Once Upon a Time in Amber: Prince of Chaos


A word first about the title. Thus far, Zelazny has been using a (something) of (something) formula, four titles, eight different terms: Trumps, Blood, Prince, Knight, Doom, Amber, Chaos, Shadow. For the last book, we get a repeat of Chaos, coupled this time with Prince. It’s apt, for both Merlin and the final book, but the reuse of Chaos makes it automatically sound weak, as if Zelazny had run out of new ideas and could only revert to something already applied.
We pick up directly from the end of book 4, explaining that Coral is indeed Luke’s wife, by reason of an infant bethrothal years earlier, that the two are entirely amenable to an annulment, once the coronation is over, and then we hurry off to rush through said coronation and Merlin and Coral end up spending the night together, though Zelazny doesn’t mention whether they make love (which in most countries would be regarded as an act of High Treason, and probably not covered by diplomatic immunity) as well as talking and sleeping.
Then Merlin gets summoned to the Court of Chaos, and Coral gets dropped on the spot. Why is Merlin so urgently needed at home? Because he’s under Black Watch. Behind his back, people have been dropping like flies and now King Swayvill has finally died. Merlin is now third in line in the succession. He and the two ahead of him are being guarded.
Merlin doesn’t want to be anywhere in line for the throne of Chaos, or the throne of anything. Unlike his still-missing Dad – and Zelazny drops a substantial hint to the readers but not his narrator, as to where Corwin has been all this time – Merlin has no interest in ruling anything except himself. Unfortunately, his mother, Dara, and his elder step-brother Mandor have a different idea on that subject.
We’re here in the Courts properly for the first time, and credit Zelazny for the portrait he paints of how different the place is. Old friends, servants and serpents come out of the woodwork, pieces of Merlin’s childhood that he’s never talked about, and who arrive with relationships of a sort established that are not explained for us. And the Courts itself, with its non-Euclidean geometry, it’s concealed and twisted geography, is a place where homes and houses are known as Ways and hide behind plain sight.
As well as Mandor and Dara, Merlin’s main contact in the Courts is his Uncle Suhuy, Master of the Logrus. Suhuy at least is a neutral figure, with a regard for Merlin, who is not out to influence him, rather inform him. He provides a small spell to open Merlin’s mind to possibilities via a dream visit to the Corridor of Mirrors, which adds yet more layers of uncertainty, but who are we to object to this now, after four books of avoiding concrete answers?
Merlin objects to becoming King of Chaos, despite being told he is the choice of the Logrus, a thing that makes him only more determined to avoid the job. Indeed, later on Dara will effectively advise that Corwin was the choice of the Pattern as King of Amber, and that Merlin’s birth involved nothing of love or even desire, merely the selection of the appropriate genetic material to create the new King of Chaos.
Because what underlies the whole of the Merlin Cycle, and which is now extended retrospectively to underpin the Corwin Cycle is the struggle for balance between the two Powers, the Pattern and the Logrus, the Unicorn and the Serpent, Order and Chaos.
Without both, Shadow cannot exist. Both sides pay lip service to balance, both retaliate in turn to steps tilting the balance one way or another but both sides ultimately seek to establish an overwhelming dominance, rolling the other back indefinitely. They demand Merlin choose between them but that’s the one thing he refuses to do.

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Right now, the Pattern has a distinct advantage: not only has the balance been tipped to it by Merlin repairing the First Broken Pattern, there is the matter of Corwin’s Pattern. Currently it’s remaining inactive, but not for much longer. It was drawn when the Pattern was being repaired, the only time this could possibly happen: in any other circumstances, the Pattern would have absorbed it and it’s tried to do so since but failed. Still, two Patterns, one Logrus, the maths are simple.
A pattern-ghost of Luke comes to Merlin in the Courts to deliver a message. Merlin sustains it with his blood. Corwin helps the pair escape the Courts, to ‘his’ Pattern, but this is another Pattern-Ghost, only produced by Corwin’s Pattern. As the only one ever to walk it, it is more durable as it has all his Pattern’s energy behind it. This is the Corwin who’s turned up here and there. The original is still missing.
All three walk the Pattern, en masse, which enables this one to sustain Luke. Luke-Ghost stays to guard it, Merlin trumps back to the Courts to meet Dara, but is diverted by another old playmate to discover a hidden shrine to Corwin. The meal with his mother does not go well. He probes her over what happened to Corwin but gets nowhere. He reveals that his father’s Pattern is becoming active, which disturbs her.
Returning to explore hidden parts of the Courts, Merlin is approached by Jurt, who he’s decided to kill on sight. But Jurt has undergone a total change of heart, apparently. The game is getting too big and too dangerous, he no longer wants the throne: not only does he think he wouldn’t be competent, but if he got there he’d only be a puppet of Dara and Mandor. As would Merlin be. So, reluctantly, they team up.
Jurt reveals that Dara plans to kidnap Coral, bring her to the Courts to become Merlin’s Queen, and bring the Jewel of Judgement, the Serpent’s Left Eye, the however many names you give it back to the Logrus. Merlin and Jurt decide to foil this, though their efforts are hampered by the need to attend Swayvill’s funeral, where they are to play prominent and visible roles.
During the funeral, the two candidates above Merlin in the succession both die. This places Merlin in pole position but gives him and Jurt the chance to sneak out to save Coral. They’re too late. A posse forms of this pair, Luke (who’s already fed up with being King) and the ty’iga possessed Nayda, who’s now gloriously happy since she’s shagging Luke, who she always fancied most. It also includes the mercenary Dalt.
For reasons left unexplained, Merlin wants the Luke-Ghost to do this, so he persuades Luke to swap places with the Ghost, who Merlin now renames Rinaldo for convenience, whilst Luke guards Corwin’s Pattern.
While they travel, Merlin reveals his spikard to Luke. The spikard is the ring of multiple magical powers and sources that Merlin’s been sporting since the last book, which caused him to tie faithful Frakir to a bedpost, never to be seen again. Luke, naturally, knows a bit more about spikards, that they are ancient and not to be trusted: he wonders if the spikard has been driving some of Merlin’s decisions since he donned it. Certainly, he feels weak and diminished without it on his finger, so it is, blatantly, something addictive, if not parasitical, or symbiotic if you want to be pleasant about it.
The pursuers catch the kidnappers at a tower being beseiged by two quartets of ghosts: four from Amber and the Pattern (including Eric and Caine), four from the Courts and the Logrus. The Amberites win. The pursuers surround a drugged Coral and defend her. The two Powers demand that she must go to one or other of them but Merlin is fighting to preserve Coral’s independence like his own. The pursuers are dragged to the Primal Pattern, where Luke negotiates their release by slashing his arm, cupping his blood in his hand and holding it over the Pattern.
Once back in Kashfa, Merlin goes off to sleep and have another of those dreams in which he’s addressed by various relatives. One of them is Delwin: you know, of Delwin and Sand, the mysterious Uncle and Aunt introduced into Corwin’s generation books ago for no apparent reason. Delwin’s here to tell Merlin that a spikard formerly belonging to Swayvill was introduced into Amber for him to find, bound with compulsion spells that would force him to claim Chaos’s throne and accept the orders off Mandor and Dara. Delwin bears a spikard of his own. He has the portentous line that they may never meet unless certain ancient powers are unleashed (a hint towards a putative Third Chronicles?), invites Merlin to touch his spikard to Delwin’s so they may meet but instead he’s blasted back to the Courts and another old playmate who delivers the other half of Delwin’s message, that the problem spikard left by Mandor was switched for the one Merlin bears, this by Bleys who makes a cameo to hand over the difficult spikard. Is Bleys a pattern-ghost? Was Delwin? God knows, this is getting so flimsy.

US Paperback

Anyway, the subtlety of the treacherous spikard turns out to be simple, crude chants of take the throne, listen to Mandor, do what Dara says and the like: easily resistible now.
Suddenly we’re rushing at the end. Merlin has finally woken up to where Corwin is. He and the Ghost invade the Courts. After the defeat by Amber, many prominent Chaosites started worshipping certain Amberites, setting up shrines to them: Mandor’s is of Fiona, someone else has Benedict, Dara has one of Corwin. Which is where Corwin is prisoner, in a locked cell in total darkness. Merlin releases him, his ghost replaces him. None of this is in the least characteristic of the Corwin of his Cycle but do we care by now? Corwin’s free.
And Merlin has one last task to do: he sets up a spot where he can work his spikard to the max, knowing it will attract Mandor and Dara. They challenge him, fight and lose. Merlin has Ghostwheel on his side. He faces down the Logrus. He will become King of Chaos but he will rule, not reign. He will be in charge. And nobody has any option but to accept it. Mandor and Dara don’t get the chance to ‘advise’ behind the scenes, unless Merlin proves to be crap at his new job and gets deposed.
So, offstage, Merlin tells Corwin his long story, to provide a final symmetry to events, and Corwin heads of back to Amber. End of story.
What do I say? What do I even begin to say? The Merlin Cycle is a mess, its infrequent good moments overwhelmed by its sheer incompetence? This is the point at which to begin an analysis, but to be honest it will have to be displaced to an unintended additional post. For that, you’ll have to wait another week.

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: The Courts of Chaos


The Courts of Chaos is the shortest book of the First Chronicles, and very much the simplest. There are no more flashbacks, no more revisions of the backstory, but not that much less debate. Just a couple of preparatory chapters, one tidying up a loose end to no apparent benefit, and then setting the story in motion, throughout all of which you can sense Zelazny’s straining to be done with such mundanities and to get to the flaming point!
The book first appeared in Galaxy magazine, serialised in three parts (November 1977, December/January and February 1978). I never was a buyer of SF magazines but I bought these three, just to read the end that much sooner.
The story picks up with Corwin having locked himself away in the Library and, quite frankly, throwing what can only be described as a hissy fit about his father returning and not immediately taking everybody into his confidence. This is a prelude to a rather awkward scene in which Dara has been trumped into Amber by Martin, is in the throne room with him and Benedict when suddenly we get a replay of the scene at the end of Unicorn where Corwin cuts the mechanical arm from Benedict and it now disappears. No reason is given as to why the arm should be removed, except that it’s clearly served its sole purpose, nor is there any explanation of why everything in the scene should be slightly different from the scene in Tir Na Nog’th.
Dara claims to have come from Oberon, with orders, and his signet ring to prove her bona fides. She admits to having sided with the Court of Chaos as long as they were planning a balancing exercise, levelling the playing field of Shadow between them and Amber, but broke with them when she realised their idea of levelling was to take it all back virtually to Amber’s door.
Oberon has been planning a strike against the Courts of Chaos, but not necessarily with Amber’s full strength: now his orders via Dara are to start immediately.
Corwin doesn’t trust her, even after Oberon confirms his instructions direct. He trumps to Dworkin’s workshop, which irritates Oberon. The King has decided that he will attempt to repair the Pattern. This will trigger distraction tactics from Chaos, hence the strike to preoccupy them. Whether he succeeds or not, the effort will kill him. He has decided to nominate Corwin as his successor.
Corwin, partly because he started to like Oberon as Ganelon, partly out of a sense of duty to Amber, but mostly because he has decided he no longer wants to be King, snatches the Jewel and runs for the Primal Pattern, intent on making the attempt himself. Between them, Oberon and Dworkin paralyse his muscles: he wakes to find Oberon holding the Jewel.
Now Corwin has refused the throne, the succession will have to depend on the Horn, whatever that is. But Corwin must now hellride as far as he can from Amber, towards the Courts. When Oberon has finished, successful or not, the Jewel will be conveyed to Corwin who has to get it to the Courts, for purposes he will not understand until they occur.
That is the book’s main purpose: Corwin’s journey and the various obstacles placed in his path, both repeated attempts by Brand to stop him, including claiming Oberon failed, that there is no Pattern and he must urgently draw one, and people in his path wanting to slow him down, stop him, etc.
In the end, his horse shot and killed, absolutely exhausted despite the continuing drawing of energy via the Jewel, Corwin arrives in sight of the skies above the Courts, but with forty miles to go. The only option left to him is to do what Brand proposed: to draw a Pattern. Corwin infuses his Pattern with his memories, in particular of Paris in 1905, when he was happy. He completes his task and collapses, exhausted. Brand trumps in, kicks him in the head and steals the Jewel. Now there is one more Pattern for him to destroy.

UK Edition

But Corwin can not only draw energy from his Pattern, he can also teleport himself from its centre, taking him to where he can overview the battle at the Courts. He can see armies directed by Benedict, Julian and Bleys, he can see his brothers and sisters in armour in their colours, though he can’t identify the knight in green.
Brand is trapped on the edge of the Abyss by this group, but he has a hostage, Deirdre, Corwin’s favourite sister and true love (we’ll not go there), whose throat he threatens to slit. Corwin, unseen, gets close enough to turn the Jewel against him, but loses control when Brand slashes Deirdre’s face. The distraction enables Deirdre to create a clear shot, which is taken by the knight in green, who shoots Brand in the chest with a silver arrow. Brand falls into the abyss, with the Jewel, but his clutching hand grabs Deirdre’s hair, and he drags her with him.
The knight in green turns out to be Caine. His ‘death’ was a cover: he killed a near-Shadow version of himself to go underground, trying to locate the threat to Amber. It was he who stabbed Corwin, being then convinced he was working with Brand.
The battle is over and Amber has won, but the chaos-wave that has spread through the former Shadows on Oberon’s death (like the Anti-Monitor’s antimatter wave in Crisis on Infinite Earths, and who’s to say Wolfman and Perez weren’t inspired by this) and threatens to sweep over everyone. It’s progress halts to allow the passage of Oberon’s funeral cortege, for interment in the Courts, where he was born.
No sooner is it gone when the Unicorn rises from the abyss, with the Jewel of Judgement on its Horn… She delivers it to the new King, the youngest brother, Random.
An absolutely exhausted Corwin enables Random to attune himself to the Jewel, and watches as the new King causes the storm to flow around, not over them. Shadow lies behind it: Oberon successfully repaired the Pattern and Amber has survived. Only now there are two Patterns…
Corwin is introduced to the young, dark-haired man he briefly encountered at the Courts in Oberon, who let him leave unscathed. This is Merlin, raised and trained to be King in Amber once the city was reduced. Like his father he does not want to be King but rather to explore Shadow. His mother is Dara. His father is Corwin. With nothing more pressing to do, Corwin starts to tell him a story starting in a private hospital after a car accident.
The final chapter has Corwin considering his family, both dead and alive: who they were, what they are, those who have changed, those who have not. He and Merlin rise to ride into the Courts of Chaos.

US Edition

So the sequence was over. It had been a big and popular success for Zelazny and transformed his career. There was every reason why it should have: Amber/Chaos and the infinitely mutable Shadows between is a major conception, allowing unending variety. It fascinated me forty-odd years ago, enough to overlook what are now obvious glaring flaws to the modern me. Nor has the series fared well in face of the changing nature of the best fantasy fiction now (I have to say the best as I don’t read anywhere near enough to generalise). It did the kind of things fantasy did then, and did it mostly energetically, and it’s not like Zelazny was unique in cutting the legs from under his creation by being unable to go the whole hog and write clear medieval High Fantasy instead of stuffing in scientific and mundane earthly material.
The Courts is, as I’ve already said, about Corwin’s extended ride to the battle and the dramatic conclusion. The initial, set-up chapters come over as the product of an author itching to get at the good stuff. The opening chapter, replaying the Corwin/Benedict swordfight in Tir Na Nog’th, serves to introduce Dara to Amber (with one final revisionist twist as she’s now a quasi-ally, trusted by Oberon) but is otherwise otiose. It’s easy to understand the chain of manipulation that retrieves the mechanical arm, gets it to Benedict and he to the point where it’s the only effective weapon, though it requires some incredibly precise and in places highly implausible foreseeing of causality, but the point of then removing so highly effective a device is lost on me.
Similarly, since Dara and Corwin’s son Merlin is being groomed to rule in Amber, and Oberon has determined on Corwin as the interim King, it’s easy to construct a rationale for she who said, “Amber will be destroyed” at least semi-swapping sides. Though this introduces an unresolvable contradiction given that if Oberon is so foresighted as to set up the mechanical arm, howcum he can’t tell that Corwin no longer wants the throne?
No matter: their last conversation is only there to set up the scheme for the rest of the book. The actual hellride aspect is comparatively brief, all sentence fragments and geographical/ meteorological changes with oneirological logic, no different from any other hellride we’ve already read and as boring as all of them except maybe the first, and then we have a long long ride with obstacles.
Apart from Brand’s attacks, Zelazny populates the obstacles with scenes drawn from various mythologies: Irish, Arthurian, Norse, undercutting the potential power of each with flip, cynical responses from our narrator. There’s an argument to say that long journeys are irrelevant when the only thing that matters is the point of arrival. That’s far from being always true – Genly Ai and Estraven in The Left Hand of Darkness springs vividly to mind – but the only significance to this journey is that it exhausts Corwin to the point where he cannot go further. The actual incidents are largely meaningless and most could be swapped for other scenes without any practical difference, but in their defence they lead to the book’s best – indeed, the series’ best – chapter, the inscribing of a new Pattern. This is powerful, intense and yet meditative, and for once the largely Earth-oriented imagery of Paris 1905, in the golden days before the Great War, romantic rather than mundane, lends the piece a very distinct flavour.
It is, of course, Corwin’s finest moment, an inevitable step, and one that I believe was nowhere near Zelazny’s mind before the conclusion of Avalon.
After that, the victory over the Courts could easily have been an anticlimax so full credit to Zelazny for making sure it was not. Brand’s death coming from elsewhere in the family was a skilful extension of the Frodo-esque ending of Corwin’s ride, and the death of Deirdre, with whom Corwin was in love, full-sister or no full-sister is intended to demonstrate the devastation Brand has caused, and to give our hero something he loses.
For me, that falls a little flat in its impact. Corwin’s told us, often enough, of his feelings for Deirdre (though nothing of her feelings towards him), but the Prince in Amber’s innate cynicism and aversion to sentimentalism of any kind, spelt out often enough, makes every such moment so brief as to be prime Tell-not-Show and we see far too little of Deirdre to form any real idea of her as a person to be liked, respected or loved (ok, we discover she fights with an axe), so we cannot feel at her loss the way we ought to and Zelazny wants us to.
Two final things: the decision of the Unicorn to select Random, the runt of the litter, the youngest of the Princes, may have been intended to be a surprise, but Zelazny has done so much building up of him as a right-hand man in the last three books that he becomes the only sane choice.
And the choice of Merlin, as the person to whom Corwin relates the books we’ve been reading, becomes only logical and correct by the time we get to this point but, pointing this out for the last time, I would swear that this is not who Zelazny intended as the auctor throughout the first two books, nor victory and survival the setting for the telling of this tale.
So that’s the First Chronicle, the Corwin Cycle. After a short interlude, to discuss philosophy and the development of a writer’s career, we shall turn to the Second Chronicles, the Merlin Cycle.

Roger Zelazny: Patterns in Amber


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).

One Prince in Amber

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…

Benedict of Amber

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.

Prince Julian of Amber – has never heard of Department Stores

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.

The Pattern

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.

Merlin of Amber and Chaos

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.

Roger Zelazny