The Chronicles of Amber
Nine Princes in Amber by Roger ZelaznyWhen I was in ninth grade, I joined the Science Fiction Book Club and got a four-book-for-a-dollar deal as part of the introductory offer. I picked The Chronicles of Amber because it had a cool cover and the two volume set counted as one book. At the time I had never heard of Roger Zelazny, but after racing through the two volume set, I would try and get my hands on everything he’d ever written. Yet even as I devoured his other works, I kept coming back to Amber. I’ve read the books a dozen times, listened to the audio version narrated by Zelazny, himself, played the RPG both in person and in an extended email version, composed my own stories imagining what would come next, and finally happily bought the e-book versions so I can continue to enjoy them again and again. This is one of the greatest adventure stories in science fiction and fantasy and it all starts here with Nine Princes in Amber. On the off chance that you don’t already know what’s coming, I don’t want to risk spoiling anything. Enjoy it like I did the first time—totally fresh and without any foreknowledge. You won’t regret it.
The Guns of AvalonIf Nine Princes in Amber is a “Who Am I?” story, The Guns of Avalon is more of a straight adventure piece. Having escaped from his imprisonment in Amber, Corwin sets out to claim the throne he believes should be his. So he journeys into shadow to raise his new army, but along the way he discovers the consequences of his curse and comes to regret the rashness which led him to inflict it on that which he loves. In other words, Corwin begins to grow up a little. The novel also introduces Benedict, the most fearsome and possibly the most intriguing of the princes and princesses of Amber and sets the stage for the exploration of familial dysfunctionality that is the next book. The only problem you’ll have with this novel (even after multiple readings) is that you won’t want to put it down.
The Sign of the UnicornIn the first two books of this series, the action was relatively straight forward. First Corwin is trying to discover who he is; second he is trying to conquer Amber. In The Sign of the Unicorn Corwin begins to learn just how little he truly understands of what has been going on in Amber since he began his lengthy sojourn on earth. This is a novel of intrigue and family politics and it begins to reshape Corwin’s view of his brother, Eric’s, short reign. Amber is threatened by a force King Oberon did not understanding and it quickly becomes apparent that it is Oberon’s children—the princes and princesses of Amber—who are responsible for the kingdom’s danger. This book will keep you spellbound as each new revelation forces you to reexamine what you—and Corwin—think you know about who actually has the best interests of Amber at heart. Two factions are vying for power and there’s nothing they won’t risk to get what they want.
The Hand of Oberon
In the fourth book, Corwin finally begins to uncover answers that look like they will hold up over time. Surviving conspirators from both factions put their spin on what has been happening and the reader finally has the opportunity to figure out who the traitor in the family really is—just before Zelazny himself reveals the traitor’s hand. Family members like Julian and Fiona who have been all too enigmatic to this point come out of the shadows, revealing motivations that make you reconsider who is a hero and who is a villain. The tension soars as the traitor acts and we take the penultimate step toward the end game that will decide whether the Pattern and the realm of Amber will survive or be destroyed.
The Courts of ChaosRoger Zelazny has always had a gift for poetic imagery and his extraordinary talents are on full display in The Courts of Chaos as Corwin hell-rides from one end of the sprawling multiverse of shadows to the other. It’s beautiful to read and he adeptly uses the journey to build tension and foreshadow the key elements of the conclusion of the series. When it finally becomes impossible for our hero to stay ahead of the wave of chaos coming out of Oberon’s possibly failed attempt to fix the Pattern, Zelazny gives us a glimpse of what it must have been like when Dworkin first inscribed the source of all order. From there, the pace of the story springs forward at lightning speed to the conclusion of the struggle among the princes and princesses of Amber. It would have been very easy for these final scenes to disappoint the reader. Anticipation for them had been building over five books and expectations were high. But Zelazny outdid himself and provides a totally satisfying conclusion as the children of Oberon finally mature enough to put their squabbles behind them and place their lives on the line for all of shadow. The final ending, on the horn of the unicorn, was the perfect outcome to a superior tale.
Seven Tales in Amber by Roger Zelazny
I am huge fan of Roger Zelazny, but this collection of short stories greatly disappointed me. The only one I truly liked was Prologue to Trumps of Doom. Most of the others felt like sections of the series that were properly edited out or efforts on Zelazny’s part to lay the groundwork for a new Amber series. I would have loved to read a third Amber series, but I found this collection of short stories to be a disappointing tease.
Other Zelazny Tales
Changeling by Roger Zelazny
Here’s a Zelazny novel where it’s not clear for several chapters which of the main characters is the hero and which the villain. An evil sorcerer is killed at the beginning of the book leaving his infant son alive behind him. The victors are reluctant to kill a baby but also terrified of leaving a child alive knowing he is the heir to great magical power and could reasonably be expected to seek vengeance on those who killed his parents. Their moral conundrum is resolved when the wizard who aided the victors agrees to exchange the child (Pol) with one (Mark) on another world creating not one, but two, changelings.
The next several chapters show both children not fitting into their new worlds. Pol is a wizard in a technological world whose untrained powers glitch technology, driving his engineer “father” crazy. Mark is a technological genius on a magical world—a world which thinks that technology is evil. Neither child is happy. Neither fits in. But it’s not until Mark is nearly killed by his neighbors, discovers an ancient teaching machine and still working factories, and vows vengeance on his assailants that the ancient wizard who exchanged the two kids decides it’s time to bring Pol back.
This sets up a battle between Pol and Mark, but it’s not a contest that the reader (or Pol for that matter) feels good about. The two should be friends and allies, but Mark is jealous and a bit paranoid and war between them becomes inevitable.
This is a fun novel—not one of Zelazny’s greats, but a very enjoyable story just the same.
Doorways in the Sand by Roger Zelazny
This is one of Zelazny’s weaker stories, but still contains that spark of style which Zelazny fans have come to love. Fred Cassidy is a professional student. In his will, his uncle Al provided him with full tuition and a generous stipend as long as he remains a full time undergraduate student. So thirteen years later, Fred is still in college, brilliantly managing his course load and shifting majors to prevent himself from ever graduating and Zelazny successfully portrays him as an intelligent, very well informed, thirtyish man.
The novel opens with the appearance that the major conflict will involve Fred and his new advisor—an annoying man whose goal in life appears to be to force Fred to graduate—but it quickly takes a turn for the bizarre involving a lost alien artifact and the many people—human and alien—struggling to get their hands on it. They repeatedly threaten, harm, and kidnap Fred out of their certainty that Fred has the artifact even though Fred clearly has no idea where it is.
So there are a couple of little mysteries which Zelazny has fun with before springing this twist or that, all of which is quite enjoyable. Unfortunately, the structure of the novel was unnecessarily confusing with each chapter starting somewhere in the future and then jumping back to tell the story in “real time”. After you figure out what’s going on, this structure changes from confusing to irritating. It’s not a useful foreshadowing, it’s just annoying.
All in all, this is a fun book with a lead
character firmly in the Zelanzy heroic mode. As always, there are interesting
ideas—this time mostly along the lines of what a diverse galactic civilization
might look like. Yet it never quite captures Zelazny’s usual magic and turn
into a great story.
Jack of Shadows by Roger ZelaznyThis is a quirky little novel about a man who draws tremendous magical power from shadow—a gift that makes him a natural thief. He starts the novel with a “bad” reputation which people he has not injured use to justify cruelty toward him—an action that leads to him being captured by an old enemy who goes on to take everything from him until Jack very cleverly escapes vowing ever more vengeance. The rest of the novel is about the vengeance and its consequences, but the underlying story (and it’s not particularly subtle, which surprised me in a Zelazny novel) is about what it takes to make a person human. This is a fun story. I’ve read it three or four times over the years and undoubtedly will again.
Zelazny won the Hugo for this novel and it’s easy to see why. Conrad (of the many names) is a fascinating man and the immortal of the title moving through a vividly and poetically depicted post-apocalyptic earth which is supported economically almost totally be alien tourists fascinated by earth’s history and the near destruction of the planet in the Three Day War. There is depth of thought regarding this future society evident in almost every page and yet never once did I have that experience of wondering, “Why is Zelazny telling me this now? Why can’t we get on with the story?”
The plot revolves around a rich Vegan who wants to write a travel guide to earth’s most important sightseeing spots starting with Egypt and the Great Pyramids. Conrad is an official in the government agency in charge of protecting the historical monuments. He doesn’t want to play tour guide especially after it becomes clear that some of the humans who attach themselves to the tour want to see the Vegan die before he leaves earth. They worry that the alien’s real purpose is to lay the groundwork for the Vegans to buy up the rest of the planet.
This is where Zelazny truly shows his depth because much of the plot revolves around a political terrorist group who have embraced the ideology of Returnism—wanting all humans to return to earth and make it an independent planet again. Conrad actually started this movement and led the terrorist cell in an earlier life, but came to a point where he believed that it was not capable of achieving the Returnist aim and set about instead exploring other paths. As with many diasporas, most humans don’t live on the planet anymore and the sad truth the Returnists don’t want to face is that second and third generation humans who have never seen earth don’t want to return there at all. Their lives are elsewhere now, but the fanatics can’t give up the dream and have become certain that killing this Vegan is the key to earth’s eventual independence.
To achieve their end they have hired a fascinating assassin named Hasan who, thanks to a quirky response to a longevity procedure, is also effectively immortal (at least he’s lived for a very long time as a young man). Conrad and he know each other well but now they are reluctantly on opposite sides of the Vegan problem.
As if this tension wasn’t enough, the post-apocalyptic earth is a very dangerous place with mutations giving rise to legends out of myth and other monsters. Over all, it’s just a delightful tale filled with Zelazny’s brush-stroke characterizations that hang in the mind years after you read the piece.
This time through I listened to an audio edition
narrated by Victor Bevine. At first I thought his slow rate of speech was going
to wreck the novel. (I never think of Zelazny’s books as slow moving.)
Fortunately, I quickly came to love the nuance with which he shared Zelazny’s
prose and brought his characters to life. Whether in print or in audio, this
book is worthy of its Hugo and well worth your time.