Still more of the same only different, but it would be fair to agree that, very slowly, the overall story is starting to gather something of a shape to it.
Thus far, it’s been an accumulation of mysteries, plates that are set up to spin and then left running whilst Zelazny rushes around new scenes, setting more plates into motion. Merlin is constantly failing to make much sense of what is going on, constantly having thoughts he doesn’t explain, constantly getting nowhere, leaving any overall story to turn and turn in a widening gyre.
There’s not much sign of this changing at first in Sign of Chaos. Merlin and Luke are hanging out at the bar with all the Lewis Carroll characters, including a Bandersnatch, a Jabberwocky and, rather more immediate to Roger Zelazny, a Fire Angel, a very destructive Chaos creature.
What they are on, jointly, is a bad trip. Luke’s attacked the Keep of the Four Worlds, been beaten and captured and subdued by having some LSD dropped on him. The Bar is his trip but it’s powerful enough to drag Merlin in with it. Using the Logrus against the Bandersnatch clears enough of his head to start escaping. He kills the Fire Angel with the Vorpal Sword, has to abandon Luke until his acid wears off, and Trumps out, not to Amber but to Chaos: his elder ‘brother’ Mandor (son of Dara’s husband by an earlier marriage).
Mandor is an intelligent, highly-composed Machiavellian figure with a soft spot for Merlin. He’s prepared to spirit his ‘brother’ off to a secret place to chill out for a couple of years until this all blows out, ‘this’ being a sudden bout of succession fever, with Swayvill, King of Chaos, looking finally likely to die and all manner of poisonings etc going on as everyone shifts for position.
And as Prince Sawall has formally adopted Merlin, whilst he’s been gone, Merlin is in the line now, another reason for Jurt to hate him, because he becomes higher in the succession.
Their conversation is interrupted by a Trump call for Merlin from Fiona, calling Merlin to Corwin’s Pattern. She includes Mandor in the invitation: the pair intrigue one another. Merlin admits to lying about being unable to walk this Pattern and still refuses to, arguing with Fiona over her anxiety that it is responsible for increasing the number and nature of Shadow stoms. Merlin’s case is favoured when Mandor eliminates one persistent storm, which is under external control, by amplifying it with ultimate Chaos via the Logrus.
They go off to investigate further. Merlin trumps back to Amber to catch up on sleep. He learns how to release Jasra from her spell before seeking food, in company with Queen Vialle, Cousin Martin (now a punk rocker of stereotypical appearance, ten years late) and Aunt Llewella. Random has departed for Kashfa, Jasra and Luke’s home, following the death of its ruler and Random succeeding in getting his candidate accepted. A trade treaty, bringing Kashfa into the Golden Circle of trade with Amber, is to be completed, all of which will head off Jasra’s return.
The meal is interrupted by the premature arrival of the Prime Minister of Begma, Kashfa’s local rival and an existing Golden Circle country, arriving with two daughters, Nayda and Coral, plus staff. Merlin, though no diplomat, is roped in to greet them and fend off importunate questions. Nayda resembles her father but Coral looks completely different. She attracts Merlin, and the attraction appears to be mutual.
Ahead of the State Banquet, Merlin shows Coral around Amber, taking her down to the beach along the stairway on Kolvir that Corwin and Bleys scaled in Nine Princes. Coral is intelligent, pleasant company, so much so that Merlin assumes she is the latest manifestation of the spirit, whatever it is, that possesses people and follows him. In this, he’s wrong, though his spell to drive out possessions comes in handy in foiling another attempt by Jurt to ambush him. Jurt is allied to Mask, current holder of the Keep of the Four Worlds.
Merlin has already told Coral that he knows what she is, leading her to assume he means her real secret. What that is only comes out when she gets him to take her to see the Pattern and she sets foot on it: Coral is a daughter of Oberon, via an affair he had with her mother. She walks the pattern, commands it to send her wherever she ought to go and vanishes with no means of communication other than Merlin’s Trump. Her disappearance is likely to cause a diplomatic incident.
Before that, Luke contacts Merlin to offer a deal. He has ended his vendetta after Caine and wants to settle with Amber to get Jasra freed. He proposes a deal whereby Mask and Jurt are cleared out of the Keep and Jasra retakes it. Some urgency is required, since the Keep contains the Fount of Power, a super-energising, dehumanising source that was responsible for Brand’s unusual powers: keeping Jurt from bathing in it is very important.
Merlin thinks this over throughout the Banquet, at which he is subjected to the earnest attentions of Nayda, offering him her personal contacts to set up a free and guaranteed assassination of anyone bothering him. Like her sister, but less appealing, she also seems eager to get something going between them, and not just because marriages into the Amber Royal Family can advantage small countries.
Vialle interrupts the Banquet, summoning Merlin to a Counsel of War. Dalt is present, threatening attack on Amber but willing to withdraw if Luke and Jasra are handed over to him as prisoners. Julian and Benedict are ready in force to wipe him out but Vialle wishes to avoid death for anyone. Merlin summons Luke by Trump to consult with Vialle, who places him under her personal protection.
Luke offers to parley with Dalt to secure agreement. Merlin goes with him to ensure that Julian doesn’t act on his own vendetta. Luke and Dalt agree on a fistfight, the loser to be taken as prisoner. Dalt knocks him out and withdraws: Merlin realises it has all been a complex set-up by Luke.
As agreed, Merlin visits Nayda’s quarters after the meal. After some preliminary kissing, he gets down to brass tacks with her. She is the possessing entity. He draws a Trump for Coral, contacts her in total darkness, but loses the connection quickly. It and Luke are blocked thereafter. Merlin is contacted by Mandor and brings him into Amber. Mandor recognises the creature possessing Nayda as a ty’iga. It is charged with protecting Merlin but can’t say by who in front of him, only to Mandor alone, and he won’t tell.
(Given that the book makes much of being a multitude of interlocking puzzles in which nobody’s motives have been established, even when their identities have been, this question is just one of many but it’s such a damned obvious solution that it’s disappointing that Merlin can’t even come up with one guess.)
There’s another complication: the ty’iga took possession of Nayda at the end of a serious illness, so serious that Nayda had just died. It can’t be forced from the woman’s body right now: Merlin is already on the hook for one daughter’s disappearance…
Mandor agrees to aid Merlin. They awaken Jasra, negotiate her assistance in attacking the Keep, which she only agrees to after she gets to hear Nayda’s story.
Leaving Nayda behind, under a paralysing spell, the trio attack the Keep. Jurt appears to have at least partially bathed in the Fount of Power. Merlin gets close enough to Mask to drive a dagger into ‘his’ kidney, but Jurt Trumps both away to safety. Before he does, Mask’s mask comes off. Merlin recognises him. Mask is his supposedly dead ex-girlfriend, Julia…
Once again, it’s a cliffhanger ending, but this time of a different order, a revelation of information essential to the overall story, such the endings to Sign of the Unicorn and The Hand of Oberon in the Corwin Cycle. For the first time, we can perhaps begin to see the outline of an overarching story, into which the multiple elements we’ve bounced around might combine organically.
What are the main elements of the story so far? Someone is trying to kill Merlin; originally it was his cousin Rinaldo, who prefers Luke, then his mother, Jasra, and now it appears to be his half-brother Jurt – who hates him for no better reason than that he’s half-Amber – working in collusion with Merlin’s former girlfriend who he confused by taking her on a shadowwalk without explaining.
Someone has sent a Chaos entity that can transfer from body to body to protect Merlin: from Chaos, protection imperative, can’t guess who it might be.
Amber may face attack from differing forces, led by some combination of Luke, Jasra and/or Dalt.
Four more children of Oberon have been brought into the picture, two male, two female, two newcomers, two pre-existing but not previously mentioned.
Corwin hasn’t been seen since the end of his Cycle and Merlin has invented a sentient Shadow computer he calls Ghostwheel.
It’s not much to show for three books. But it’s only to be expected in that Corwin was a directed character, with a purpose: to take Amber’s throne at first, then to save it from a clear, present and equal danger. Merlin is completely undirected. He is passive, with no goal in sight, and is bounced continually from pillar to post by the actions of multiple others, with individual aims he still can hardly begin to work out.
The Merlin Cycle is a very flat cycle, spinning in place and progressing only laterally. With two more books to go, can it be redeemed?
It would be fair to summarise Blood of Amber as ‘more-of-the-same-only-different’. It’s a series of incidents with minimal advancement on the major plot purposes, which to this point amount to who is trying to kill Merlin every April 30, and just what the heck is going on anyway. This instalment looks likely to be mostly synopsis again.
Zelazny left Merlin in a blue crystal cave, the properties of which block any extra-natural communication or transportation, and the immovable boulder over the hole in the roof preventing any physical egress.
What ingenious method of escape would Merlin devise to get himself out of this trap and this stasis? I don’t want to sound too critical too quickly, but I was genuinely disappointed to find that what Merlin did was to wait for someone to come and get him and set up an ambush. It’s definitely below the standards of Corwin’s Cycle, when you could always rely on a mad hunchback magician walking through the wall.
The troops trying to retrieve him are brought by Jasra, Luke’s mother, not Luke. Merlin disposes of them ungently and catches Jasra by the neck with his pet strangling cord, Frakir, but before he can get any answers out of her, Luke Trumps in and Merlin has to escape via the first available relative, which is Flora. Who knows and hates Jasra over past ‘romantic’ clashes in Jasra’s homeland of Kashfa and is well up on the region’s political history.
Merlin tries to contact both his brief inamorata and George, the kid from Bill Roth’s area, but finds that both of them have experienced temporary bouts of amnesia and Meg in particular really doesn’t want Merlin calling round again. Still at Flora’s, he receives a mysterious Trump contact from an unknown, very cagey person, who will apparently be an enemy: it ends with him being flooded with flowers.
Flora drives him to the home of his late girlfriend, Julia, where Merlin detects a magical gateway. This takes him to a position overlooking the Keep of the Four Worlds, a source of magical power from its position astride the corners of, you guessed it, Four Worlds. The Keep is under attack from mercenaries. Merlin learns something of the Keep from a dirty, smelly deserter-hermit called Dave. (Dave? Dave? I ask you, Dave.)
Merlin learns that the Keep once belonged to a wizard named Shara Garrul, who was defeated by Jasra, turned to wood and kept as a coat-rack. He also learns that Jasra is Luke’s mother. That the current attackers are led by a six foot six inches tall mercenary called Dalt who hates Amber worse than Jasra.
Parting from Dave, gratefully, Merlin attracts the attention of the sorceror now in charge of the Keep, a figure wearing a cobalt mask like a hockey goalies’, who sets out to destroy Merlin with a shadowstorm. Merlin escapes by Trumping to Random, followed by another delivery of flowers.
After updating Random, who recognises Dalt as the son of a former enemy of Amber, Deela the Desicatrix, who ought to be dead given that he was last seen being run through by Benedict, Merlin sleeps off his shadow ‘jetlag’, awakening in the dark, eager for food.
In pursuit of fresh fish, he follows a recommendation to Bloody Bill’s, in the less salubrious part of the Harbour. He gets a friendly warning from ‘Old John’, an agent of first Oberon then Random, who is clearly intended to be Timothy Truman’s Grimjack. Despite his precautions, he’s attacked in the street but saved by men working for Vinta Bayle, Caine’s last mistress and daughter of Amber’s premier vintner.
She offers him sanctuary at the Bayle family estate, far to the north, which they reach by sailing through the night. Merlin dreams of a duel in the Courts of Chaos with his younger half-brother, Jurt, who hates him as a spawn of Amber, and which ends, despite all Merlin’s attempts not to hurt Dara’s youngest son, with Jurt losing an ear.
Merlin finds himself puzzled by Vinta’s attitude to him. Her eagerness to help is explicable in the context of wanting revenge for Caine, but she claims her concern is to protect him. They trade information piece by piece, much of which Vinta should not have. Merlin learns that the blue crystal can be made into stones, various of which he has collected, and used to track someone through Shadow, without Trumps. Shortly after calling the game off, Merlin receives a transmission from Ghostwheel, wanting to know if he should trust Luke: Merlin doesn’t know if his No gets through.
Merlin agrees to stay another day. Vinta is starting to get more overtly friendly to him. Later, he is interrupted by an urgent Trump Call for aid from Luke, badly wounded after Dalt has unexpectedly turned on him. Merlin tends his wounds and keeps him safe, from Vinta as well. He also takes Luke’s Trumps, which include faces he doesn’t recognise. One is Dalt. Two others are Delwin and Sand.
This pair are hitherto unknown children of Oberon, by a potentially bigamous marriage in a Shadow where time flowed quickly, placing them between Gerard and Random in the succession. But after their mother’s death, they withdrew from Amber, wanting nothing to do with the place, and still don’t. Why are they introduced? No reason pertaining to the story is given in this book. Later, whilst Luke sleeps, Merlin contacts Dalt, who wants to finish the job he started on Rinaldo. Merlin has to summon Chaos’s Logrus to sever the connection, which wakes Luke. Luke wants Merlin’s help to rescue Jasra from the Keep of the Four Worlds, in return for which he will disclose a piece of information vital to Amber’s security.
It also attracts Vinta, who reveals herself to not be Vinta but rather someone possessing her, someone who was Meg, George, Luke’s old girlfriend Gail and a certain Lady in a Lake. But she will not disclose who she really is.
By rights, Merlin should turn Luke in to Random but he allows him to remain free, having his own plan. This involves moving Luke to the blue crystal cave, though without the boulder over the entrance. He rides back to Amber overland, but en route is approached by a mysterious figure declaring itself to be his enemy.
There is a very annoying turn here. This declaration is the last line of Chapter 8. Zelazny spends the whole of Chapter 9 on various flashbacks on the theme of power; brought by Fiona to Corwin’s Pattern and pretending not to be able to walk it, hunting with Jurt, being attacked again and this time Jurt loses an eye, debating civilisation with Luke, Julia and Gail, avoiding the first April 30 attack, and being taken by Suhuy, Master of the Logrus to see ultimate Chaos. Then, after a complete chapter of irrelevant distraction, not letting us have a single clue as to who this enemy might be, said enemy is fought off with incredible ease and no clues as to who he/she might be, except that it appears to be a wolf. Where do shape-shifters come from?
Merlin builds up an array of spells to further his plan, which is to walk the Pattern, transport himself to the Keep of the Four Worlds, retrieve Jasra (who is also doing coat rack duty by now) and bring her back without Luke being involved. Despite opposition from Mask, he succeeds. He is then abruptly summoned by a drugged-out Luke, via an irresistable Trump contact, to a crazy Alice-in-Wonderland bar where he is trapped. Luke’s vital information? Dalt is a son of Oberon, by rape of Deela the Desicatrix.
Once again we are subjected to a last moment cliffhanger, this one even more abrupt and out of left field. How much further forward are we to reaching the Cycle’s ultimate goal? Not a bit. How nearer are we to discovering what is the Cycle’s ultimate goal? Even less. Maybe in the next book.
To the best of my knowledge, there is no-one who has compared the Second Chronicles of Amber to the First and said it stands up just as well. I certainly never did, not even when I was collecting the individual volumes in a rather neat set of themed covers in the British paperbacks. Coming to the first of these again, after a gap of maybe three decades, I’m not yet seeing anything to update that opinion.
The Second Chronicles is the Merlin Cycle, told in similar fashion by Corwin’s son, Merlin, the once and former intended King of Amber. Merlin introduces himself under the name of Merle Corey, which he’s been using for the last eight years or so on his father’s Shadow Earth: Merle is just finishing up a job as a Computer Designer.
Soon he’ll be off to do something else, that we are not immediately made privy to, but before that Merle has one outstanding task to complete. For the last seven years, some unknown individual that he’s tagged as S has been trying to kill him on April 30. Merlin desires to know who and why, though the latter is of only minor importance, especially beside the part about S not being in a position to try again next year.
It’s the same basic set-up as the Corwyn Cycle, except that there Zelazny made a deliberate thing of Corwyn’s amnesia, giving the story a direct and immediate point as well as an accelerable linear path. Merlin knows who he is, and returning readers know very well what to expect, but anybody not familiar with the First Chronicles is on a hiding to nothing trying to work out what’s going on, and not in a good way.
And Trumps of Doom doesn’t develop in any kind of progressive way, but rather just has Merlin bouncing from set-up to set-up, pursuing something not clearly defined, without ever getting to anything recognisable as a goal.
So Merlin goes charging around, alternately in pursuit and being pursued, accumulating scenes and people. These include his workmate, salesman and (we later learn) fellow Olympic candidate Luke Rinehart, his ex-girlfriend Julia, recently dumped but now found dead with half her face eaten off by non-Earth creatures, painter, mystic and weirdo Victor Melman.
Merlin faces a sorceress named Jasra, who bites him with a poison tooth. He escapes with the aid of a small number of new Trump cards showing unknown locations. These are the Trumps of Doom of the title, though only one is used, taking Merlin to the location of a sphinx who plans to riddle him and eat him. Merlin talks his way out on the basis of the Sphinx appearing to be stupid.
During his absence, at a faster time differential, Melman’s place has burned down. Merlin flies to Santa Fe in response to a message from Luke, eager to speak to him. Whilst he is awaiting Luke’s return, he is approached by a man asking questions about Luke that Merlin is cagey about answering. The man catches him offguard, leaving on asking if Merlin has ever heard Luke mention either Amber or the Courts of Chaos.
The stranger claims to be a potential investor checking out Luke, who denies all knowledge of him. Yes, he’s looking to work with Merle on a project called Ghostwheel, a bizarre computer system designed to work in unusual, non-earthly environments, but Merlin disclaims Ghostwheel as purely a theoretical exercise. Their conversation is interrupted by the stranger shooting at one or other of them, only to be killed by Luke. Luke forces Merlin to flee on threat of death, naming him with his true name, then disappearing with the body.
Now, you and I who have read the First Chronicles have already figured Luke for someone connected with Amber, and it’s not spoiling any dramatic tension to confirm that we’re correct. The new reader has only the aforesaid mentions of Amber and Chaos to go on, and has no idea yet of Merlin’s status, though they will be aware that there is a mystery about Merlin’s father, who is missing.
Merlin’s next move is to visit Corwin’s old friend and now attorney to Amber, Bill Roth. It’s meant to be a chill-out but one of the neighbourhood youths is acting weird (as if he’s on serious drugs), and not sounding like his real self. The next day, out walking with Bill, Merlin is summoned by Trump to return to Amber by King Random. With the boy running towards them, trying to stop him, he takes Bill with him for his first visit to Amber. (This is the self-identified ‘minor character who gets shuffled off without ever really finding out what’s going on’).
Merlin has been summoned back for a funeral. All the family are required to be present. Caine has been assassinated, and Bleys attacked, wounded but surviving. A mysterious stranger attempts to drop a bomb into the royal party at the funeral but is spotted too early by Merlin, causing the bomb to explode too high in the air. But he has succeeded in bringing working explosives into Amber. And when tested, Corwin’s Avalon-powered bullets, and a couple of rounds Merlin has retrieved from Luke, fire in Amber.
With the assistance of his Aunt Fiona, Merlin returns to Earth to keep a mysterious rendezvous at Corwin’s old country club. Nobody arrives, but he picks up an attractive woman and goes back with her. After, they are disturbed by her husband’s unexpected appearance. When he contacts her later, she sounds completely different and doesn’t know him. Mysterious. Fiona recognises something in Luke’s photo but refuses to share her knowledge: she and Bleys disappear overnight.
Random’s main fear is of a recurrence of plotting amongst his siblings but he gets another headache when Merlin explains about Ghostwheel. This is a kind of computer-Trump, embodying the principles of the Pattern and its Chaos-equivalent, the Logrus, both of which Merlin bears within him. It can identify and locate objects in Shadow and open windows through the same. Since those widows could be used to transport the full force of, e.g., a Shadow Storm, Random orders Ghostwheel shut down.
Reluctantly, Merlin sets off to Ghostwheel’s location. This requires a very long hellride or rather hellrun as Merlin is running the way rather than getting on a horse. He keeps being faced with obstacles and orders to Go Back, but not until he is joined by Luke, who identifies the voice as Merlin’s, does he realise it is Ghostwheel, thinking for itself.
Ultimately, both are blasted away. Merlin wakes to find himself taken into a blue-crystal cave, where Luke shows him ample supplies before exiting via the roof, which he then blacks off. Before doing so, he explains that the blue crystal is completely impervious to Trump communication etc. He wants Merlin where he can find him, whilst he gets on with the business of destroying Amber’s royal family. Luke is S. He is also Rinaldo, son of Brand.
The book ends with Merlin having been a frustrated prisoner for a month.
I’m not going to go further than that for this entry. Trumps of Doom is but a template for the Second Chronicles and there will be ample time to comment on this approach when we get to later books in the series. For now, just contrast this synopsis with those for the Corwin Cycle, and meditate upon one already obvious difference between father and son: Corwin is telling an active story and Merlin a reactive one. How big a difference does that already make?
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.
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.
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.