In response to Kevin Cheek on The Guns of Avalon, I said I didn’t think I’d read any of Zelazny’s novels after the second Amber cycle was completed, but on checking his bibliography I’m about seventy percent certain I read A Night in the Lonesome October (and thought it weak and dull).
Likewise, I’d have sworn I never got to read any of the handful of short stories written to bridge the gap between the second and the never-written Third Chronicles, but on coming to these at last, in the recently published Seven Stories in Amber slim volume, I do recall reading ‘Blue Horse, Dancing Mountains’. At least, I remember the ending, though I had no idea of its context. At least I know where it takes place now.
The volume begins with the original Prologue to Trumps of Doom, which appeared only in the US Hardback. It’s the only story written in the third person, a very short affair, less than three pages long. No-one is named, no context is given and before any of the Merlin Chronicles begin, it’s completely obscure and indecipherable. In fact, it’s Merlin’s passage through the Logrus, a very much more physical process than that of the Pattern.
Next up is an odd fragment that’s an ad hoc, long-term, directionless collaboration between Zelazny and Ed Greenwood, written on bookmarks at various conventions etc. It’s a mystery with no solution because it was being made up on the spur of the moment and Zelazny died in 1995. It involves Corwin and a mysterious attack by a mysterious person when Corwin seems to be guarding a mysterious something: you get the point. It’s an in-joke, a private indulgence between Greenwood and his hero, whose only genuine significance is in Greenwood being the only person to write Amber fiction with Zelazny’s approval
The other five stories form the meat of the matter. They’re simultaneously fascinating and frustrating: frustrating on two levels in fact.
All five pieces are first person, related respectively by Luke, Corwin, Merlin, Frakir and Corwin again. All follow on from the Second Chronicles. All, in varying degrees of directness and indirectness, are devoted to filling in plot-holes and omissions from the Merlin cycle. That accounts for the fascination, on a sort of, “Ah-hah, that’s what happened” basis and the primary level of frustration in that it just increases your annoyance at Zelazny leaving so many sloppy holes in the first place.
In rough order: the real Luke picks up from where he was abandoned at the Primal Pattern, goes on the run through Shadow, trumps to Amber for Vialle’s further protection, contacts the distant Delwin but fails to convince him to talk about spikards, and is asked to wait for Corwin’s return and team up with him.
Corwin’s riding home from Chaos when he observes a bizarre chess game between Dworkin and Suhuy and overhears discussion of a shortly forthcoming combat between ancient powers that pre-date Amber and Chaos, prompting him to hellride.
Merlin shags the vampire Rhanda but is attacked by an ancient monster called a guisel, out of a mirror.
Frakir unties herself from the bedpost and transfers herself to Flora, who is assailed by an unknown peeping tom magician who travels through mirrors, requiring Luke’s assistance with Brand’s blade, Werewindle. Frakir winds up with him.
And Corwin returns to Amber, wanders in without anyone recognising him, meets Luke (but none of his other relatives), the two take a walk down the Hall of Mirrors, encountering several relatives with cryptic comments, and find themselves forced into a duel to the death by hooded figures who turn out to be Fiona and Mandor: they escape by allowing themselves to strike each other and find themselves back in Amber, undergoing medical treatment from Flora, who theorises that, along with the two Patterns and the Logrus, Castle Amber seems to be starting to take a hand…
You see what I mean about how, across this quintet, Zelazny addresses the principal points I picked out about the Merlin Cycle where things just get forgotten and left as dangling threads he either couldn’t resolve or didn’t care about. As such, they’re satisfying and frustrating both. It’s nice to have answers but that doesn’t absolve Zelazny from leaving the holes in the first place. And given that these five stories were written between three and five years after Prince of Chaos, I take them to be afterthoughts.
Yes, they’re good afterthoughts, though to be honest I find it hard to distinguish between the various first person voices, with Luke winning out by a head in individuality (and he my least favourite of all the major characters in the Merlin Cycle). But what is most frustrating about them as a whole is that Zelazny uses them to build a superstructure for what would have been the inevitable Third Chronicles.
There is an increased emphasis on the spikards as powers developed before Amber or Chaos existed, that they were used heavily in shaping Amber and the shadows, that there were eleven of them, of which at least two have mutated into other forms – those of Luke’s Werewindle and Corwin’s Greyswandir – and that the seemingly inutile Delwin, introduced and self-exiled at once, is a master of spikards and, it is implied, in some way their guardian.
From this we take the spikards to be the ancient powers referred to in Dworkin and Suhuy’s conversation, which is so oddly revelatory that it seems probable it was for the benefit of the eavesdropping Corwin.
We’re also clued in variously that Dara and Mandor aren’t taking their failure to control Merlin lying down, that Jurt hasn’t given up his desire for the throne of Chaos, that Julia hasn’t really forgiven and forgotten with Merlin, that there’s a sorceror who lives in mirrors and who fancies Flora and that Mandor and Fiona are working together and probably not for anyone’s good but theirs (pity, I’d rather gotten to like Fiona, despite her name, and I’ve always been a sucker for redheads).
And we’re given pretty heavy indications that something big is building up, something with the potential to completely undo the Amber/Shadow/Chaos Universe we know.
It all makes for a Third Cycle with epic scope and the probability of being far far better than the Second Cycle. And Roger Zelazny died of cancer in 1995 so the only place we can read that Third Cycle is either on Earth-2, or in Lucien’s Library in the Dreaming, neither of which are accessible at this time.
The question of whether Zelazny could have made a good job of it must also, however reluctantly, be addressed. We saw the disintegration of his writing during the Merlin Cycle and, from the start of that Cycle in 1986, he wrote only two other solo novels, one during, one after. In contrast, during that same period he wrote seven collaborations with four different writers, discounting the posthumously published Alfred Bester Psychoshop and two incomplete books finished off by Jane Lindskold. The evidence is not convincing.
Obviously, Amber would be and is what Roger Zelazny is remembered for. It’s the most ambitious and wide-ranging of all its works but, from another perspective, it broke his career. The First Chronicles were excellent fantasy of its time but the field has moved on since then and Amber hasn’t. The Second Chronicles were sloppy and meandering, easy work of guaranteed popularity that required relatively little effort. The Third, full of potential to rectify the situation, were never written, and can only be regarded as a potential great shame.
It’s been an interesting experiment to re-read the series, but not, I think, one I’ll repeat and I doubt I shall retain the books. Nor do I think, after Wolfe, Lafferty and this, that I want to review another series too soon. I have some individual reviews awaiting posting.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I was at the Dermatology Clinic the other day, concerning a mole on my right cheek that I wanted a) to confirm was not a melanoma and b) to get shot of. It’s duly been confirmed that it is only a mole and my right cheek is currently stinging where it’s been blasted with liquid nitrogen so that, over the next few days, it will turn black and drop off. Lovely, can’t wait.
What amused me was that initially I was expecting to be seen by a Doctor Zelazny, the amusement coming from the fact that for many years, my favourite writer was Roger Zelazny, the American writer of SF and Fantasy who died in 1995 of cancer.
I discovered Zelazny in 1974 or thereabouts, in the wake of first reading Lord of the Rings and searching for similar experiences. I’d lately started visiting Manchester’s Central Reference Library, whose General Fiction was far, far bigger than Didsbury and Burnage Libraries put together and multiplied.
My eye was caught by the ornate lettering and exquisite Patrick Woodruffe cover painting on a book called The Guns of Avalon, which turned out to be the sequel to something called Nine Princes in Amber. From internal evidence, the books appeared to be the basis of a trilogy, a first person narration to an unidentified listener as the central character, Corwin, Prince of Amber, faced seeming death and destruction.
I fell for Zelazny’s style immediately. It was fresh and smart, lean and hungry, a mixture of poetic intensity and Chandlerian cynicism, though I was years away from reading Raymond Chandler and identifying that influence.
I made it my business to get Nine Princes in Amber (which surprised me by being a less interesting book), and from there everything of Zelazny’s that I could find, until I had read practically everything bar a handful of uncollected short stories. But though I remained a fan for almost twenty years, by the time of Zelazny’s death I had begun clearing out the more minor books from his career, and going on to remove practically everything but the Amber Chronicles, and even those went eventually, not too many years after he passed on.
Sometimes, I muse about acquiring some of them again, but not for long, not unless I come into enough money for unlimited acquisition and (even more important) shelf-space. Despite the regard in which he was, and in many people’s eyes is still held, I came to recognise flaws in his work, central and ineradicable flaws that, as such things do, once seen spread backwards, infecting work I’d previously loved unconditionally.
The Amber series – or rather Chronicles – would eventually run to five books, though it’s clear from reading them that Zelazny underwent a massive change of plans between The Guns of Avalon and its successor, Sign of the Unicorn, and that the person eventually identified as Prince Corwin’s auditor is not who Zelazny had in mind during the first two books.
Amber is what defined Roger Zelazny’s career as a writer and which defines his reputation. It took over popular imagination, leading to two well-received Sourcebooks, with which Zelazny collaborated, and to a Second, and less successful Chronicles, which again ran to five books. At the time of his death, Zelazny was engaged in writing a succession of linked Amber short-stories (one, in collaboration, unfinished) intended to lead to a collection that would, presumably, have led to a Third and final Chronicles.
Amber is what dominates any consideration of Roger Zelazny, whose career started in the very early Sixties and who was speedily recognised as a writer of distinctive, well-formed, imaginative SF and Fantasy. Such recognition, which enabled him to become a full-time writer by 1969, was celebrated. I, as one who has been under the spell and who was as avid a fan as any for a good fifteen years at least, hold the contrary opinion that these two factors are directly responsible for his failure to realise his considerable potential as a writer.
To illustrate this, let me analyse the First Amber Chronicles. As I said, I came to this after reading its sequel so the gradual uncovering of the true situation was rather spoilt for me. It starts with an unknown man waking up in a private nursing home, aware of three things: that he has recovered uncannily quickly from a very bad road accident, that he is being kept over-sedated… and that he has absolutely no idea of who he is or where he is from.
The first half of the book consists of Corwin playing a deep game as he tries to recover his memories. He meets two of his siblings, sister Flora and brother Random, and instinctively keeps from them both his vulnerability. He also finds a very unusual set of Tarot cards, cold to the touch, in which the Greater Trumps have been replaced by portraits that he recognised instantly: they are of his family. His father, Oberon, nine brothers (including himself) and four sisters (there is passing mention of other siblings who have died but the numbers are inconsistent with the parties Zelazny goes on to establish, which supports my belief that his original plans were discarded after Avalon).
Eventually, after being led on a strange journey through shifting realities – the first introduction of Shadows – to within sight of Amber itself, Corwin has to admit to Random just how clueless he is. This leads to his first walk through a replica of the Pattern, a mysterious, massive geometric shape that, when walked by someone of the Royal blood of Amber, enables them to walk through Shadow, mentally shaping – or perhaps creating – it to their desire as to where they want to be.
This is Zelazny’s cosmology for the series: that Amber is the only True Reality, casting Shadow in every multi-dimensional direction, until the furthest and most fractured Shadow leads to its opposite pole, the Courts of Chaos, which neither Corwin nor Zelazny understand at this point.
Walking the Pattern restores Corwin’s memories, especially with reference to his place in the succession, which he describes as himself being first in line. Ahead of him in seniority are Benedict, Master of Arms of Amber, a military genius, who is disqualified by both illegitimacy and disinterest, and Corwin’s full-brother Eric, also illegitimate: Corwin and Eric loathe each other.
But Oberon has disappeared. Eric rules Amber as Regent, with the support of Julian and Caine: Bleys plans an attack, with the support of his full-siblings Fiona and Brand, though the latter is missing. For the second phase of the book, Corwin throws in with Bleys and seconds his overwhelming but ultimately doomed invasion of Amber, which gets into the streets around the Castle before ending, with Bleys missing, believed dead, in a fall from the mountain, and Corwin captured.
Corwin is forced to witness Eric’s coronation before his eyes are burned out and he is imprisoned in the dungeons.
Which is where Zelazny pulls his first serious rabbit out of a hat. Corwin’s more-than-human powers of recovery, which stem from being of the Royal Blood of Amber, enable him after several years to regrow his eyeballs. And the influence of the family’s mad scientist, Dworkin, enables him to escape his dungeon by walking through the wall.
Literally. Dworkin is the creator of the Trumps I mentioned above. These are more than cards: they are a means of psychically connecting the person portrayed, and of instantly travelling across Shadow to them. Dworkin has been imprisoned by Oberon due to his madness. One day, curious as to what is on the other side of his wall, Dworkin walks through it into Corwin’s cell (this is left behind as a serious anomaly when Zelazny rethinks his game as Dworkin’s actual cell is nowhere near the dungeons and, indeed, isn’t even on the same level of reality as them).
Dworkin sketches a Trump on the wall to go back to his comfy cell but, before leaving, sketches one of a prominent place a long way from Amber, that Corwin uses to escape. He vows to return to Amber and conquer it, bringing guns with him to do so. But before he departs, he learns that Amber faces danger, from a Black Road cutting through Shadow, along which fell things travel. The Black Road has been opened by Corwin’s curse…
Three years passed before The Guns of Avalon was published, which I take to indicate that Zelazny was not invested in Corwin as a series character with a plotted story to be explored in sequential books. In fact, I rather get the impression that he was playing things by ear, with no overall plan, and with a fairly loose ending in mind, and no clear picture of whom it would eventuate that Corwin was addressing.
Like it’s predecessor, Avalon covers a lengthy period of time, and basically falls into three phases. Corwin is walking through Shadow to find a Shadow of a place he created/discovered centuries ago, an idealised land named Avalon, which contains a kind of jeweller’s rouge that, unlike conventional munitions, burns in Amber. This he will use to bring automatic weapons to the True Reality.
In the first half of the book, he is distracted to the land of Lorraine, itself a distant Shadow of Avalon, which has collapsed into Chaos. Lorraine is under siege from a Dark Circle, the manifestation of Corwin’s curse here. Feeling under obligation, Corwin stays to aid the fight, though his name is an anathema here, and Lorraine’s war leader is a man called Ganelon, who is an exile from Avalon, stranded here by Corwin for betrayal.
With Corwin’s aid, the Dark Circle is defeated, but the revelation of his true identity leaves him despised by all of Lorraine, save Ganelon, who asks to accompany Corwin in the hope of seeing Amber for himself. This takes the book on to the Shadow-of-a-Shadow Avalon, which has recently overcome its own equivalent of the Dark Circle, due to the work of it’s Protector, Benedict, clearing up after a little brother.
Corwin is welcome to stay, though he has to be anonymous again, given his reputation, and he’s not to do any war-preparations. Naturally, he ignores this latter stipulation. He also encounters Benedict’s hitherto undisclosed daughter, Dara, and ends up seducing her: once by revealing to her her unsuspected heritage as an Amberite, and the other in the obvious manner. Though it will turn out that, whilst Dara’s relationship to Benedict is real (albeit as great-granddaughter), Corwin only has her word for it: Benedict knows nothing of her.
The final phase is also brief. Corwin’s gun-equipped army arrives in Amber only to find it already under attack from the Black Road. He makes an instant decision to switch plans, to side with and rescue Amber, which rebounds to his advantage: Eric is mortally wounded in the victory, leaving Corwin as Regent. The book’s climax comes with Dara riding through the battle, to reach and walk the Pattern and claim her heritage. At which point she reveals herself as an enemy, intent on Amber’s destruction.
Thus far, I’ve gone into a lot of detail as to the progress of the series, whereas I intend to say very much less about the three books that will follow. I’ve done this to give you an idea about the nature of these books. They’re an adventure fantasy, centring upon a dysfunctional family of quasi-superhumans, engaged in squabbling over the throne of an idealised fantasy realm. The rest of the series is radically different.
Once again,it was three years, with other, unrelated novels appearing in the interim, before the third book was published. Like most other Zelazny fans, I anticipated ‘more of the same, only different’, and a concluding episode to a trilogy.
Instead, Sign of the Unicorn was a retrogressive book, composed primarily of lengthy flashbacks, related by different characters, filling in back-stories relating to events that had already passed in the first two books. For instance: in Nine Princes, Random appears out of nowhere, pursued by strange, non-human creatures out to kill him. Sign of the Unicorn‘s first step is to have the youngest Prince explain why, which turns out to relate to a swathe of backstory of which Corwin – who began the series as an amnesiac, remember – is unaware.
It’s a logical step when the leading character has been out of it for so long, but it slows the pace of the story to a crawl, especially as each of these fill-ins are necessarily about closed incidents whose outcome has already been reached. By the end of Unicorn – which ends upon a massive, yet entirely philosophical cliffhanger – the story has barely advanced a whit.
But it’s gotten deeper, and more convoluted. In a way, that’s entirely fitting, but the complete contrast between this and the two preceding books can be explained in only two ways: a complete and inept amateurism on Zelazny’s part, or else the belated realisation, two books into a loosely plotted adventure, that he had created something of greater depth and complexity than he had first imagined, requiring a resetting of the story to encompass the larger concerns he had evolved.
And Zelazny was not an amateur.
As I said, I’m not going to break the story down into the sort of detail I’ve already employed. The action is more metaphysical than actual, and Zelazny’s shifted concerns introduce motifs in his writing that will come to dominate his entire work, and not for the good.
The underlying point has always been that Amber is real, the only reality, and that it casts Shadows. We will learn that the hitherto somewhat nebulous Courts of Chaos are the opposite point and that Shadow is created by that opposition between form and not-form. Corwin has already introduced, and dismissed the question of whether Shadow exists in itself or is created by an Amberite pulling together the parts of his or her desire and creating the perfect context for it. This has made for a couple of extended, but relevant scenes where Corwin travels through Shadow, mentally adding and subtracting elements to achieve the state/land he is seeking. But from Unicorn onwards, the journeys begin to increase, and Zelazny’s own fascination with the process overwhelms him. More journeys, faster journeys (known as ‘hellrides’), diminishing returns as page after page pulls apart and remakes the world, a piece at a time. These scenes multiply, filling up space without advancement of the story.
In contrast, and perhaps in compensation, Zelazny develops an enthusiasm for extended fight scenes in which every kick, punch, hold and throw is described in meticulous, step-by-step detail that very rapidly becomes tedious, and which has the spectacularly ironic effect of making it harder to visualise what the hell is going on. The reader’s autonomy of imagination is debarred.
As for the third, I shall for the moment simply refer to an incident where a minor character appears, for the only time, to illuminate Corwin with yet another tale-twisting backstory, before dropping out with the words, “It is as if I were one of those minor characters in a melodrama who gets shuffled offstage without ever learning how things turn out.”
Cute. Smart. Self-referential. A nod to the reader, signalling that they’re as smart as Zelazny. A tip of the hat to the fact that this is only a story, after all, it’s not like it means anything. I’ll return to this point in the next book. Sign of the Unicorn ends with a metaphysical cliffhanger, as Corwin, with Ganelon and Random, finds himself traveling through Shadow, in Amber where there is no Shadow to travel through, and finding the Pattern, not where it should be, in the deepest dungeons beneath the Castle, but in the open air, in a strange land. But this is the Primal Pattern, of which Amber itself is but the first Shadow. This is the most fundamental Reality of them all.
Effectively, the last three books were a mega-novel, their ‘action’ reading through continuously, their endings cliffhangers of sorts. The Hand of Oberon gave itself away in its title, immediately revealing that King Oberon was neither dead nor missing, but that he, under another name, had been in the story for a good long while, directing things from a position of anonymity. It was so damned obvious who he had to be that, upon buying the import paperback, I uncharacteristically turned to the last page to confirm the truth, before reading a word of it.
This book was a little more proactive about advancing the story but it was still very much a direct continuation of Unicorn. There were further and bigger chunks of what everybody had been doing to create the current crisis whilst Corwin had been peacefully amnesiac on that Shadow Earth, only this time most of the ‘truths’ revealed in Unicorn were overturned as lies, leading to the identification of Prince Brand as the traitor of the family, working in close concert with the Courts.
As far as the underlying tale was concerned, we learned that Dworkin, formerly of the Courts, had fled them in time immemorial and, by using the Jewel of Judgement, within which the Pattern was contained, had burned the Primal Pattern and thus created Form Order and Amber. He’d then shagged a Unicorn, which gave birth to Oberon, which was a twist nobody had seen coming. The problem was that the Pattern – and Reality – could be erased by spilling family blood on it, which Brand had done using Random’s hitherto undisclosed son, Martin (yay for me!).
That was what had caused the Black Road (so it wasn’t Corwin’s fault after all, and so much for his curse and Zelazny’s ideas in Nine Princes.) Though Dworkin wanted to destroy the Primal Pattern and start again with a new one, it is possible to redraw the existing Pattern if someone attuned to the Jewel of Judgement walks it, recreating the missing areas. And Corwin is the only one attuned to the Jewel. Except for the missing-or-dead Oberon…
Let’s wind back a little. I referred above to Zelazny’s style being a fruitful combination of poetic intensity and Chandlerian cynicism. It was a vital element in the snappiness of his prose, but it contained desperate risks for a writer.
I discovered Zelazny and Amber at the time when I was first enthused with SF and Fantasy, when my concentration was at its most intense and thorough. I owed my introduction to Tolkien, who was specifically invoking European folklore and myth, and the more I read, the more I understood that there was a clear and present distinction between writers who were linked in one manner or another to mythic roots, and the more purely American writers, who lacked that underpinning, and who to one extent or another produced fantasy-with-feet-of-clay, a fantasy that, due to a degree of fear of being too serious, of reaching too deep, had to be undercut by a degree of bathetic realism.
This tendency was an ever present risk in Zelazny’s style, but he had thus far kept it well in balance. But there was that moment of self-referentiality in Unicorn, and there was something far worse in Oberon.
Corwin, Prince of Amber, is riding on horseback, on an urgent mission in Shadow. He needs to get a good distance from Amber itself before there is any Shadow stuff to work with. Unfortunately, his path lies through the Forest of Arden and that is the hunting preserve of his brother Julian. The Princes mutually loathe one another, and Julian was a key part of the triumvirate headed by Eric.
Corwin finds himself pursued by a manticore and needs Julian’s aid to escape from it, at the cost of being captured by his brother’s forces. The Princes circle each other verbally, Julian offering more background information that resets Corwin’s understanding of the politics underlying the ongoing campaign. As a result, these two puissant Princes, in the midst of a wild Forest of Arthurian legend, come to an understanding of and a reconciliation with each other.
Then Julian asks, out of interest, how Corwin escaped the dungeons below Amber. Corwin, Prince of Amber, this super-medieval fantasy, answers, “Does Macy’s tell Gimbel’s?”
Clunk. Clunk of the most clunky of tin ear moments, feet-of-clay to the armpits. It is an atrocious moment of writing, an incalculable blunder of style and tone. It didn’t even work as a gag then, and each time I read it, it chipped another layer of believability off the whole series, until I eventually came to get bored with it.
That alone would have been enough, but it was accompanied by another, and heavier moment of self-referentiality, when Corwin encounters a dungeon guard, lean, cadaverous, smoking a pipe, writing a philosophical book shot through with elements of horror, there in the dark. His name is Roger, last name ungiven but obvious.
Zelazny’s growing understanding of just what he had created in Amber meant that the series had to become higher of purpose and more serious of tine. Yet he felt the increasing need, the American instinct to cut down fantasy whenever it gets too close to any mythical roots, by such clumsy, mood-destroying efforts.
And after complaining, one book ago, that he was nothing but “(a) minor character in a melodrama who gets shuffled offstage without ever learning how things turn out,” Bill Roth is back in Oberon to undercut that dubious meme and earn himself a trip to Amber to see at first hand how things “turn out”.
All of which set up the concluding, and shortest book of the First Chronicles, The Courts of Chaos. I read this first in three instalments, published in Galaxy SF magazine. There is an initial and final rewrap scene to dispose of a blatantly deus ex machina tool, before Corwin learns that Oberon is to try to repair the Primal Pattern, knowing that succeed or fail, it will cost his life: Corwin is to be his successor.
But having started the series with that as his goal, Corwin has now grown up. The Throne is no longer the prize in his sibling rivalry with Eric, just an administrative ball-ache to a traveling man.
Either way, his part in the final book is to carry out a hellride, an extended hellride that fills over half the book, to get from Amber to the Courts the hard way, and to bring the Jewel of Judgement to the battlefield, where Benedict is masterminding a direct attack of all Amber’s forces. Once Oberon is finished, one way or another, Shadow will cease to exist until… well, something asserts itself. Corwin must get as far as possible, then manage the rest.
It’s a greatly long hellride, right up Zelazny’s street, except that by itself it’s a redundancy. It’s a great, long sequence of irrelevant adventures that, whether they are interesting in themselves or not, only serve to postpone the moment when we get to the battlefield and the story itself can finally approach resolution. There is only one thing on this extended hiatus that is of significance, and when it arrives, it is a moment of great seriousness, and probably the best thing in this continuing sequence of three continual books.
All along his journey, Corwin is under attack from Brand, trying to get hold of the Jewel of Judgement. He taunts Corwin, claiming that Oberon has failed, that the Pattern has been destroyed. A great wave of dissolution sweeps outwards, passing over Corwin. Eventually, near the end of his endurance, on foot, near to the Courts but too far away, Corwin has to act. Reality can only exist if there is a Pattern. So Corwin draws a new one, using the Jewel and his DNA and memories of April blossoms in Paris. He creates a new Pattern, unknowing whether this is an alternate Reality, or the only one that exists…
From there, we sweep on to the battlefield. Amber wins. Oberon succeeded. Brand dies, though he takes with him Corwin’s favourite sister (favourite in a non-sororial manner…), Deirdre. The Unicorn’s judgement selects Random as the new King. Corwin attunes him to the Jewel, which he uses to preserve everyone from the storm of Unreality. Whilst Corwin sits down and tells his whole story, right from Nine Princes onwards, to a young man of the Courts, named Merlin. He is Dara’s son. By Corwin.
It is neither the setting nor the listener that Zelazny projected, eight years earlier, as a simple comparison with those offhand hints will confirm, but it was how he chose to write himself out of his self-created hole.
What was disconcerting was that Zelazny’s first novel after the Amber series ended, Roadmarks, may well have been experimental, but its central concept of a road stretching between realities, was uncomfortably close to the hellrides the writer had taken so much time over. And the similarities went on, the more he wrote.
Amber had become Zelazny’s signature, even more so than his penchant for investing a variety of pantheons in his work. Lord of Light, a Hugo Award winner that reads like a grandiose Jack Kirby comic, postulated a planet dominated by scientifically advanced colonists who position themselves as Gods from the Hindu pantheon. The highly experimental Creatures of Light and Darkness adopted the Egyptian pantheon.
This wouldn’t end, but the acclaim Zelazny had for Amber, and its popularity among fans, tended his writing towards easier fantasies, with less complex situations. After all, the Royal House of Amber may not have been actual Gods, but they had established themselves as such in many Shadows.
Worst of all, it exacerbated Zelazny’s tendency to undercut any genuine mythic resonance to what source he’d chosen, a repetitive tendency that now began to make his writing stale. Remember too that he had been acclaimed very early, that he had not had to struggle in the face of editorial and critical disapproval. I think he lacked the will to turn work into work, to make things hard for himself, to break out of tropes that came easily to him.
There was a moment, a final moment, a 1982 novel, Eye of Cat. Once again, Zelazny evoked a pantheon, this time the Gods of the Navajo, but this time the book was a spare, lean, deeply effective tale that showed one final effort to put effort into his writing. But the decision to go for a Second Amber series, which would enable him to coast along effortlessly, saw the effective end of his career as a creative writer.
First came The Illustrated Guide to Castle Amber, the first of two sourcebooks, for which Zelazny supplied a lot of background information, especially on the two deceased brother Princes, Osric and Finndo (elder full brothers of Benedict) who had designs upon the Throne and who therefore found themselves dying gloriously, ‘for the good of Amber’ in a far distant war.
Much of the Second Chronicles was reminiscent of that volume in the manner that Zelazny spread the Amber Universe far and wide.
Where the First Chronicles was Corwin explaining himself at extreme length to his son, Merlin, the Second was Merlin explaining himself at the same length to a person unknown. Given that Merlin mentions more than once that Corwin, after delivering himself of his story, rode into the Courts of Chaos and almost immediately disappeared, it should come as no surprise if I reveal that Merlin is filling his dear old, newly-released-from-imprisonment Dad in on developments (and hang the diminution of Corwin in the process).
To be frank, I remember very little of the Second Chronicles, save for its ending, which involves another change of Monarch, with Merlin inheriting the throne of the Courts of Chaos. His story lacks the spinal story of Corwin’s Chronicles, and is constantly switching from place to place, phase to phase, with little consistency. Zelazny goes to town during the five books on adding new members of the Amber Royal Family, not merely sons (no daughters) of various of the (no longer) Nine Princes, but additional sons and daughters of Oberon, who were unaccountably overlooked during the First Chronicles.
There’s also an obsession with introducing new magical weapons that, in one form or another, equate to introducing computer systems into the fabric of Amber.
The overall effect is to spread the story sideways, instead of vertically, leading to a gradual diminution of the importance of each character: never mind the quality, feel the width.
It surprised and disappointed me that Zelazny more or less ducked the issue of the Second Pattern, and what might lie beyond it. It was the most obvious anomaly from the First Chronicles, in the way that Bilbo’s Magic Ring was the obvious thing on which to build a sequel. Zelazny preferred to leave this to one side, despite establishing that Merlin is able to walk the Second Pattern, where others of Amber face resistance from it.
What he did do was to establish that the Pattern, and its three-dimensional Courts of Chaos equivalent, the Logrus, are sentient entities operating in direct rivalry to each other.
After the Second Chronicles, Corwin was back in town. He appeared in and out of a short series of short stories, meant to link the Second Chronicles to the Third, which no doubt would have featured Corwin and his Second Pattern, but Zelazny’s cancer – he was a lifelong cigarette and pipe-smoker – prevented that.
The last ten years or so of Zelazny’s career saw many undistinguished and lightweight books, several of them collaborations: three comic fairy-tales-with-feet-of-clay written with Robert Sheckley, two with Thomas T. Thomas and two with Fred Saberhagen. He contributed to George R R Martin’s Wild Cards anthologies, and he completed Alfred Bester’s Psychoshop though this did not appear until after Zelazny’s own death.
After Zelazny’s death, the extent to which Amber dominated his career was evidenced by the decision of his estate to authorise more Amber novels from John Gregory Betancourt. These feature Oberon in the Corwin role, and are set millennia earlier than Zelazny’s book, dealing with the process by which Oberon first created and became King of Amber. Unsurprisingly, he is surrounded by a very familiar set of brothers.
Though authorised by the family, many of Zelazny’s fellow writers spoke of how set he had been against anyone other than himself writing stories about Amber. Betancourt is a considerably less able writer than Zelazny, and the books read like a pale imitation, taking too much from the originals to have any merit of their own. Five were planned: four appeared. The last was wiped out by the publisher’s bankruptcy: there has been no discernible clamour for the story to be completed.
If they miraculously turned up in the library, I’d re-read the First Chronicles happily, but to buy them would be to spend money on a book I have no intention of retaining, and I never buy books without expecting to want to re-read them. I have never read the short stories, which have been collected at least twice, in books published only in America. But without a Third Chronicles, they are only a phantom limb.
Once again, I am reliant only on Lucien’s Library of Dream, or a visit to a bookshop on Earth-2, where Zelazny outlived his cancer by another decade, to read the books I would really have loved to see: the Third Chronicles of Amber, in which Corwin and Merlin team-up and walk Corwin’s Pattern, into a Universe that never existed in this world. I would read even a diminished Zelazny’s series. Instead, I dream of what might have been, when he was still full of fire, when poetic intensity and Chandlerian cynicism were still in balance.