Once Upon a Time in Amber: The Merlin Cycle considered


Don’t Smoke

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

Once Upon a Time in Amber: 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?