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.
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.
A word first about the title. Thus far, Zelazny has been using a (something) of (something) formula, four titles, eight different terms: Trumps, Blood, Prince, Knight, Doom, Amber, Chaos, Shadow. For the last book, we get a repeat of Chaos, coupled this time with Prince. It’s apt, for both Merlin and the final book, but the reuse of Chaos makes it automatically sound weak, as if Zelazny had run out of new ideas and could only revert to something already applied.
We pick up directly from the end of book 4, explaining that Coral is indeed Luke’s wife, by reason of an infant bethrothal years earlier, that the two are entirely amenable to an annulment, once the coronation is over, and then we hurry off to rush through said coronation and Merlin and Coral end up spending the night together, though Zelazny doesn’t mention whether they make love (which in most countries would be regarded as an act of High Treason, and probably not covered by diplomatic immunity) as well as talking and sleeping.
Then Merlin gets summoned to the Court of Chaos, and Coral gets dropped on the spot. Why is Merlin so urgently needed at home? Because he’s under Black Watch. Behind his back, people have been dropping like flies and now King Swayvill has finally died. Merlin is now third in line in the succession. He and the two ahead of him are being guarded.
Merlin doesn’t want to be anywhere in line for the throne of Chaos, or the throne of anything. Unlike his still-missing Dad – and Zelazny drops a substantial hint to the readers but not his narrator, as to where Corwin has been all this time – Merlin has no interest in ruling anything except himself. Unfortunately, his mother, Dara, and his elder step-brother Mandor have a different idea on that subject.
We’re here in the Courts properly for the first time, and credit Zelazny for the portrait he paints of how different the place is. Old friends, servants and serpents come out of the woodwork, pieces of Merlin’s childhood that he’s never talked about, and who arrive with relationships of a sort established that are not explained for us. And the Courts itself, with its non-Euclidean geometry, it’s concealed and twisted geography, is a place where homes and houses are known as Ways and hide behind plain sight.
As well as Mandor and Dara, Merlin’s main contact in the Courts is his Uncle Suhuy, Master of the Logrus. Suhuy at least is a neutral figure, with a regard for Merlin, who is not out to influence him, rather inform him. He provides a small spell to open Merlin’s mind to possibilities via a dream visit to the Corridor of Mirrors, which adds yet more layers of uncertainty, but who are we to object to this now, after four books of avoiding concrete answers?
Merlin objects to becoming King of Chaos, despite being told he is the choice of the Logrus, a thing that makes him only more determined to avoid the job. Indeed, later on Dara will effectively advise that Corwin was the choice of the Pattern as King of Amber, and that Merlin’s birth involved nothing of love or even desire, merely the selection of the appropriate genetic material to create the new King of Chaos.
Because what underlies the whole of the Merlin Cycle, and which is now extended retrospectively to underpin the Corwin Cycle is the struggle for balance between the two Powers, the Pattern and the Logrus, the Unicorn and the Serpent, Order and Chaos.
Without both, Shadow cannot exist. Both sides pay lip service to balance, both retaliate in turn to steps tilting the balance one way or another but both sides ultimately seek to establish an overwhelming dominance, rolling the other back indefinitely. They demand Merlin choose between them but that’s the one thing he refuses to do.
Right now, the Pattern has a distinct advantage: not only has the balance been tipped to it by Merlin repairing the First Broken Pattern, there is the matter of Corwin’s Pattern. Currently it’s remaining inactive, but not for much longer. It was drawn when the Pattern was being repaired, the only time this could possibly happen: in any other circumstances, the Pattern would have absorbed it and it’s tried to do so since but failed. Still, two Patterns, one Logrus, the maths are simple.
A pattern-ghost of Luke comes to Merlin in the Courts to deliver a message. Merlin sustains it with his blood. Corwin helps the pair escape the Courts, to ‘his’ Pattern, but this is another Pattern-Ghost, only produced by Corwin’s Pattern. As the only one ever to walk it, it is more durable as it has all his Pattern’s energy behind it. This is the Corwin who’s turned up here and there. The original is still missing.
All three walk the Pattern, en masse, which enables this one to sustain Luke. Luke-Ghost stays to guard it, Merlin trumps back to the Courts to meet Dara, but is diverted by another old playmate to discover a hidden shrine to Corwin. The meal with his mother does not go well. He probes her over what happened to Corwin but gets nowhere. He reveals that his father’s Pattern is becoming active, which disturbs her.
Returning to explore hidden parts of the Courts, Merlin is approached by Jurt, who he’s decided to kill on sight. But Jurt has undergone a total change of heart, apparently. The game is getting too big and too dangerous, he no longer wants the throne: not only does he think he wouldn’t be competent, but if he got there he’d only be a puppet of Dara and Mandor. As would Merlin be. So, reluctantly, they team up.
Jurt reveals that Dara plans to kidnap Coral, bring her to the Courts to become Merlin’s Queen, and bring the Jewel of Judgement, the Serpent’s Left Eye, the however many names you give it back to the Logrus. Merlin and Jurt decide to foil this, though their efforts are hampered by the need to attend Swayvill’s funeral, where they are to play prominent and visible roles.
During the funeral, the two candidates above Merlin in the succession both die. This places Merlin in pole position but gives him and Jurt the chance to sneak out to save Coral. They’re too late. A posse forms of this pair, Luke (who’s already fed up with being King) and the ty’iga possessed Nayda, who’s now gloriously happy since she’s shagging Luke, who she always fancied most. It also includes the mercenary Dalt.
For reasons left unexplained, Merlin wants the Luke-Ghost to do this, so he persuades Luke to swap places with the Ghost, who Merlin now renames Rinaldo for convenience, whilst Luke guards Corwin’s Pattern.
While they travel, Merlin reveals his spikard to Luke. The spikard is the ring of multiple magical powers and sources that Merlin’s been sporting since the last book, which caused him to tie faithful Frakir to a bedpost, never to be seen again. Luke, naturally, knows a bit more about spikards, that they are ancient and not to be trusted: he wonders if the spikard has been driving some of Merlin’s decisions since he donned it. Certainly, he feels weak and diminished without it on his finger, so it is, blatantly, something addictive, if not parasitical, or symbiotic if you want to be pleasant about it.
The pursuers catch the kidnappers at a tower being beseiged by two quartets of ghosts: four from Amber and the Pattern (including Eric and Caine), four from the Courts and the Logrus. The Amberites win. The pursuers surround a drugged Coral and defend her. The two Powers demand that she must go to one or other of them but Merlin is fighting to preserve Coral’s independence like his own. The pursuers are dragged to the Primal Pattern, where Luke negotiates their release by slashing his arm, cupping his blood in his hand and holding it over the Pattern.
Once back in Kashfa, Merlin goes off to sleep and have another of those dreams in which he’s addressed by various relatives. One of them is Delwin: you know, of Delwin and Sand, the mysterious Uncle and Aunt introduced into Corwin’s generation books ago for no apparent reason. Delwin’s here to tell Merlin that a spikard formerly belonging to Swayvill was introduced into Amber for him to find, bound with compulsion spells that would force him to claim Chaos’s throne and accept the orders off Mandor and Dara. Delwin bears a spikard of his own. He has the portentous line that they may never meet unless certain ancient powers are unleashed (a hint towards a putative Third Chronicles?), invites Merlin to touch his spikard to Delwin’s so they may meet but instead he’s blasted back to the Courts and another old playmate who delivers the other half of Delwin’s message, that the problem spikard left by Mandor was switched for the one Merlin bears, this by Bleys who makes a cameo to hand over the difficult spikard. Is Bleys a pattern-ghost? Was Delwin? God knows, this is getting so flimsy.
Anyway, the subtlety of the treacherous spikard turns out to be simple, crude chants of take the throne, listen to Mandor, do what Dara says and the like: easily resistible now.
Suddenly we’re rushing at the end. Merlin has finally woken up to where Corwin is. He and the Ghost invade the Courts. After the defeat by Amber, many prominent Chaosites started worshipping certain Amberites, setting up shrines to them: Mandor’s is of Fiona, someone else has Benedict, Dara has one of Corwin. Which is where Corwin is prisoner, in a locked cell in total darkness. Merlin releases him, his ghost replaces him. None of this is in the least characteristic of the Corwin of his Cycle but do we care by now? Corwin’s free.
And Merlin has one last task to do: he sets up a spot where he can work his spikard to the max, knowing it will attract Mandor and Dara. They challenge him, fight and lose. Merlin has Ghostwheel on his side. He faces down the Logrus. He will become King of Chaos but he will rule, not reign. He will be in charge. And nobody has any option but to accept it. Mandor and Dara don’t get the chance to ‘advise’ behind the scenes, unless Merlin proves to be crap at his new job and gets deposed.
So, offstage, Merlin tells Corwin his long story, to provide a final symmetry to events, and Corwin heads of back to Amber. End of story.
What do I say? What do I even begin to say? The Merlin Cycle is a mess, its infrequent good moments overwhelmed by its sheer incompetence? This is the point at which to begin an analysis, but to be honest it will have to be displaced to an unintended additional post. For that, you’ll have to wait another week.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
Published in 1970, Nine Princes in Amber was Roger Zelazny’s seventh novel and his first non-standalone. It would end up being the first in a sequence of five, forming the first Amber Chronicles, though I’ve long since held the conviction that Zelazny, who had only published his first novel four years earlier, had nothing like so grandiose a story in mind when he wrote this book. Indeed, I get the impression, from how things progress, that Zelazny didn’t have a lot of ideas about how the story was going to end and was, for the first two books at least, making it up as he was going along.
By this point, Zelazny had been a professional writer since 1962, and a full-time writer since 1969. He had won two Hugo Awards for Best Novel and two Nebula Awards (Best Novella – shared – and Best Novelette, in the Award’s first year). He was established, he was feted, he made a living, not typical among SF writers, and especially not those who had been around for less than ten years. I’ll come back to this point later in this series.
Thus far, Zelazny had definitely been a Science Fiction writer. Two of his novels – the Hugo-winning Lord of Light and the experimental Creatures of Light and Darkness – revolved around characters who formed panthea of Gods, Hindu and Egyptian respectively. Both conjured up myth into a form of superficial Fantasy that was nevertheless grounded upon futuristic science. Nine Princes in Amber was his first essay into Fantasy itself, though as events were to demonstrate, this was to be very much Fantasy-with-feet-of-clay.
The world Zelazny creates for the Amber Chronicles is vast, subtle and very individual, but it requires a massive information dump to set up for the reader. Given his overwhelming preference for a first person voice, not to mention cynical, hard-bitten heroes with not a lot of trust for anyone, Zelazny negotiates this by having his narrator, Corwin, Prince of Amber wake up amnesiac but convinced he is being held against his will, and having him play more knowledgeable than he is so that he can glean information in a carefully measured manner over the first third of a basic three Act book.
I, unfortunately, am going to have to infodump fairly heavily to provide an outline of Amber, Shadow and Chaos.
At one end of reality lies Amber the Great City, the only real city of which every city elsewhere is but a reflection of some aspect of it. Amber is a primarily medieval/sophisticated kingdom, ruled since before anyone can remember by King Oberon. Corwin is one Prince among Nine who have survived, the others being Benedict, Eric, Julian, Caine, Gerard, Bleys, Brand and Random. There are also four surviving Princesses, Dierdre, Florimel (Flora), Fiona and Llewella.
Amber is Substance, like a magnetic pole. Its opposite is the Courts of Chaos, the most unstable, twisted, impermanent form of Unreality there is and, by its nature Amber’s enemy.
Between Amber and Chaos lies Shadow, created by the opposing polarities, an infinity of possibilities: Earth is one such. Zelazny makes a philosophical question as to whether Shadows exist in themselves or whether they are created out of the minds of the Royal family of Amber, who can walk through Shadow, adding to and subtracting from what they see, mentally, until they achieve their destination. He also, by making Corwin entirely pragmatic, ignores answering that, and other similar questions throughout the series.
Nearly done. Amber is based upon something called the Pattern, an immense ‘diagram’ of arcs, curves, angles and occasional straight lines that is in some manner encoded within the Royal family’s genes. Walking the Pattern, against its escalating resistance, to its centre unlocks the person’s knowledge of how to traverse Shadow, and enables them to instantly transport themselves anywhere they want. And the family all possess specialist packs of Tarot cards, the Greater Trumps of which are portraits of the family that can be used to communicate over vast distances with the person and even transport one or other to the other’s side, if you trust a sibling. Corwin isn’t the only one who doesn’t care to do that. Take a breather now, if you wish.
So: Act One is based on Corwin learning most of these things, in greater detail. He awakens in a private hospital on Earth, in America, with no memory of himself or his circumstances, except that he has been in a serious car accident, sustaining severe injuries from which he has recovered with unnatural speed, and that he has been over-sedated to keep him quiet.
Determined not to let anyone know his weakness, that he doesn’t know who, what, when, where, why about himself, he bluffs/forces himself out of the hospital, and heads for Westchester, home of the sister, ‘Mrs Evelyn Flaumel’ (aka Flora), who has checked him in, and who is working for his brother Eric, whom Corwin hates.
Thus far, the story keeps closely to realistic bounds but between the cryptic cross-talk and Corwin’s discovery of a Trump deck, it’s starting to get strange. Then Random arrives out of the blue pursued by humanoid-but-not-human pursuers whom the two Princes kill with tremendous strength and mastery of swords. The next day, out driving, without knowing that he’s doing it, Corwin prods Random into taking them to Amber, by shifting the car they are in through an ever-changing series of Shadows. The pair survive an encounter in the Forest or Ardern with hated brother Julian, a master hunter, brothers for preference, who is also backing Eric, and rescue Deirdre, captured trying to flee Amber.
The situation is that Oberon has disappeared, maybe dead, maybe abdicated. Eric has taken the Throne of Amber and is planning his coronation. Corwin, who has already committed himself to opposing his brother, is doing so for the Throne himself.
By now, it’s gotten so complex that Corwin has to confess his true state. The only way for him to recover his memory is to walk the Pattern again. The one in Amber is obviously inaccessible but another exists in Rebma, Amber’s reflection in the deep sea, ruled by Queen Moire. It’s death for Random to go there, he having once committed the minor indiscretion of eloping with Moire’s daughter, abandoning her pregnant, and she suiciding after her son was born. Instead of death, however, Random gets to marry Vialle, a blind member of Moire’s Court, and to stay with her for one year.
Corwin gets to walk the Pattern and recover all his memories. The most significant of these is that his amnesia did not start from the car crash, for which he is convinced Eric was responsible, but from his arrival on the Shadow Earth in England, during the time of the Black Death.
He promptly abandons his two allies to their respective fates and transports himself to Amber, to acquire a pack of Trumps for himself, to fight an unanticipated duel with Eric, who is still the better, stronger swordsman of the pair, and escape via Trump to join brother Bleys, who is the only formal opposition to Eric thus far, raising an Army in Shadow to invade Amber.
After all that, the remaining two acts of the book are almost ridiculously easy to summarise. Corwin becomes Bleys’ Lieutenant, doubling the size of his Army by recruiting easily-persuaded volunteers from a Shadow in which he is worshipped as a God. Corwin leads the Navy, Bleys the Army. Both are cut to ribbons on the long approach to Amber, Eric’s forces and defences – including his mastery of the weather-changing Jewel of Judgement – decimating the attackers. The Navy is lost, the Army reduced to 5,000 men. Their frontal assault, up the Great Stair on the mountain Kolvir, Amber’s home, devolves into a series of duels hand-to-hand. Bleys kills a great many but is eventually knocked off the path, at which point Corwin, in a wholesale change of character, throws him his Trumps, giving Bleys a chance to escape. Corwin makes it into Amber but everyone is killed except him. He is imprisoned until the day of Eric’s Coronation where, after briefly crowning himself first, he is made to witness Eric receive the Crown, before he is taken away and his eyes burned out.
The final act covers nearly three and a half years imprisonment in solitary confinement and blindness for Corwin. He is released once a year to attend Eric’s Anniversary parties, and his monotonous and uninspiring diet is relieved from time to time via his friend and protege, the minstrel, Lord Reyn, bringing bread, meat, cheese , wine, news and the inevitable cartons and cartons of cigarettes (all Zelazny’s heroes are inveterate smokers).
Eventually though, the Amber Royal family’s natural regenerative capacities see Corwin’s eyeballs grow back. He’s still a prisoner but that’s when Dworkin Barimen walks through a Shadow wall that isn’t supposed to exist in Amber itself, into Corwin’s cell, because he wanted to see what was on the other side of his cell wall.
Dworkin is a hunchback, a madman, a Sorceror and an artist. It was he who designed and drew the Trumps, with their remarkable capacity to transcend distance, but he has long been Oberon’s prisoner, held because he had discovered a way to destroy the Pattern. Bored with captivity, he’d literally walked through the wall. He needs to draw a picture of his own quarters to return, but Corwin also gets him to sketch out an image of the Lighthouse at Cabra, which he then uses to escape Amber.
After staying with Jofra, the lighthouse keeper, whilst he recovers his strength, Corwin moves on. First, Jofra shows him a dark, twisted road along which strange creatures are accessing Amber: this is the outcome of Corwin’s death-curse when his eyes were being burnt out. When he rules in Amber, he will have to deal with his own handiwork…
Corwin sails away. When he returns, he swears to bring guns into Amber. He creates two birds of desire, one to fly ahead with the message, ‘I am coming’, the other to fly back with the message ‘I’ll be back’.
What we have here is an unusual set-up with bags of potential buttressing a, so far, pretty unsophisticated and trite story, princes fighting over a vacant throne: that’s never been done before. It’s being written by a writer who, though his style is to a degree poetic, and which has indulged itself in Panthea, has nevertheless previously only written science fiction, and who, by making his narrator a person who has existed on our material Earth for over half a millennium, thinks, talks and uses referents in a modern American idiom.
Add to this the excessive cynicism of a Zelazny hero and we have a mixing of elements that are very difficunt to blend in an organic manner.
There’s an example of this in the second act, when Corwin discovers/creates the Shadow from which he draws an army that sees him and Bleys as Gods. These are two high Princes planning to invade a High and most powerful Kingdom, and how does Corwin describe his loyal Army? As “furry creatures, dark and clawed and fanged, reasonably man-like, and about as intelligent as a freshman in the high school of your choice.” What Zelazny’s trying to establish here, and which he makes explicit in the next sentence, introduced by a nervy, “sorry, kids”, is that they are cannon-fodder, too easily deluded by ‘Gods’ such as him into slaughter. Then, with your ears still ringing from the tinness of that reference to a freshman high schooler, he describes himself as feeling like “the dee-jay of your choice”, which further undermines the atmosphere of Fantasy as well as using the ‘of your choice’ line in the same five-line paragraph, appalling writing in itself.
And after a war fought with swords and shields, magic and trained creatures, Corwin’s reaction is to plan to fight with guns.
There’s going to be more of this to come, including one particularly atrocious moment that I’ll pick out in a later book,and I’ll give more of one of my theories at that time, one that I held when I was an avid Fantasy/Zelazny fan, and not in my older, more analytical years. For now, let me merely remind you of that phrase I introduced before: Fantasy-with-feet-of-clay.
Another intriguing aspect of this story is that Corwin’s first person narration isn’t just a convention or a style, but rather an actual telling of his story to an as yet unidentified listener. We know nothing of this person, save that Corwin is telling him everything. And all we know of the circumstances or place is that auctor and lector are looking at the Courts of Chaos.
The listener’s identity is revealed in the final book, but I’d be prepared to bet a year’s rent on this not being anyone Zelazny had in mind when he dropped those two references into his story, if indeed he had anyone in mind. There are discrepancies of detail between what Corwin establishes with utter certainty in this book, and what turned out to better suit the story later on. There are discrepancies in style between the first two books and the last three. Nor did the sequel appear for two more years.
As I said, I get the strongest feeling from Nine Princes in Amber that Roger Zelazny is making up this story as he goes along. It’s his first story not to be contained in one book, and I get the impression he is dropping in ideas to keep the pot boiling. The book is reasonably coherent in itself but it begs multiple questions and I’m convinced Zelazny was trusting to future ingenuity to unify these as a whole. Since it will become of importance to the next book, let me adduce as example the Death-Curse of a Prince of Amber, a curse of terrible intensity, pronounced in the face of Death and inevitable. Corwin curses and doesn’t even have to die to make it stick. I’m not complaining about that but at the end of the book, it’s explicit that the Black Road cutting through the burned Forest of Garnath is Corwin’s Curse: he recognises it as himself.
Hold that thought: you will get a surprise later on.
Re-reading after so long was interesting. I found myself driven by pure nostalgia and, after a difficult start in which the actual writing was creaky and herky-jerky, narrative propulsion. Originally, I read this book after its sequel, and I thought the sequel was better. Now I’m going to check my memories of that.
For some people, growing older takes the turn of more clearly trying to define the past. To more deeply understand the things that constitute the course of your life, to try to get to grip with how your mind develops.
I’ve been an avid book reader ever since I was a little kid, hooked on Enid Blyton’s Noddy books. I read, constantly. What I read, the genre of the book, is eclectic. I very rarely buy a book without the expectation of re-reading it, usually several times over. But my tastes change as I go on. My pokey little flat is stuffed with books, in book-cases, storage crates, plastic bags piled in corners as unobtrusive as I can find. I need a Library. But first I need a living space large enough to fit a Library in.
But substantial as my collection is, it is still only a fraction of the books I used to own. Some books don’t live up to anticipation. I bought Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic when it first appeared in paperback and didn’t find it funny enough (it still isn’t) and sold it on. Then I got trapped into a situation where I needed a book to read, it was getting late, and The Light Fantastic was the only thing I felt I could stand: I could always sell it on again. Instead, it was funny, but most of all it read like the work of a writer who’d studied The Colour of Magic very carefully for why it didn’t work and then sat down and applied everything he’d learned. I had to buy The Colour of Magic again.
Some books end up outliving their usefulness. I have books I can read indefinitely, rich, complex, powerful, from which I can learn and discover every time. I offer up Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun quartet, or The Lord of the Rings. Others will sustain you just so many times and then you’ve used up everything they have to offer. Sometimes, the longer a series lasts, the more it diminishes, because it’s used up everything it had before its pages reach your eye.
This new, and relatively short series is an exercise in returning to books that were once great favourites of mine, to see if their old magic is capable of being restored..
I fell into fantasy and SF because of The Lord of the Rings. It took me nearly three months, from October 1973 to January 1974, to get the third book and finish the story. It’s only after that, I think, that I took the next step and started searching for things that could give me that kind of enjoyment, other fantasy, other SF. For the next twenty years or so, I read very little else. Even now, in 2020, after writers have been dying on me, the last one left whose new works I will automatically buy is Neil Gaiman: vale R.A. Lafferty, Gene Wolfe, Ursula Le Guin and Terry Pratchett.
In that searching period after The Lord of the Rings, the first favourite I found was Roger Zelazny. Man, I loved his stuff! I had all of it, US paperbacks of different dimensions and sizes, the works. Up unto a point, that is. Because Zelazny may have been good, and in his early days very good, but ultimately he suffered from something that everybody said was his great strength. He was recognised early. He was popular, without the same years of struggle others had to go through. He was free to turn his imagination to what he wanted to write, without being pressed and pushed.
And that easy success, without himself having to press or push, somehow ended up with his writing becoming thin, and lazy, his style a prison locking him into certain modes and thoughts, his cynicism manifesting itself in places where it should never have appeared, undercutting the quality of his stories with that little nervous tic that suggested the audience ought not to be taking this high-ish fantasy too seriously.
I’m not going to review Zelazny’s entire ouevre: I couldn’t afford the money or the space of reacquiring that many books and I’m certainly not interested in the later books, when his entire writing blew up in his and everybody’s face.
But I got into Zelazny for his famous Chronicles of Amber series. A superb Patrick Woodruffe cover attracted me to The Guns of Avalon, the second book of what eventually became five. I worked back to Nine Princes in Amber and then through all the remaining books as they appeared. These turned out to be ten in total, because he wrote a second series, and then seven short stories which would have acted as a bridge to a third series but for Zelazny’s death in 1995, aged 58, a victim of throat cancer from all the cigarettes and pipes he, and all his characters, so determinedly smoked.
In order to do this re-read, I bought one book, The Great Book of Amber, containing all ten books, plus the recently released collection of those seven short stories. I haven’t read these books for at least twenty years so I’m curious myself as to how I’ll find them now. Join me next week to see how it begins.
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.