Thursday, August 26, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: The Guns of Avalon part II

Welcome to the second part of the Guns of Avalon review. The first post can be found here and an index of other Zelazny posts is here.

Be warned that this post also contains spoilers.


His Trump: Then there was Benedict, tall and dour, thin, thin of body, thin of face, wide of mind. He wore orange and yellow and brown and reminded me of haysticks and pumpkins and scarecrows and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. He had a long strong jaw and hazel eyes and brown hair that never curled. He stood beside a tan horse and leaned upon a lance about which was twined a rope of flowers. He seldom laughed. I liked him.

Corwin, on Benedict: "You do not really understand who it was we talked with in the tent that night. He may have seemed an ordinary man to you-a handicapped one, at that. But this is not so. I fear Benedict. He is unlike any other being in Shadow or reality. He is the Master of Arms for Amber. Can you conceive of a millennium? A thousand years? Several of them? Can you understand a man who, for almost every day of a lifetime like that, has spent some time dwelling with weapons, tactics, strategies? Because you see him in a tiny kingdom, commanding a small militia, with a well-pruned orchard in his back yard, do not be deceived. All that there is of military science thunders in his head. He has often journeyed from shadow to shadow, witnessing variation after variation on the same battle, with but slightly altered circumstances, in order to test his theories of warfare. He has commanded armies so vast that you could watch them march by day after day and see no end to the columns. Although he is inconvenienced by the loss of his arm, I would not wish to fight with him either with weapons or barehanded. It is fortunate that he has no designs upon the throne, or he would be occupying it right now. If he were, I believe that I would give up at this moment and pay him homage. I fear Benedict."

When I was younger, I had a very protagonist-centered view of morality and Benedict was just this douchebag giving Corwin a hard time for no reason. (Okay, my understanding of the situation probably wasn't quite that facile, but bear with me.) Rereading Guns as an adult and a parent, I see Benedict as the elder brother, affectionate towards both Eric and Corwin, but long past exasperated with their bickering.

So, "You know what my plans are," I said.

"If you were to ask for my support," he said, "I would deny it. Amber is in bad enough shape without another power grab."

"Eric is a usurper."

"I choose to look upon him as regent only. At this time, any of us who claims the throne is guilty of usurpation."

I think that's a measured, reasonable response.

Also, in listening critically to the books, I see how shrewd Zelazny was with his retcons. Corwin occasionally recaps what has gone before, but it's always in the service of the narrative, and sometimes he offers commentary along the lines of "I thought this was the case at the time, but now I think this theory explains the situation better." in order to reframe something.


She stood about a dozen paces from me, a tail, slender girl with dark eyes and close-cropped brown hair. She wore a fencing jacket and held a rapier in her right hand, a mask in her left. She was looking at me and laughing. Her teeth were white, even and a trifle long; a band of freckles crossed her small nose and the upper portions of her well-tanned cheeks. There was that air of vitality about her which is attractive in ways different from mere comeliness. Especially, perhaps, when viewed from the vantage of many years.

I think of that last part when my daughter comes running up to me to show me something. The older and more cynical I get, the more I appreciate her boundless enthusiasm for things that seem entirely mundane.

Corwin to Dara.

"I am going to tell you something Benedict should have told you long ago," I said. "Never trust a relative. It is far worse than trusting strangers. With a stranger there is a possibility that you might be safe."

"You really mean that, don't you?"


"Yourself included?" I smiled.

"Of course it does not apply to me. I am the soul of honor, kindness, mercy, and goodness. Trust me in all things."

Phage Press used to offer the last line on a t-shirt.

As an aside, Erick Wujcik, who founded Phage, was a hell of nice guy. I remember when I sent away for the RPG. It was somewhere in the early 90s. I sent a personal check and I had the game in hand less than a week later, plus a personal response to my letter. I don't have the letter any more but I remember what it said, "Dear Josh, thanks for your interest. You mentioned that you liked Mandor and Dalt, so I've enclosed copies of the pictures we'll be using for them in the upcoming book. Also, you asked how Bleys is pronounced. It's blaze, like a fire."

Corwin versus Benedict

This fight has so many beautiful parts. Benedict is coming to kill Corwin. Corwin, who is "hard as stone, dark as soil, and mean as hell". Corwin who slew legions on his path up Kolvir, who fought his way up the into the heart of the Black Circle, who killed demons with his bare hands. And Corwin is scared shitless.

A few selections:

It might be smart as well as gentlemanly to sheathe Grayswandir. He might be willing to talk first-and this way I was asking for trouble. As the hoofbeats grew louder, though, I realized I was afraid to put it away...

...It was almost a mystical experience. I do not know how else to put it. My mind outran time as he neared, and it was as though I had an eternity to ponder the approach of this man who was my brother. His garments were filthy, his face blackened, the stump of his right arm raised, gesturing anywhere. The great beast that he rode was striped, black and red, with a wild red mane and tail. But it really was a horse, and its eyes rolled and there was foam at its mouth and its breathing was painful to hear. I saw then that he wore his blade slung across his back, for its haft protruded high above his right shoulder. Still slowing, eyes fixed upon me, he departed the road, bearing slightly toward my left, jerked the reins once and released them, keeping control of the horse with his knees. His left hand went up in a salute-like movement that passed above his head and seized the hilt of his weapon. It came free without a sound, describing a beautiful arc above him and coming to rest in a lethal position out from his left shoulder and slanting back, like a single wing of dull steel with a minuscule line of edge that gleamed like a filament of mirror. The picture he presented was burned into my mind with a kind of magnificence, a certain splendor that was strangely moving. The blade was a long, scythe like affair that I had seen him use before. Only then we had stood as allies against a mutual foe I had begun to believe unbeatable. Benedict had proved otherwise that night. Now that I saw it raised against me I was overwhelmed with a sense of my own mortality, which I had never experienced before in this fashion. It was as though a layer had been stripped from the world and I had a sudden, full understanding of death itself...

...I backed into the grove. I had stood there so that I could take advantage of the trees. I dropped back about twelve feet among them and took two steps to my left. The horse reared at the last possible moment and snorted and whinnied, moist nostrils flaring. It turned aside, tearing up turf. Benedict's arm moved with near-invisible speed, like the tongue of a toad, and his blade passed through a sapling I'd guess at three inches in diameter. The tree continued to stand upright for a moment, then slowly toppled...

...His boots struck the earth and he strode toward me. I had wanted the grove for this reason, also, to make him come to me in a place where a long blade would be hampered by branches and boles.
But as he advanced, he swung the weapon, almost casually, back and forth, and the trees fell about him as he passed. If only he were not so infernally competent. If only he were not Benedict. . . .

...But he seemed to be finished with talking. He pressed forward and I had to fall back once more. It was like trying to fence with a glacier. I became convinced then that he was out of his mind, not that that helped me any. With anybody else, an insane madness would cause the loss of some control in a fight. But Benedict had hammered out his reflexes over the centuries, and I seriously believed that the removal of his cerebral cortex would not have altered his movements from their state of perfection...

...He drove me steadily back, and I dodged among trees and he cut them down and kept coming. I made the mistake of attacking and barely stopped his counterthrusts inches from my breast...

A common argument that pops up with some regularity is that "If Benedict is so good, how come he get punked like he did?" This arises mostly in the context of the RPG, where there is a (very brief) reference to Benedict being capable of parrying an invisible attacker, because his understanding of tactics is such that he'd understand how an attacker would be positioned, and would thus anticipate where his blade would be.

Someone on a message board said "Benedict's going to get that little furrow in his brow (you know he has one! Who cares if it's never described in canon?) and say Something isn't right here ..." then he's going to hear a tiny little scratching sound, and throw the wine from his glass in that direction. Some poor assassin will be briefly outlined in dripping wine, and then much more visibly outlined in spurting blood.

And then Corwin will say to himself "Well, it's never come to a test, but after all these years ... I wonder whether Benedict could have taken him without the wine. Unlikely as it seems, there is little that I would put past him, when it comes to the blade," and that would be the end of it."

Personally, I could see Benedict in the novels developing strategies for dealing with an invisible opponent, like scattering stuff on the floor, fighting in such a way to minimize the advantage, turning out the lights, listening intently, whatever the circumstances require. Benedict is at least three millenia old, according to Corwin. Miyamoto Musashi lives what. 60-70 years, and he did some incredible things with a blade. I could readily believe Benedict defeating an invisible attacker. What I can't quite swallow is Benedict beating an invisible attacker without real effort, using the same strategies he would against a visible one.

Anyways, when I try to reconcile this, I usually go with a combination of Benedict in a homicidal rage and Corwin either grossly simplifying what he did (That is, he pulled something really clever, but it could be simplified to what occurred in the book) or outright lying to Merlin, whom he wasn't sure he could trust yet.

What follows is a brief interlude on Shadow Earth. Listening to a book is a different experience than reading one, and I enjoyed the nitty gritty details of acquiring the rifles.

Corwin is unsurprised to return to his house after an absence of several years to find his library largely intact, though the rest of his house had been looted, wryly observing, "Nobody steals books but your friends."

Corwin returns to Amber with the guns of avalon and the forces of Amber are victorious.

The way things were resolved seems inevitable now, but it surprised me the first time I read it, because it was such a subversion of every fantasy literature I read up to that point. There had to be an epic duel. That's just how you do things! (This may be why I imagine Chris Sarandon in his Prince Humperdink role as Eric, even though he lacks Eric's trademark beard. They each avoided a duel that I was expecting to be the decisive encounter with the hero.)

His eyes tightened, flickered, opened. His face remained without expression as his eyes focused on mine. I wondered whether he even recognized me.

But he said my name, and then, "I knew that it would be you." He paused for a couple of breaths and went on, "They saved you some trouble, didn't they?"

I did not reply. He already knew the answer.

"Your turn will come one day," he continued. "Then we will be peers." He chuckled and realized too late that he should not have. He went into an unpleasant spasm of moist coughing. When it passed, he glared at me.

"I could feel your curse," he said. "All around me. The whole time. You didn't even have to die to make it stick."

Then, as if reading my thoughts, he smiled faintly and said, "No I'm not going to give you my death curse. I've reserved that for the enemies of Amber-out there." He gestured with his eyes. He pronounced it then, in a whisper, and I shuddered to overhear it.

Even to alarmingly obtuse teen Josh, it was becoming clear that Eric was not the monster that Corwin claimed. They each used their curse, but Corwin pronounced his against Amber, and Eric, with his hated brother right next to him, saved his for the enemies of Amber. We get a more complete picture of him in the later books, but even here, he seems different than than the bully who terrorized Corwin in the first book.

Overall, still my favorite of the series. Erick Wujcik said that one of the things he loved about the Amber books is how the universe is expanded with each new installment. In the first book, we have shadow earth and Arden (and glimpses of Amber) and with the Guns of Avalon we see some of the most vividly imagined shadows, Avalon and Lorraine. Nine Princes in Amber was a great book, but it stood on its own. The Guns of Avalon feels like the first date you take with the love of your life. You don't know where the path will take you, only that it's going to be a wonderful journey.


  1. "Alarmingly obtuse teen Josh," LOL. Thanks for these!

  2. Heh heh, yeah. And now I've grown into alarmingly obtuse grown up Josh. It's been quite a wild ride :)

  3. I just read (re-read) Nine Princes in Amber and The Guns of Avalon back-to-back. Guns directly continues 9PiA (I hadn't read Guns in over 30 years and that's the only thing I remembered about it), so I decided to read them as if they were one book. Though I suspect I should approach the whole Corwin series that way -- one five-book-long novel.

    (At least one reviewer, Lester del Rey [IF, Nov.-Dec. 1970, pp. 165-167], harshly criticized 9PiA for its inconclusive ending. He liked everything else about it, but was so disappointed by the teaser ending that he concluded his review with this: "Why fatten the income of publishers who would rather print books than serve their readers with honest novels?" Which pretty much amounts to an indirect way of calling Zelazny a dishonest writer.)

    Remembering so little about Guns, it was almost like reading it for the first time. This gave it a certain freshness. Unfortunately, I quickly got a clue as to why the book never stuck in my mind. Within the first few pages Corwin performs several Feats of Strength, as Frank Costanza would have called them, including carrying a full-grown man for several miles -- while running. Even sprinting at times. While 9PiA makes it clear that Corwin and the others have enormous strength, it didn't seem obtrusive to me -- maybe because Corwin spends much of that book variously injured, weakened, or starving/debilitated/borderline insane. In Guns, with the various princes and ladies performing Feats of Strength, it began to seem comically cartoonish to me -- superhero-type stuff.

    Another distraction/irritation was Corwin's fling with Lorraine, which I found unconvincing. I'm not sure what Zelazny was getting at with this relationship -- maybe he just wanted to show how Corwin treats his women (he slaps her when she says something that angers him).

    And Corwin's explanation of why he didn't use guns in his previous assault on Amber, with Bleys, is just lame. Of course the real reason is that Zelazny hadn't thought of it while he was writing 9PiA, plus Corwin had to lose that battle. A better explanation would be that Corwin hadn't remembered his idea for gunpowder that would ignite in Amber until recently, his memory still not being perfect.

    Well, enough nitpicking -- it's starting to sound like I hate the book, but I actually like it quite a bit, though not as much as 9PiA. I like that Corwin is still struggling with his conscience. The Black Road is pretty cool, as is Corwin's fight with Benedict. Having Eric get mortally wounded battling the beasts created by Corwin's curse is a nice twist. I have no idea who Dara is or what that was all about, since I remember very little about the next three books, but I look forward to finding out. On to Sign of the Unicorn!

    Guns of Avalon: second-tier Zelazny, an enjoyable enough follow-up to Nine Princes in Amber.

    --Chris DeVito

  4. Chris: Another distraction/irritation was Corwin's fling with Lorraine, which I found unconvincing. I'm not sure what Zelazny was getting at with this relationship -- maybe he just wanted to show how Corwin treats his women (he slaps her when she says something that angers him).

    Josh: I'm not sure what he was intending there, either. I attributed it either to the culture of Amber or the era in which it was written, but it's not an aspect of the story with which I'm comfortable.

    Chris: And Corwin's explanation of why he didn't use guns in his previous assault on Amber, with Bleys, is just lame. Of course the real reason is that Zelazny hadn't thought of it while he was writing 9PiA, plus Corwin had to lose that battle.

    That didn't bother me. In Sign of the Unicorn, another character mentions that our plans seldom go off entirely as we intend, and, as you observe, Zelazny was making up things as he went along. I think he does a decent, if not perfect job of reconciling things. To paraphrase Whitman: Does he contradict himself? Then he contradicts himself. (He is large, he contains multitudes.)

  5. Someone named Cy Chauvin reviewed Guns of Avalon in the March 1975 issue of Amazing magazine. He started out by offering this brilliantly insightful prediction: "[Nine Princes in Amber and its sequel The Guns of Avalon] are fun books, enjoyable stories, but are mere light entertainment and NOT A SERIES THAT WILL BE LOOKED BACK UPON IN FUTURE YEARS AS A CLASSIC." [emphasis added]

    Amazing indeed.

    Hey, Chris Kovacs: How many copies have the Amber books sold? Just curious.

    --Chris DeVito

  6. How many sold? I have no idea. I think there was a statement on one paperback about the Amber books having millions in print, or maybe that was something said in an interview. With the multiple reprintings of the individual books plus all the foreign language editions, it must be up in that range.

    Chris Kovacs

  7. The Great Book of Amber omnibus, which was published in 1999, is currently in its 28th printing. And of course the books must have sold a boatload of copies before that.

    --Chris DeVito