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: Sign of Chaos


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.

The UK edition

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.)

The US edition

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?