahead of him in seniority are Benedict, Master of Arms of Amber, a military genius, who is disqualified by both illegitimacy and disinterest, and Corwin’s full-brother Eric, also illegitimate: Corwin and Eric loathe each other.
But Oberon has disappeared. Eric rules Amber as Regent, with the support of Julian and Caine: Bleys plans an attack, with the support of his full-siblings Fiona and Brand, though the latter is missing. For the second phase of the book, Corwin throws in with Bleys and seconds his overwhelming but ultimately doomed invasion of Amber, which gets into the streets around the Castle before ending, with Bleys missing, believed dead, in a fall from the mountain, and Corwin captured.
Corwin is forced to witness Eric’s coronation before his eyes are burned out and he is imprisoned in the dungeons.
Which is where Zelazny pulls his first serious rabbit out of a hat. Corwin’s more-than-human powers of recovery, which stem from being of the Royal Blood of Amber, enable him after several years to regrow his eyeballs. And the influence of the family’s mad scientist, Dworkin, enables him to escape his dungeon by walking through the wall.
Literally. Dworkin is the creator of the Trumps I mentioned above. These are more than cards: they are a means of psychically connecting the person portrayed, and of instantly travelling across Shadow to them. Dworkin has been imprisoned by Oberon due to his madness. One day, curious as to what is on the other side of his wall, Dworkin walks through it into Corwin’s cell (this is left behind as a serious anomaly when Zelazny rethinks his game as Dworkin’s actual cell is nowhere near the dungeons and, indeed, isn’t even on the same level of reality as them).
Dworkin sketches a Trump on the wall to go back to his comfy cell but, before leaving, sketches one of a prominent place a long way from Amber, that Corwin uses to escape. He vows to return to Amber and conquer it, bringing guns with him to do so. But before he departs, he learns that Amber faces danger, from a Black Road cutting through Shadow, along which fell things travel. The Black Road has been opened by Corwin’s curse…
Three years passed before The Guns of Avalon was published, which I take to indicate that Zelazny was not invested in Corwin as a series character with a plotted story to be explored in sequential books. In fact, I rather get the impression that he was playing things by ear, with no overall plan, and with a fairly loose ending in mind, and no clear picture of whom it would eventuate that Corwin was addressing.
Like it’s predecessor, Avalon covers a lengthy period of time, and basically falls into three phases. Corwin is walking through Shadow to find a Shadow of a place he created/discovered centuries ago, an idealised land named Avalon, which contains a kind of jeweller’s rouge that, unlike conventional munitions, burns in Amber. This he will use to bring automatic weapons to the True Reality.
In the first half of the book, he is distracted to the land of Lorraine, itself a distant Shadow of Avalon, which has collapsed into Chaos. Lorraine is under siege from a Dark Circle, the manifestation of Corwin’s curse here. Feeling under obligation, Corwin stays to aid the fight, though his name is an anathema here, and Lorraine’s war leader is a man called Ganelon, who is an exile from Avalon, stranded here by Corwin for betrayal.
With Corwin’s aid, the Dark Circle is defeated, but the revelation of his true identity leaves him despised by all of Lorraine, save Ganelon, who asks to accompany Corwin in the hope of seeing Amber for himself. This takes the book on to the Shadow-of-a-Shadow Avalon, which has recently overcome its own equivalent of the Dark Circle, due to the work of it’s Protector, Benedict, clearing up after a little brother.
Corwin is welcome to stay, though he has to be anonymous again, given his reputation, and he’s not to do any war-preparations. Naturally, he ignores this latter stipulation. He also encounters Benedict’s hitherto undisclosed daughter, Dara, and ends up seducing her: once by revealing to her her unsuspected heritage as an Amberite, and the other in the obvious manner. Though it will turn out that, whilst Dara’s relationship to Benedict is real (albeit as great-granddaughter), Corwin only has her word for it: Benedict knows nothing of her.
The final phase is also brief. Corwin’s gun-equipped army arrives in Amber only to find it already under attack from the Black Road. He makes an instant decision to switch plans, to side with and rescue Amber, which rebounds to his advantage: Eric is mortally wounded in the victory, leaving Corwin as Regent. The book’s climax comes with Dara riding through the battle, to reach and walk the Pattern and claim her heritage. At which point she reveals herself as an enemy, intent on Amber’s destruction.
Thus far, I’ve gone into a lot of detail as to the progress of the series, whereas I intend to say very much less about the three books that will follow. I’ve done this to give you an idea about the nature of these books. They’re an adventure fantasy, centring upon a dysfunctional family of quasi-superhumans, engaged in squabbling over the throne of an idealised fantasy realm. The rest of the series is radically different.
Once again,it was three years, with other, unrelated novels appearing in the interim, before the third book was published. Like most other Zelazny fans, I anticipated ‘more of the same, only different’, and a concluding episode to a trilogy.
Instead, Sign of the Unicorn was a retrogressive book, composed primarily of lengthy flashbacks, related by different characters, filling in back-stories relating to events that had already passed in the first two books. For instance: in Nine Princes, Random appears out of nowhere, pursued by strange, non-human creatures out to kill him. Sign of the Unicorn‘s first step is to have the youngest Prince explain why, which turns out to relate to a swathe of backstory of which Corwin – who began the series as an amnesiac, remember – is unaware.
It’s a logical step when the leading character has been out of it for so long, but it slows the pace of the story to a crawl, especially as each of these fill-ins are necessarily about closed incidents whose outcome has already been reached. By the end of Unicorn – which ends upon a massive, yet entirely philosophical cliffhanger – the story has barely advanced a whit.
But it’s gotten deeper, and more convoluted. In a way, that’s entirely fitting, but the complete contrast between this and the two preceding books can be explained in only two ways: a complete and inept amateurism on Zelazny’s part, or else the belated realisation, two books into a loosely plotted adventure, that he had created something of greater depth and complexity than he had first imagined, requiring a resetting of the story to encompass the larger concerns he had evolved.
And Zelazny was not an amateur.
As I said, I’m not going to break the story down into the sort of detail I’ve already employed. The action is more metaphysical than actual, and Zelazny’s shifted concerns introduce motifs in his writing that will come to dominate his entire work, and not for the good.
The underlying point has always been that Amber is real, the only reality, and that it casts Shadows. We will learn that the hitherto somewhat nebulous Courts of Chaos are the opposite point and that Shadow is created by that opposition between form and not-form. Corwin has already introduced, and dismissed the question of whether Shadow exists in itself or is created by an Amberite pulling together the parts of his or her desire and creating the perfect context for it. This has made for a couple of extended, but relevant scenes where Corwin travels through Shadow, mentally adding and subtracting elements to achieve the state/land he is seeking. But from Unicorn onwards, the journeys begin to increase, and Zelazny’s own fascination with the process overwhelms him. More journeys, faster journeys (known as ‘hellrides’), diminishing returns as page after page pulls apart and remakes the world, a piece at a time. These scenes multiply, filling up space without advancement of the story.
In contrast, and perhaps in compensation, Zelazny develops an enthusiasm for extended fight scenes in which every kick, punch, hold and throw is described in meticulous, step-by-step detail that very rapidly becomes tedious, and which has the spectacularly ironic effect of making it harder to visualise what the hell is going on. The reader’s autonomy of imagination is debarred.
As for the third, I shall for the moment simply refer to an incident where a minor character appears, for the only time, to illuminate Corwin with yet another tale-twisting backstory, before dropping out with the words, “It is as if I were one of those minor characters in a melodrama who gets shuffled offstage without ever learning how things turn out.”
Cute. Smart. Self-referential. A nod to the reader, signalling that they’re as smart as Zelazny. A tip of the hat to the fact that this is only a story, after all, it’s not like it means anything. I’ll return to this point in the next book. Sign of the Unicorn ends with a metaphysical cliffhanger, as Corwin, with Ganelon and Random, finds himself traveling through Shadow, in Amber where there is no Shadow to travel through, and finding the Pattern, not where it should be, in the deepest dungeons beneath the Castle, but in the open air, in a strange land. But this is the Primal Pattern, of which Amber itself is but the first Shadow. This is the most fundamental Reality of them all.
Effectively, the last three books were a mega-novel, their ‘action’ reading through continuously, their endings cliffhangers of sorts. The Hand of Oberon gave itself away in its title, immediately revealing that King Oberon was neither dead nor missing, but that he, under another name, had been in the story for a good long while, directing things from a position of anonymity. It was so damned obvious who he had to be that, upon buying the import paperback, I uncharacteristically turned to the last page to confirm the truth, before reading a word of it.
This book was a little more proactive about advancing the story but it was still very much a direct continuation of Unicorn. There were further and bigger chunks of what everybody had been doing to create the current crisis whilst Corwin had been peacefully amnesiac on that Shadow Earth, only this time most of the ‘truths’ revealed in Unicorn were overturned as lies, leading to the identification of Prince Brand as the traitor of the family, working in close concert with the Courts.
As far as the underlying tale was concerned, we learned that Dworkin, formerly of the Courts, had fled them in time immemorial and, by using the Jewel of Judgement, within which the Pattern was contained, had burned the Primal Pattern and thus created Form Order and Amber. He’d then shagged a Unicorn, which gave birth to Oberon, which was a twist nobody had seen coming. The problem was that the Pattern – and Reality – could be erased by spilling family blood on it, which Brand had done using Random’s hitherto undisclosed son, Martin (yay for me!).
That was what had caused the Black Road (so it wasn’t Corwin’s fault after all, and so much for his curse and Zelazny’s ideas in Nine Princes.) Though Dworkin wanted to destroy the Primal Pattern and start again with a new one, it is possible to redraw the existing Pattern if someone attuned to the Jewel of Judgement walks it, recreating the missing areas. And Corwin is the only one attuned to the Jewel. Except for the missing-or-dead Oberon…
Let’s wind back a little. I referred above to Zelazny’s style being a fruitful combination of poetic intensity and Chandlerian cynicism. It was a vital element in the snappiness of his prose, but it contained desperate risks for a writer.
I discovered Zelazny and Amber at the time when I was first enthused with SF and Fantasy, when my concentration was at its most intense and thorough. I owed my introduction to Tolkien, who was specifically invoking European folklore and myth, and the more I read, the more I understood that there was a clear and present distinction between writers who were linked in one manner or another to mythic roots, and the more purely American writers, who lacked that underpinning, and who to one extent or another produced fantasy-with-feet-of-clay, a fantasy that, due to a degree of fear of being too serious, of reaching too deep, had to be undercut by a degree of bathetic realism.
This tendency was an ever present risk in Zelazny’s style, but he had thus far kept it well in balance. But there was that moment of self-referentiality in Unicorn, and there was something far worse in Oberon.
Corwin, Prince of Amber, is riding on horseback, on an urgent mission in Shadow. He needs to get a good distance from Amber itself before there is any Shadow stuff to work with. Unfortunately, his path lies through the Forest of Arden and that is the hunting preserve of his brother Julian. The Princes mutually loathe one another, and Julian was a key part of the triumvirate headed by Eric.
Corwin finds himself pursued by a manticore and needs Julian’s aid to escape from it, at the cost of being captured by his brother’s forces. The Princes circle each other verbally, Julian offering more background information that resets Corwin’s understanding of the politics underlying the ongoing campaign. As a result, these two puissant Princes, in the midst of a wild Forest of Arthurian legend, come to an understanding of and a reconciliation with each other.
Then Julian asks, out of interest, how Corwin escaped the dungeons below Amber. Corwin, Prince of Amber, this super-medieval fantasy, answers, “Does Macy’s tell Gimbel’s?”
Clunk. Clunk of the most clunky of tin ear moments, feet-of-clay to the armpits. It is an atrocious moment of writing, an incalculable blunder of style and tone. It didn’t even work as a gag then, and each time I read it, it chipped another layer of believability off the whole series, until I eventually came to get bored with it.
That alone would have been enough, but it was accompanied by another, and heavier moment of self-referentiality, when Corwin encounters a dungeon guard, lean, cadaverous, smoking a pipe, writing a philosophical book shot through with elements of horror, there in the dark. His name is Roger, last name ungiven but obvious.
Zelazny’s growing understanding of just what he had created in Amber meant that the series had to become higher of purpose and more serious of tine. Yet he felt the increasing need, the American instinct to cut down fantasy whenever it gets too close to any mythical roots, by such clumsy, mood-destroying efforts.
And after complaining, one book ago, that he was nothing but “(a) minor character in a melodrama who gets shuffled offstage without ever learning how things turn out,” Bill Roth is back in Oberon to undercut that dubious meme and earn himself a trip to Amber to see at first hand how things “turn out”.
All of which set up the concluding, and shortest book of the First Chronicles, The Courts of Chaos. I read this first in three instalments, published in Galaxy SF magazine. There is an initial and final rewrap scene to dispose of a blatantly deus ex machina tool, before Corwin learns that Oberon is to try to repair the Primal Pattern, knowing that succeed or fail, it will cost his life: Corwin is to be his successor.
But having started the series with that as his goal, Corwin has now grown up. The Throne is no longer the prize in his sibling rivalry with Eric, just an administrative ball-ache to a traveling man.
Either way, his part in the final book is to carry out a hellride, an extended hellride that fills over half the book, to get from Amber to the Courts the hard way, and to bring the Jewel of Judgement to the battlefield, where Benedict is masterminding a direct attack of all Amber’s forces. Once Oberon is finished, one way or another, Shadow will cease to exist until… well, something asserts itself. Corwin must get as far as possible, then manage the rest.
It’s a greatly long hellride, right up Zelazny’s street, except that by itself it’s a redundancy. It’s a great, long sequence of irrelevant adventures that, whether they are interesting in themselves or not, only serve to postpone the moment when we get to the battlefield and the story itself can finally approach resolution. There is only one thing on this extended hiatus that is of significance, and when it arrives, it is a moment of great seriousness, and probably the best thing in this continuing sequence of three continual books.
All along his journey, Corwin is under attack from Brand, trying to get hold of the Jewel of Judgement. He taunts Corwin, claiming that Oberon has failed, that the Pattern has been destroyed. A great wave of dissolution sweeps outwards, passing over Corwin. Eventually, near the end of his endurance, on foot, near to the Courts but too far away, Corwin has to act. Reality can only exist if there is a Pattern. So Corwin draws a new one, using the Jewel and his DNA and memories of April blossoms in Paris. He creates a new Pattern, unknowing whether this is an alternate Reality, or the only one that exists…
From there, we sweep on to the battlefield. Amber wins. Oberon succeeded. Brand dies, though he takes with him Corwin’s favourite sister (favourite in a non-sororial manner…), Deirdre. The Unicorn’s judgement selects Random as the new King. Corwin attunes him to the Jewel, which he uses to preserve everyone from the storm of Unreality. Whilst Corwin sits down and tells his whole story, right from Nine Princes onwards, to a young man of the Courts, named Merlin. He is Dara’s son. By Corwin.
It is neither the setting nor the listener that Zelazny projected, eight years earlier, as a simple comparison with those offhand hints will confirm, but it was how he chose to write himself out of his self-created hole.
What was disconcerting was that Zelazny’s first novel after the Amber series ended, Roadmarks, may well have been experimental, but its central concept of a road stretching between realities, was uncomfortably close to the hellrides the writer had taken so much time over. And the similarities went on, the more he wrote.
Amber had become Zelazny’s signature, even more so than his penchant for investing a variety of pantheons in his work. Lord of Light, a Hugo Award winner that reads like a grandiose Jack Kirby comic, postulated a planet dominated by scientifically advanced colonists who position themselves as Gods from the Hindu pantheon. The highly experimental Creatures of Light and Darkness adopted the Egyptian pantheon.
This wouldn’t end, but the acclaim Zelazny had for Amber, and its popularity among fans, tended his writing towards easier fantasies, with less complex situations. After all, the Royal House of Amber may not have been actual Gods, but they had established themselves as such in many Shadows.
Worst of all, it exacerbated Zelazny’s tendency to undercut any genuine mythic resonance to what source he’d chosen, a repetitive tendency that now began to make his writing stale. Remember too that he had been acclaimed very early, that he had not had to struggle in the face of editorial and critical disapproval. I think he lacked the will to turn work into work, to make things hard for himself, to break out of tropes that came easily to him.
There was a moment, a final moment, a 1982 novel, Eye of Cat. Once again, Zelazny evoked a pantheon, this time the Gods of the Navajo, but this time the book was a spare, lean, deeply effective tale that showed one final effort to put effort into his writing. But the decision to go for a Second Amber series, which would enable him to coast along effortlessly, saw the effective end of his career as a creative writer.
First came The Illustrated Guide to Castle Amber, the first of two sourcebooks, for which Zelazny supplied a lot of background information, especially on the two deceased brother Princes, Osric and Finndo (elder full brothers of Benedict) who had designs upon the Throne and who therefore found themselves dying gloriously, ‘for the good of Amber’ in a far distant war.
Much of the Second Chronicles was reminiscent of that volume in the manner that Zelazny spread the Amber Universe far and wide.
Where the First Chronicles was Corwin explaining himself at extreme length to his son, Merlin, the Second was Merlin explaining himself at the same length to a person unknown. Given that Merlin mentions more than once that Corwin, after delivering himself of his story, rode into the Courts of Chaos and almost immediately disappeared, it should come as no surprise if I reveal that Merlin is filling his dear old, newly-released-from-imprisonment Dad in on developments (and hang the diminution of Corwin in the process).
To be frank, I remember very little of the Second Chronicles, save for its ending, which involves another change of Monarch, with Merlin inheriting the throne of the Courts of Chaos. His story lacks the spinal story of Corwin’s Chronicles, and is constantly switching from place to place, phase to phase, with little consistency. Zelazny goes to town during the five books on adding new members of the Amber Royal Family, not merely sons (no daughters) of various of the (no longer) Nine Princes, but additional sons and daughters of Oberon, who were unaccountably overlooked during the First Chronicles.
There’s also an obsession with introducing new magical weapons that, in one form or another, equate to introducing computer systems into the fabric of Amber.
The overall effect is to spread the story sideways, instead of vertically, leading to a gradual diminution of the importance of each character: never mind the quality, feel the width.
It surprised and disappointed me that Zelazny more or less ducked the issue of the Second Pattern, and what might lie beyond it. It was the most obvious anomaly from the First Chronicles, in the way that Bilbo’s Magic Ring was the obvious thing on which to build a sequel. Zelazny preferred to leave this to one side, despite establishing that Merlin is able to walk the Second Pattern, where others of Amber face resistance from it.
What he did do was to establish that the Pattern, and its three-dimensional Courts of Chaos equivalent, the Logrus, are sentient entities operating in direct rivalry to each other.
After the Second Chronicles, Corwin was back in town. He appeared in and out of a short series of short stories, meant to link the Second Chronicles to the Third, which no doubt would have featured Corwin and his Second Pattern, but Zelazny’s cancer – he was a lifelong cigarette and pipe-smoker – prevented that.
The last ten years or so of Zelazny’s career saw many undistinguished and lightweight books, several of them collaborations: three comic fairy-tales-with-feet-of-clay written with Robert Sheckley, two with Thomas T. Thomas and two with Fred Saberhagen. He contributed to George R R Martin’s Wild Cards anthologies, and he completed Alfred Bester’s Psychoshop though this did not appear until after Zelazny’s own death.
After Zelazny’s death, the extent to which Amber dominated his career was evidenced by the decision of his estate to authorise more Amber novels from John Gregory Betancourt. These feature Oberon in the Corwin role, and are set millennia earlier than Zelazny’s book, dealing with the process by which Oberon first created and became King of Amber. Unsurprisingly, he is surrounded by a very familiar set of brothers.
Though authorised by the family, many of Zelazny’s fellow writers spoke of how set he had been against anyone other than himself writing stories about Amber. Betancourt is a considerably less able writer than Zelazny, and the books read like a pale imitation, taking too much from the originals to have any merit of their own. Five were planned: four appeared. The last was wiped out by the publisher’s bankruptcy: there has been no discernible clamour for the story to be completed.
If they miraculously turned up in the library, I’d re-read the First Chronicles happily, but to buy them would be to spend money on a book I have no intention of retaining, and I never buy books without expecting to want to re-read them. I have never read the short stories, which have been collected at least twice, in books published only in America. But without a Third Chronicles, they are only a phantom limb.
Once again, I am reliant only on Lucien’s Library of Dream, or a visit to a bookshop on Earth-2, where Zelazny outlived his cancer by another decade, to read the books I would really have loved to see: the Third Chronicles of Amber, in which Corwin and Merlin team-up and walk Corwin’s Pattern, into a Universe that never existed in this world. I would read even a diminished Zelazny’s series. Instead, I dream of what might have been, when he was still full of fire, when poetic intensity and Chandlerian cynicism were still in balance.