Once Upon a Time in Amber: Knight of Shadows


At long last, something of an overall story is starting to form, though we still have a long and slow start to the penultimate volume before we begin to see anything of it.
We left Merlin, Mandor and Jasra in the ruins of the Keep of the Four Worlds, after the partially enhanced Jurt, and Mask the Sorceror, finally revealed to be Merlin’s ex-girlfriend Julia, have departed, the latter with Merlin’s dagger in her kidney. Jasra binds the Keep’s former master, Sharu Garrul to the Fount of Power as it’s Invisible Guardian, and leads everyone off to a place of rest where Mandor conjures up a culinary delight for the background to yet another of those frustrating question-for-question sessions where nobody discloses anything more than they have to.
We do learn that Julia became interested in magic when Merlin showed her various glimpses of power without ever trusting her enough to explain: Julia turned out to be a powerful natural sorceress and studied under Jasra whilst concealing her wider ambitions.
Jasra’s own power derives from the way of the Broken Pattern: up to nine such Patterns exist in Shadows close to Amber, in diminishing degrees of reliability. Becoming an initiate requires walking the interstices, not the Pattern, and Jasra led Julia through this, eventually enabling her to attack and overcome Jasra and seize the Keep.
Ultimately, the talk turns to Kashfa and Begma. Jasra knows the Prime Minister and his daughters, and also the rumours about Coral’s parentage, which Merlin confirms. The trio pool their concentration to contact Coral, in a very dark place, held by a massive concentration of power, which lashes back at them through Shadow. Ghostwheel disperses all three, removing Merlin to a very obscure place in Shadow, surrounded by wards.
First Dworkin, then Oberon, try to summon Merlin to a task involving Coral. Both are pattern-ghosts, unreal representations taken of the originals when walking the Pattern. Both are dissolved by the wards but the next to appear is Corwin, who is more real, passes the barriers and knocks Merlin out. He wakes in a black and white desert without sound, his Trumps useless. When he summons the sign of the Logrus, it knocks him out.
The Logrus summoning temporarily enables his strangling cord, Frakir, to talk, and give him directions as to where he must go. It leads him to a chapel in which he must firstly guard armour overnight, then don it to progress. Merlin must choose between Chaos and Amber. He refuses to do so, even in the face of the Serpent and the Unicorn, but a Chaos dagger is sneaked onto his person, deciding for him.
Merlin travels on, interminably (we will get to the objective, I promise, but this is ninety percent filler so far). En route he meets further Pattern-ghosts of Brand and of Deirdre. Brand explains that these can be stabilised by the Blood of Amber, but when Merlin cuts his wrist it bleeds fire and consumes Brand.
Next, he meets and races Jurt. For a time they team up, putting their differences aside. Merlin sustains Jurt’s ghost with blood. The next ghost is Caine, as an antagonist, then Duke Borel. At long long last Merlin is vouchsafed access to Random and Vialle’s bedroom in Amber and required to steal the Jewel of Judgement. Borel reappears, to attack him, and Benedict, to defend him. It is slowly becoming clear that this is some form of contest between the powers, the Pattern and the Logrus.

UK edition

Merlin and Jurt trek on still, until they find a door that gives them access to a Pattern. Merlin realises this is the first of the Broken Patterns. Coral is at its centre and to reach her, Merlin has to walk the Pattern, using the Jewel to reconstruct it as did Oberon with the Primal Pattern. His way is blocked by a Logrus-ghost of himself, but Jurt sacrifices himself to remove him.
Once at the centre of a repaired Pattern, he finds Coral sleeping. The Pattern will not send them away until they have sex. Despite being three-quarters asleep, Coral welcomes Merlin’s attentions, and then they can return to Amber. Merlin sends her to find her father and get him off that hook whilst he recovers from his exhaustion.
Before he can sleep he has to confront the voice of the Pattern, towards which he is disrespectful, then Dworkin – the real Dworkin, fully sane – comes looking for the Jewel. He warns Merlin that to remove the Jewel now will probably kill him.
So Merlin goes off for a long sleep in the blue crystal cave, where time flows far faster than Amber, before attuning himself to the Jewel.
Back in Amber, he tries to replace the Jewel without its absence having been noted. He also tries to contact Luke, but Luke is preoccupied. Then he is distracted by Coral, who wants to see her sister. Ghostwheel summons Mandor to lift his spell, but the moment Nayda sees the Jewel, which she terms the Left Eye of the Serpent, she grabs it and runs.
Merlin pursues. The ty’iga confirms it was sent to protect Merlin by his mother, Dara (that Merlin never even considered that possibility is evidence of the level of stupidity this Cycle operates upon) but it has a higher purpose if it gets the chance: to grab the Jewel and return it to the Logrus. Within Amber Castle, the two powers confront each other, hurling accusations about actions that have tipped the balance between them. Ghostwheel stands between them, refusing to pledge to either. The signs meet, causing a massive silent explosion that blows a hole across two floors of the wing. Mandor sustains a broken arm, Coral damage to her right eye. Merlin realises with disgust that the Powers have no concern for their servants, only their rivalry.
Everybody makes shift to sort things out. Dworkin operates on Coral. Random updates Merlin on the situation in Kashfa where his nominee was supposed to be crowned today. Unfortunately, a mercenary horde under Dalt has attacked, captured the Duke and installed a new King to be crowned: Rinaldo, aka Luke, exactly as he and Dalt had cooked up. Random wants Merlin to represent Amber at the new coronation.

US edition

After a symbolic dream-diversion in the Corridor of Mirrors that stalls things for the penultimate chapter, and a search of the semi-demolished quarters of Brand during which he finds Brand’s old sword and also a ring of potent powers that he keeps for himself, Merlin gets to Kashfa and contacts Luke secretly. Dworkin and Coral have disappeared, operation outcome unknown. There’s a suggestion Corwin’s been using his quarters in Amber secretly. Merlin meets Luke in a Chapel, hands over a coronation present of Brand’s blade. They are attacked by the powered-up Jurt. He steals the sword but is injured. He takes hostage a shrouded woman in the chapel, threatens her life. She is Coral, wearing an eyepatch. She is also Luke’s wife. She thrusts Jurt away from her, torments him before he trumps out. Behind the eyepatch is the red glow of the Eye of Chaos, the Left Eye of the Serpent, the Jewel of Judgement…
The bit about being Luke’s wife? Long story…
As you may have gathered, much of my response to the Second Chronicles is exasperation. We are now four books in, yet the amount of useful, purposeful story is not yet enough to fill one. Increasingly, the books are filled with scenes that strike me strongly as filler, such as the Corridor of Mirrors chapter that does nothing but bulk the book out to its required length. And to take three and a half books to introduce your point is, I would argue, amateurish writing. All we have had to date is puzzle after puzzle and a determined effort not to solve any of these, which is an acceptable technique for a first book, provided resolutions start to appear in the second. Instead, we had yet more puzzles and the equally infuriating profusion of people having answers that they refuse to disclose, for little better reason than cussedness and a schoolyard I-know-something-that-you-don’t.
I’d also adduce the business with the powerful ring, which we’ll later learn is called a spikard. For nearly four full books, Merlin’s most reliable self-defence weapon is Frakir the strangling cord. It even gets a voice in the first half of this volume. Yet the moment he finds the spikard, Merlin ties Frakir to a bedpost and leaves it, for good.
And the spikard is a concentrated cheat. Zelazny has tied up so much in this Cycle in Merlin being a sorceror and sorcery being a thing of study, preparation, time and strength. Then he gets tired of all that and throws in a Wham Bam Thank You Mam, instant Magic-on-a-stick device that can do anything on a second’s notice. That’s what I call cheap cheating.
One book to go. I wonder if my self of the mid-Nineties was as uninvested in finding out what and why as I currently feel.

Once upon a Time in Amber: Trumps of Doom


To the best of my knowledge, there is no-one who has compared the Second Chronicles of Amber to the First and said it stands up just as well. I certainly never did, not even when I was collecting the individual volumes in a rather neat set of themed covers in the British paperbacks. Coming to the first of these again, after a gap of maybe three decades, I’m not yet seeing anything to update that opinion.
The Second Chronicles is the Merlin Cycle, told in similar fashion by Corwin’s son, Merlin, the once and former intended King of Amber. Merlin introduces himself under the name of Merle Corey, which he’s been using for the last eight years or so on his father’s Shadow Earth: Merle is just finishing up a job as a Computer Designer.
Soon he’ll be off to do something else, that we are not immediately made privy to, but before that Merle has one outstanding task to complete. For the last seven years, some unknown individual that he’s tagged as S has been trying to kill him on April 30. Merlin desires to know who and why, though the latter is of only minor importance, especially beside the part about S not being in a position to try again next year.
It’s the same basic set-up as the Corwyn Cycle, except that there Zelazny made a deliberate thing of Corwyn’s amnesia, giving the story a direct and immediate point as well as an accelerable linear path. Merlin knows who he is, and returning readers know very well what to expect, but anybody not familiar with the First Chronicles is on a hiding to nothing trying to work out what’s going on, and not in a good way.
And Trumps of Doom doesn’t develop in any kind of progressive way, but rather just has Merlin bouncing from set-up to set-up, pursuing something not clearly defined, without ever getting to anything recognisable as a goal.
So Merlin goes charging around, alternately in pursuit and being pursued, accumulating scenes and people. These include his workmate, salesman and (we later learn) fellow Olympic candidate Luke Rinehart, his ex-girlfriend Julia, recently dumped but now found dead with half her face eaten off by non-Earth creatures, painter, mystic and weirdo Victor Melman.
Merlin faces a sorceress named Jasra, who bites him with a poison tooth. He escapes with the aid of a small number of new Trump cards showing unknown locations. These are the Trumps of Doom of the title, though only one is used, taking Merlin to the location of a sphinx who plans to riddle him and eat him. Merlin talks his way out on the basis of the Sphinx appearing to be stupid.
During his absence, at a faster time differential, Melman’s place has burned down. Merlin flies to Santa Fe in response to a message from Luke, eager to speak to him. Whilst he is awaiting Luke’s return, he is approached by a man asking questions about Luke that Merlin is cagey about answering. The man catches him offguard, leaving on asking if Merlin has ever heard Luke mention either Amber or the Courts of Chaos.

The UK edition

The stranger claims to be a potential investor checking out Luke, who denies all knowledge of him. Yes, he’s looking to work with Merle on a project called Ghostwheel, a bizarre computer system designed to work in unusual, non-earthly environments, but Merlin disclaims Ghostwheel as purely a theoretical exercise. Their conversation is interrupted by the stranger shooting at one or other of them, only to be killed by Luke. Luke forces Merlin to flee on threat of death, naming him with his true name, then disappearing with the body.
Now, you and I who have read the First Chronicles have already figured Luke for someone connected with Amber, and it’s not spoiling any dramatic tension to confirm that we’re correct. The new reader has only the aforesaid mentions of Amber and Chaos to go on, and has no idea yet of Merlin’s status, though they will be aware that there is a mystery about Merlin’s father, who is missing.
Merlin’s next move is to visit Corwin’s old friend and now attorney to Amber, Bill Roth. It’s meant to be a chill-out but one of the neighbourhood youths is acting weird (as if he’s on serious drugs), and not sounding like his real self. The next day, out walking with Bill, Merlin is summoned by Trump to return to Amber by King Random. With the boy running towards them, trying to stop him, he takes Bill with him for his first visit to Amber. (This is the self-identified ‘minor character who gets shuffled off without ever really finding out what’s going on’).
Merlin has been summoned back for a funeral. All the family are required to be present. Caine has been assassinated, and Bleys attacked, wounded but surviving. A mysterious stranger attempts to drop a bomb into the royal party at the funeral but is spotted too early by Merlin, causing the bomb to explode too high in the air. But he has succeeded in bringing working explosives into Amber. And when tested, Corwin’s Avalon-powered bullets, and a couple of rounds Merlin has retrieved from Luke, fire in Amber.

The US edition

With the assistance of his Aunt Fiona, Merlin returns to Earth to keep a mysterious rendezvous at Corwin’s old country club. Nobody arrives, but he picks up an attractive woman and goes back with her. After, they are disturbed by her husband’s unexpected appearance. When he contacts her later, she sounds completely different and doesn’t know him. Mysterious. Fiona recognises something in Luke’s photo but refuses to share her knowledge: she and Bleys disappear overnight.
Random’s main fear is of a recurrence of plotting amongst his siblings but he gets another headache when Merlin explains about Ghostwheel. This is a kind of computer-Trump, embodying the principles of the Pattern and its Chaos-equivalent, the Logrus, both of which Merlin bears within him. It can identify and locate objects in Shadow and open windows through the same. Since those widows could be used to transport the full force of, e.g., a Shadow Storm, Random orders Ghostwheel shut down.
Reluctantly, Merlin sets off to Ghostwheel’s location. This requires a very long hellride or rather hellrun as Merlin is running the way rather than getting on a horse. He keeps being faced with obstacles and orders to Go Back, but not until he is joined by Luke, who identifies the voice as Merlin’s, does he realise it is Ghostwheel, thinking for itself.
Ultimately, both are blasted away. Merlin wakes to find himself taken into a blue-crystal cave, where Luke shows him ample supplies before exiting via the roof, which he then blacks off. Before doing so, he explains that the blue crystal is completely impervious to Trump communication etc. He wants Merlin where he can find him, whilst he gets on with the business of destroying Amber’s royal family. Luke is S. He is also Rinaldo, son of Brand.
The book ends with Merlin having been a frustrated prisoner for a month.
I’m not going to go further than that for this entry. Trumps of Doom is but a template for the Second Chronicles and there will be ample time to comment on this approach when we get to later books in the series. For now, just contrast this synopsis with those for the Corwin Cycle, and meditate upon one already obvious difference between father and son: Corwin is telling an active story and Merlin a reactive one. How big a difference does that already make?