Once Upon a Time in Amber: Seven Stories

In response to Kevin Cheek on The Guns of Avalon, I said I didn’t think I’d read any of Zelazny’s novels after the second Amber cycle was completed, but on checking his bibliography I’m about seventy percent certain I read A Night in the Lonesome October (and thought it weak and dull).
Likewise, I’d have sworn I never got to read any of the handful of short stories written to bridge the gap between the second and the never-written Third Chronicles, but on coming to these at last, in the recently published Seven Stories in Amber slim volume, I do recall reading ‘Blue Horse, Dancing Mountains’. At least, I remember the ending, though I had no idea of its context. At least I know where it takes place now.
The volume begins with the original Prologue to  Trumps of Doom, which appeared only in the US Hardback. It’s the only story written in the third person, a very short affair, less than three pages long. No-one is named, no context is given and before any of the Merlin Chronicles begin, it’s completely obscure and indecipherable. In fact, it’s Merlin’s passage through the Logrus, a very much more physical process than that of the Pattern.
Next up is an odd fragment that’s an ad hoc, long-term, directionless collaboration between Zelazny and Ed Greenwood, written on bookmarks at various conventions etc. It’s a mystery with no solution because it was being made up on the spur of the moment and Zelazny died in 1995. It involves Corwin and a mysterious attack by a mysterious person when Corwin seems to be guarding a mysterious something: you get the point. It’s an in-joke, a private indulgence between Greenwood and his hero, whose only genuine significance is in Greenwood being the only person to write Amber fiction with Zelazny’s approval
The other five stories form the meat of the matter. They’re simultaneously fascinating and frustrating: frustrating on two levels in fact.
All five pieces are first person, related respectively by Luke, Corwin, Merlin, Frakir and Corwin again. All follow on from the Second Chronicles. All, in varying degrees of directness and indirectness, are devoted to filling in plot-holes and omissions from the Merlin cycle. That accounts for the fascination, on a sort of, “Ah-hah, that’s what happened” basis and the primary level of frustration in that it just increases your annoyance at Zelazny leaving so many sloppy holes in the first place.
In rough order: the real Luke picks up from where he was abandoned at the Primal Pattern, goes on the run through Shadow, trumps to Amber for Vialle’s further protection, contacts the distant Delwin but fails to convince him to talk about spikards, and is asked to wait for Corwin’s return and team up with him.
Corwin’s riding home from Chaos when he observes a bizarre chess game between Dworkin and Suhuy and overhears discussion of a shortly forthcoming combat between ancient powers that pre-date Amber and Chaos, prompting him to hellride.
Merlin shags the vampire Rhanda but is attacked by an ancient monster called a guisel, out of a mirror.
Frakir unties herself from the bedpost and transfers herself to Flora, who is assailed by an unknown peeping tom magician who travels through mirrors, requiring Luke’s assistance with Brand’s blade, Werewindle. Frakir winds up with him.
And Corwin returns to Amber, wanders in without anyone recognising him, meets Luke (but none of his other relatives), the two take a walk down the Hall of Mirrors, encountering several relatives with cryptic comments, and find themselves forced into a duel to the death by hooded figures who turn out to be Fiona and Mandor: they escape by allowing themselves to strike each other and find themselves back in Amber, undergoing medical treatment from Flora, who theorises that, along with the two Patterns and the Logrus, Castle Amber seems to be starting to take a hand…
You see what I mean about how, across this quintet, Zelazny addresses the principal points I picked out about the Merlin Cycle where things just get forgotten and left as dangling threads he either couldn’t resolve or didn’t care about. As such, they’re satisfying and frustrating both. It’s nice to have answers but that doesn’t absolve Zelazny from leaving the holes in the first place. And given that these five stories were written between three and five years after Prince of Chaos, I take them to be afterthoughts.
Yes, they’re good afterthoughts, though to be honest I find it hard to distinguish between the various first person voices, with Luke winning out by a head in individuality (and he my least favourite of all the major characters in the Merlin Cycle). But what is most frustrating about them as a whole is that Zelazny uses them to build a superstructure for what would have been the inevitable Third Chronicles.
There is an increased emphasis on the spikards as powers developed before Amber or Chaos existed, that they were used heavily in shaping Amber and the shadows, that there were eleven of them, of which at least two have mutated into other forms – those of Luke’s Werewindle and Corwin’s Greyswandir – and that the seemingly inutile Delwin, introduced and self-exiled at once, is a master of spikards and, it is implied, in some way their guardian.
From this we take the spikards to be the ancient powers referred to in Dworkin and Suhuy’s conversation, which is so oddly revelatory that it seems probable it was for the benefit of the eavesdropping Corwin.
We’re also clued in variously that Dara and Mandor aren’t taking their failure to control Merlin lying down, that Jurt hasn’t given up his desire for the throne of Chaos, that Julia hasn’t really forgiven and forgotten with Merlin, that there’s a sorceror who lives in mirrors and who fancies Flora and that Mandor and Fiona are working together and probably not for anyone’s good but theirs (pity, I’d rather gotten to like Fiona, despite her name, and I’ve always been a sucker for redheads).
And we’re given pretty heavy indications that something big is building up, something with the potential to completely undo the Amber/Shadow/Chaos Universe we know.
It all makes for a Third Cycle with epic scope and the probability of being far far better than the Second Cycle. And Roger Zelazny died of cancer in 1995 so the only place we can read that Third Cycle is either on Earth-2, or in Lucien’s Library in the Dreaming, neither of which are accessible at this time.
The question of whether Zelazny could have made a good job of it must also, however reluctantly, be addressed. We saw the disintegration of his writing during the Merlin Cycle and, from the start of that Cycle in 1986, he wrote only two other solo novels, one during, one after. In contrast, during that same period he wrote seven collaborations with four different writers, discounting the posthumously published Alfred Bester Psychoshop and two incomplete books finished off by Jane Lindskold. The evidence is not convincing.
Obviously, Amber would be and is what Roger Zelazny is remembered for. It’s the most ambitious and wide-ranging of all its works but, from another perspective, it broke his career. The First Chronicles were excellent fantasy of its time but the field has moved on since then and Amber hasn’t. The Second Chronicles were sloppy and meandering, easy work of guaranteed popularity that required relatively little effort. The Third, full of potential to rectify the situation, were never written, and can only be regarded as a potential great shame.
It’s been an interesting experiment to re-read the series, but not, I think, one I’ll repeat and I doubt I shall retain the books. Nor do I think, after Wolfe, Lafferty and this, that I want to review another series too soon. I have some individual reviews awaiting posting.

Once Upon a Time in Amber: The Merlin Cycle considered

Don’t Smoke

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

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: 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.

Once Upon a Time in Amber: The Guns of Avalon

‘Horned God’ First British paperback

The Guns of Avalon was the book that introduced me to the Chronicles of Amber, sometime in 1974, when I was eagerly exploring as much SF and Fantasy as I could carry home from the Library. In this case, it was Manchester Central Library, the one we all called Central Ref for short. I caught sight of Patrick Woodruffe’s splendid ‘Horned God’ cover, read the blurb, chanced the book and introduced myself to Roger Zelazny. It was the only book of the Chronicles that I read out of order, it was the most recent book to have been published, in 1972.
When I finally got to read it, on order from another branch, before buying my first copies for myself, I thought Nine Princes in Amber was not as good as this. Nearing fifty years on, I still think that. The Guns of Avalon has the advantage that all the complex exposition as to the characters and the setting has been laid out. It doesn’t need to do any more than provide brief recaps at various points and thus can concentrate on being a more direct action story. Furthermore, it doesn’t have to bounce around so many places and scenes, so Zelazny can take things more slowly, more smoothly, and vary the pace so that, overall, Avalon is a slower but more solid book, leading into a more cliffhanger ending.
Storywise, the book again offers the traditional three Act structure. Act One sees Corwin of Amber land after his sea-voyage and set-off to find a Shadow of his favourite Shadow, the land of Avalon, long since collapsed into Chaos. He is diverted to the land of Lorraine, ruled by Ganelon, once an adherent of Corwin’s in Avalon, long since exiled here for betraying him. L:orraine is affected by something called the Dark Circle, home to monsters and evil that is slowly expanding to encompass all the realm. The Dark Circle is the local form of Corwin’s curse: he stays to regain his former fitness and to defeat the Circle in this place.
In Act Two, Corwin completes his journey to Avalon, now accompanied by Ganelon as his aide. Guns don’t work in Amber because gunpowder is inert there, as are practically every other form of accelerant. But long ago, by accident, Corwin discovered that jeweller’s rouge from Avalon burns in Amber. He plans to lay in stocks. But Avalon has just defeated a Dark Circle kind of threat of its own, defeated – at the cost of a severed arrm – by its Protector. And that Protector is Benedict of Amber, Corwin’s oldest brother, the one for whom he has the most liking and respect, not to mention fear: Benedict is the Master of Arms for Amber, its greatest tactician, strategist, General and fighter. Corwin is welcome to rest in Avalon but not to further any attack on Amber, which is under constant attack from strange, foul creatures along a Black Road that cuts through Shadow, whose further end would seem most likely to be the Courts of Chaos. Corwin gets his rouge, takes a sidetrip to an equivalent of South Africa’s diamond fields to just pick them up out of the sand, and leaves. But before doing so, he meets Dara, a fresh, attractive 19 year old who he learns is Benedict’s great-granddaughter. He teaches her about Amber and Shadow. He also seduces her. When Benedict pursues him, Corwin assumes that it is this that has enraged his brother enough to want his head. Instead, Benedict accuses him of murder. Thanks to a trap involving the local manifestation of the Black Road, Corwin disables Benedict and escapes.
The final Act begins with an interlude on Shadow Earth. Corwin arranges for his special military equipment and even visits his former, still-intact home as ‘Carl Corey’, where he finds a message from Eric, asking his alliance against Amber’s enemies, or at least his forebearance from attacking until this threat is dispelled. Naturally, Corwin rejects the idea. He recruits a guerilla army from the hairy clawed Shadow he used before and leads a sneak attack over the mountain, Kolvir. This coincides with a massive attack along the Black Road, forcing Corwin to intervene on Amber’s side. But Eric is wounded, fatally, leaving Corwin in charge for practical purposes.
But his foray is interrupted by Dara, obsessive about reaching Amber and walking the Pattern, unrealistic about the reasons why she can’t. During the battle, she bursts through, aiming for the Palace. Benedict disowns her, filling Corwin with dread. He gets to the Pattern in time to watch Dara complete it, changing shapes a dozen times. From its centre, she tells him he is exactly too late. She disappears with the words, ‘Amber will be destroyed’.

US trade paperback

Up to and including this point, The Guns of Avalon is a direct sequel to Nine Princes in Amber, linearly and thematically. Until the very end, Corwin is still pursuing the throne of Amber. We meet two more brothers in Benedict and Gerard, we meet Dara, who purports to be a much younger generation of Amberite, we have our first, but by no means last ‘hellride’, that is, a passage during which Corwin travels in Shadow in an accelerated state, depicted in an abstract sequence of changing images.
But we don’t add much to the original set-up, until the irrationally obsessive but young and inexperienced Dara reaches the Pattern and transforms into an enemy intent on the destruction of Amber.
I’ve already stated my belief that when he started the First Chronicles, Zelazny had either no specific ending in mind, or that he had an ending that he later abandoned, realising that it was inadequate as underestimating the richness of possibility that Substance, Shadow and Chaos presented. And it’s my belief, based on the change that hits the series as of the next book, that this came now.
The two books still, to me, read and feel like the first two books of an enjoyable but underambitious trilogy. The Guns of Avalon has served the purpose of a middle book, extending the story to a turning point that sets up a grand finale: more of the same but sufficiently different to keep them reading.
There’s still the overuse of cheapjack Earth similes at nearly every turn, though nothing quite so egregious as in Nine Princes. There’s the Black Road, and its forerunner, the Dark Circle, openly established as the outcome of Corwin’s curse and no other, creating the ironic set-up that, now he has all but secured the Crown of Amber, he must defend it against his own work.
There is a relatively minor change of detail in the book. When his memories – true memories – are restored via the Pattern in Rebma, Corwin is adamant that there are/were a total of twenty-three siblings: fifteen brothers, six of them dead, eight sisters, two, possibly four of them dead. Here, the total is reduced to the thirteen live ones and a handful of deceased, who barely matter (these will be further reduced to brothers Osric and Finndo, senior to Benedict, who died ‘for the good of Amber’). Zelazny never tries to explain the discrepancy.
And there’s Ganelon. Ganelon was exiled from the real Avalon by hellride, centuries before. It’s one hell of a coincidence for Corwin to be diverted to Lorraine, where he is its protector, though the means by which Ganelon loses his hatred for Corwin is not merely plausible but well laid out. He’s a trusted aide, a sounding board, and asker of questions useful to the reader.
But he’s not what he seems, and when it becomes clear that a hidden hand is operating, it’s not hard to work out the truth. But that’s only in a later book. In The Guns of Avalon, Ganelon may not be only what he seems to be, and nothing more: he’s perfectly placed to be revealed as an imposter. But he’s not who Zelazny decides he will be, not yet, not whilst we’re in the first stage of the series.
It would be another three years, and two more intervening novels, before Sign of the Unicorn was published, time for ample thought. Ample thought indeed.

Second UK paperback in themed covers