Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Nine princes stand before you (that's what I said now)

I'm going to keep reviewing/recapping Roger Zelazny's work in the order in which I read them. Up now is Nine Princes in Amber, first of the Amber books.

When I reviewed Star Wars a while back, I observed that it's the only movie that doesn't take place in the Star Wars universe, and I think the same deal applies to the first Amber book. Zelazny wrote the book in about a month and half and he threw out all these gonzo concepts without worrying about what they might mean. ("...and even now, as I stand contemplating the Courts of Chaos...")

I was first exposed to it at around the first time I saw Highlander and the two are commingled in my mind. (I blame Queen's "Princes of the Universe" for that.)

I was already familiar with Zelazny through Roadmarks and Creatures of Light and Darkness, so I just went to the end of the alphabet in my school library to see if they had anything by my new favorite author. They had the first Amber book, so I took it off the shelf and began reading it during my free period.

Honestly, I think it's the weakest of the five Corwin books. Sometimes I'll get on a Zelazny kick and I'll listen to all of the books one after the other but more and more often I'll sometimes just jump directly to Guns of Avalon. If you're wondering, for me I rank them

  1. The Guns of Avalon
  2. The Hand of Oberon
  3. Sign of the Unicorn
  4. The Courts of Chaos
  5. Nine Princes in Amber
though some days I might rank Princes above Courts. I'll get into why when I get to a review of each book.

Some thoughts. I forget where I first read the observation that Zelazny's books tended to feature very similar characters, the "laid-back, easy-going, wise-cracking, homicidal protagonist" and man, that's Corwin (and Sam, and Merlin and Red...)

I haven't read the books in quite a while, though I do listen to them. Somebody ripped a bunch of books for the blind to mp3 and I, uh, found them on the internet. Zelazny reads the Amber books and he has a very distinctive manner of doing so. Very reasoned and measured, but he parses the words strangely. He's awesome though. He mentioned a "Diplo Docus", and it took me a second to realize he was saying "diplodocus".

The Amber series is divided into two separate series. The first five books recount the adventures of Corwin, and the next five recount the adventures of his son, Merlin. The Merlin series is pants, though.

I don't own the Great Book of Amber, which collects all ten volumes, but I have two sets of the two volume collection of the first five books. (The hardcovers with the Vallejo painting.) I keep them around so that if I want to give them away, the recipient will only have the good Corwin books and not the shitty Merlin books too.

A few years after I first read the books, I came across an ad for the Amber Diceless RPG, which will probably merit its own post somewhere down the line, and Erick Wujcik's take on the Corwin books has really informed how I read them. He points out that Corwin is an unreliable narrator, telling a story to someone he's not certain he can trust, and that he was the only witness to many of the most controversial events. Wujcik had some interpretations of the chronicles that still cause debate even now (briefly, his portrayal of the Amberites is significantly more powerful than they are in the books, and there's a very brief reference to Benedict parrying invisible attackers that's kind of become a running joke.) This has become more of a tangent than I intended, but something Wujcik said is that he has a friend who says the series makes more sense if Corwin is treated as a biased but essentially reliable narrator, Caine is the villain and Brand is the hero. It's certainly an interesting take, and it's a credit to the series that there is enough ambiguity that such a reading is possible.

It opens with an amnesiac man waking in a hospital bed: "It was starting to end, after what seemed most of eternity to me." I wasn't yet familiar with Raymond Chandler, but the whole thing was very noir.

So our nameless hero wakes up in a hospital after a terrible car accident. The first fight in the series is him kneeing someone in the crotch ("It was a very foul blow, about four inches below the belt buckle, I'd say, and it left him on his knees.") and later throwing some bedding over the guy and clubbing him unconscious with a metal strut and it sets the tone for what kind of guy Nameless is.

Interestingly, the cursing was edited out of the book ("'____ ____!' he said, after a time"), but the audiobook has him saying "Damn you!", I suppose because times had changed enough for that to be acceptable.

Nameless bluffs his way out of the facility and into his sister's mansion, where he learns that he has a whole bunch of siblings and that his name is Corwin. He finds a pack of tarot cards, depicting himself, his brothers and his sisters. This was a neat way to do an infodump and I like that when a sibling appears later on, I can just flip back to the thumbnail sketch we go earlier.

I love the Trumps as a concept. I have a set of Amber Tarot cards and they're just neat to have. I see them going for a decent price on eBay every so often, and I suppose that I should get around to selling mine. But they are neat to have.

So, Corwin's brother Random (Alas, not Random Hajile, as cool as that would be) shows up and they defeat those agents pursuing him, then borrow sister Flora's Mercedes for a road trip. Corwin is still missing his memory, but he's able to fake it well enough that Random doesn't suspect anything. They travel through several different shadows on their way to Amber.

If you've read this far without actually knowing about the series, "shadows" are what the series calls parallel worlds. Amber is the one true world, and all the infinite shadows are just imperfect reflections. Zelazny plays with some of the themes he explored in Creatures of Light and Darkness. In that book, the Prince could teleport to any place he could imagine, and there was speculation if he was in effect creating a place by being the first to arrive at it. Corwin voices similar sentiments.

Anyway, Corwin are Random are set upon by their brother Julian and his horse Morgenstern.

And the horn sounded once again, almost next to us this time.

"What the hell is be riding, a locomotive?" I asked.

"I'd say he is riding the mighty Morgenstern, the fastest horse he has ever created."

I let that last word roIl around in my head for a while, wondering at it and wondering at it. Yes, it was true, some inner voice told me. He did create Morgenstern, out of Shadows, fusing into the beast the strength and speed of a hurricane and a pile driver.

I remembered that I had call to fear that animal, and then I saw him.
Morgenstern was six hands higher than any other horse I'd ever seen. and his eyes were the dead color of a Weimaraner dog's and his coat was a light gray and his hooves looked like polished steel. He raced along like the wind, pacing the car, and Julian was crouched in his saddle-the Julian of the playing card, long black hair and bright blue eyes. and he had on his scaled white armor.

Corwin kicks Julian's ass pretty handily and uses him as a hostage to buy his way through Julian's territory, the Forest of Arden. To return to Wujcik again, he speculates that Julian may have had a reason for losing to Corwin. I kind of like that explanation. Both Wujcik and Zelazny are good at having characters explain in the body of a work why seeming mistakes aren't mistakes.

So, the pair ditches Julian, rescues their sister, Deirdre, go to the mirror-Amber (Rebma, get it? Amber spelled backwards) beneath the waves, where Corwin walks the Pattern and thereby restores his memory. He uses it to transport himself to the library in Amber, where he gets into a sword fight with his brother Eric. Corwin has the upper hand, but will be unable to kill Eric before reinforcements arrive. I like that Eric picks up a chair and backs into a corner in order to wait it out when he sees that he's losing.

Corwin uses the power of the Trumps to contact Bleys, another brother. Bleys is readying an army to take Amber before Eric can crown himself. He and Corwin pool their resources and launch the assault.

The Eric/Corwin rivalry is what really drives the first book. They hate each other. They hate each other so much that they are willing to raise armies and storm the pillars of the world for no other reason than to spite the others.

Corwin and Bleys are demolished, their army killed to a man. Bleys possibly escapes, and Corwin, well, I'll let him tell it.
Let's be brief.

They killed everyone but me.

At me they threw nets and unleashed blunted arrows.

Finally, I fell and was clubbed and hog-tied, and then everything went away but a nightmare which attached itself and wouldn't let go, no matter what.

We had lost.

I awoke in a dungeon far below Amber, sorry that I had made it that far.
I like Zelazny's staccato prose there. When I read it for the very first time, I was disappointed. I was hoping a detailed accounting of a doomed last stand and all I got was "First it started to fall down. Then it fell down." But I love it. A Kurosawa-esque description would have been exactly wrong. Corwin was beaten, utterly and completely humbled by this man he loathed. He just wants to get this part of the story over with as fast as possible.

"Take it and give it to Eric," he repeated.

I tried to strike at him, but my chains were drawn tight. I was struck again.

I stared at the high sharp peaks.

"Very well," I finally said, and reached for it.

I held it in both hands for a moment then quickly placed it on my own head and declared, "I crown me, Corwin, king of Amber!"
I loved that part as a kid. Corwin's screwed no matter what he does, so he might as well put on as good a show as he can. "When the fall is all that's left," and all that.

So, he's locked away and forgotten in the dungeons beneath Amber. Also, just to make sure that he doesn't get any ideas about escaping, his eyes are burned from his head with hot pokers. They bring him out once a year, on the anniversary of Eric's coronation.

But, after several years, Corwin's eyes begin to grow back. He steals a spoon from an anniversary dinner and begins digging his way out. He eventually does escape, albeit in a manner different than he expected and that's where the first book ends.

The verdict? As a stand-alone work, it's great. As the first book of the series, it doesn't really fit with the larger Amber universe. I'm not sure if I'd want to read a revised and updated Nine Princes that cleans up some of these problems, but it's an interesting thought experiment.

I guess that it's for this slightly off feeling that I don't like the book as much as the rest of the series. Corwin believes Random is his full brother, but that's not the case. Zelazny rationalizes this later on, saying that it was just wishful thinking towards a sibling towards whom he was feeling fondly. Corwin's sword Greyswandir is never called by name. Shadow shifting seems to work differently. Obviously, these setting elements were not yet established, but their absence make it feel like the first book is set not in the One True World, but rather in a nearby shadow.


  1. Looking back at some of your earlier posts, I'm surprised by this one. The weakest of the Amber novels? I have to disagree most strongly.

    To me it's the strongest and most compelling of the series. The character who wakes not knowing where or who he is, his voyage of rediscovery, encountering the Trumps, walking the Pattern for the first time, the moving from what starts as a present-day novel and becomes a compelling fantasy, his tragic blinding at the hands of his brother, the long depression and convalescence in prison, regrowing his eyes and escaping... It has so many compelling scenes for me. My only disappointment in first reading was that I hadn't known it was the first of a series. I wanted MORE. And thankfully, the first five books were available; this was 1979 or so and the fifth book had just been published in paperback. I went out right away and got the rest, and read them back-to-back in a fevered rush. And then again once I was done.

    I had originally received the Jeff Jones paperback of Nine Princes as a gift from my mother but the artwork really turned me off. It's the one with an ornate painting of a knight on a horse, and something about it told my teenaged mind that it wasn't something I'd like. I don't know if I'd read anything by Zelazny before then. I finally started the book because there wasn't anything else I owned that was unread, and I was bored...and instantly grabbed by it from the start because the book started out very Chandleresque with a smart-talking tough guy amnesiac (completely unlike what the cover art suggested), and it got even more interesting as the pages passed.

    I have to say that Nine Princes in Amber remains my favorite all-time book by any author, bar none. It has its flaws but it remains my top favorite. Among Zelazny works there are better crafted novels and short stories, but this one is my favorite. I have to pace myself by not re-reading it often lest that diminish the experience for the next re-reading. I also now own signed copies of every English language edition that was published before Zelazny's death, so I can choose a different copy to read each time and admire them on the shelf in between times. Call me obsessed.

    Oh, and the Jeff Jones artwork did grow on me with time and I do now like it and have a signed print of it hanging by the Zelazny section of my bookcases. Along with signed prints of the Vallejo and Canty depictions of Corwin.

    Chris Kovacs

  2. I've reconsidered since then, and I think that Courts is probably a weaker outing than Nine Princes, but yeah. (I suppose it's worth noting at this point that I've never met anyone who agrees with me on this.)

    The concepts that I would love about Amber were present, but in an inchoate form. The thing I love most about the series is the mythology it holds. Zelazny sketched an outline with Princes, and filled it in with the following books.

    That's not to say that it's in any way a bad book. It's a great book. I just don't find it the best *Amber* book because of those niggling differences in the mythology.

    1. Most first books in a series, I find trying because they tend to be exposition heavy. I didn't have this problem with Nine Princes-it was the pathway to an intriguing world. I wouldn't call it the best Amber book, I have been long enough not rereading the books, I'm uncertain which one I would give the laurel to.

      I will say, to me, it's the best first book in any series I've read. I'm certain, I'm waiting in vain for book 3 of Roger McBride Allen's Hunted Earth series. I regularly reread book two The Shattered Sphere, and can't force myself to reread Ring of Charon-too much infodump/exposition there, just like the first Harry Potter book. (For whatever it might be worth, I read Nine Princes when I was in college, and actually met Zelazny several years later at the first SF con I went to. I also saw Roger when he made his last con about a month before be passed away, and when I first saw him at that convention, I did not recognize him. Cancer is not a good way to exit this vale of tears.)

  3. Also, very jealous of your Zelazny collection.

  4. From the Dark World to Amber . . .

    I first read Nine Princes in Amber in 1975, when I was 14. I’d been reading sf and fantasy (mostly sf) for several years by then, and had discovered the magazines in 1973; I bought Analog, F&SF, Galaxy, and IF every month (or every other month for IF, which was bimonthly then, and folded with the Dec. ’74 issue), and occasionally bought Amazing and Fantastic. Sign of the Unicorn was serialized in Galaxy starting with the Jan. ’75 issue. I hadn’t read much Zelazny at that point and was unfamiliar with Amber. So I bought 9PiA in paperback and I loved it. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy the sequels as much, and never became what you’d call an Amberphile. I still haven’t read the second series (but intend to).

    So anyway, I finally decided to go back to Amber -- but first I read Henry Kuttner/C. L. Moore’s The Dark World. (Though the book is credited to Kuttner alone, Chris Kovacs tells me that Moore said she wrote most of it. I haven’t been able to track down the interview where she says this. The isfdb website lists only two Moore interviews, both obscure and neither from Locus. If anyone can identify the interview, I’d greatly appreciate the info.)

    The influence is obvious -- though Zelazny maintained that it was completely unconscious and was unaware of it when writing 9PiA. That’s probably a good thing; if someone had pointed this out to him while he was writing it, he probably would have made some major changes in 9PiA, just so it wouldn’t seem too close to The Dark World. The Dark World is a fun (and slightly startling because of the similarities) prelude to 9PiA.

    Rereading Nine Princes in Amber for the first time in decades, maybe 30 years, I found myself enjoying it almost as much as I did when I was a teenager. The only thing I can’t recapture is the sense of newness I felt when first reading it -- when the story opens up, and Corwin drives into shadows with Random, that really blew my mind. And Corwin the prisoner crowning himself, then getting his eyes burned out (ouch). Dworkin “walking” into Corwin’s prison cell and scratching a new trump into the cell wall -- and Corwin then walking out of the cell and onto the beach by the lighthouse.

    I know the book had a strong impact on me because I remember so much of it, even having not read it in so long. (Though I misremembered some of the details -- for example, I’d’ve sworn Corwin was the passenger when he and Random first drove through shadow, but he was driving. Funny little thing to mix up.) I’d like to think I appreciate some aspects of the book more now than I could back then, such as Corwin’s somewhat grudging development of a conscience; I’m curious to see if Zelazny followed up on that in the sequels (about which I remember very little).

    I guess I’d consider Nine Princes in Amber to be first-tier Zelazny.

    --Chris DeVito

  5. The Guns of Avalon has always been my least favorite of the original 5 Amber books. (Granted, I've only read the series 3 times, so I'm not as familiar with it as you experts, but I can still have uninformed opinions, right?) I'm not sure what it is about Guns, but I always have a tough time getting through it.

    My favorite would probably have to be either Nine Princes or Sign of the Unicorn. Then comes The Hand of Oberon, followed by Courts. The last time I read Courts, I realized that it seemed like Zelazny didn't have enough material to do a full book and he just sorta threw some stuff in that didn't do much to advance the plot or further develop the characters.

    I'm fairly certain that Courts is the shortest of the books (one of the first signs that maybe he didn't have enough material left), and I seem to recall not a lot of stuff happening. It's mostly just the long walk of Corwin, right? And what was with the scene where his horse gets stolen and he gets drunk with the midgets? Don't get me wrong, it was interesting and entertaining (as is anything written by Zelazny), but I didn't see its relevance to the plot. It seemed like Zelazny realized he needed to stretch things out a bit, so he added a scene that had no bearing on the plot of the book.

    Yikes, I hate when I get into critical-mode . . . it makes it seem like I don't worship Zelazny in the way I do. Even if Guns is my least favorite of the original Amber novels, it's still better than just about anything put out by non-Zelazny authors. =P

  6. Zelazny wrote that he'd learned from a C. L. Moore interview in Locus that she'd written 95% or more of The Dark World. The on-line Locus database goes back only to 1987, and she died in 1987, so the interview must have been published prior to that. I don't know what issue. I suppose it's also possible that the interview was published somewhere else and that Zelazny misremembered where he read it, but the back issues of Locus prior to 1987 need to be checked first.

    Chris Kovacs

  7. I'll see if I can track down that Moore interview; Kuttner & Moore are on my short list of favorite sf/fantasty writers. I don't doubt that Dark World is primarily Moore, judging from its colorful (literally and figuratively) style.

    Zack, you're mention of "the scene where his horse gets stolen and he gets drunk with the midgets" really has me looking forward to reading Courts of Chaos! Sounds very David Lynch-esque.

    --Chris DeVito

  8. apology. my first/last comment highlights my lack of mad ninja writing skills. what i was trying to say was that to me ch.7 thoo is who corwin is to me. a main player in any situation. cool, smart, cagey, willing to play his hand to win, no matter what cards he has been dealt and cheat without regret for a higher purpose (his own).

  9. Hey, Anonymous. I do like that about Corwin. There is something appealing about reading about his utter ruthlessness. I don't think I'd want Corwin as a *friend*, but as a protagonist, he's top notch.

  10. Wasn't sure where to post this comment. There's an interesting photo from a 1980s convention that shows a group of fans dressed up as the various characters from the Amber novels. It's at:


    If you scroll down among the comments, you'll see that participants in the photo have posted messages explain who is who. Corwin and Deirdre and side-by-side in the back right, and unfortunately Benedict is missing from the photo, having been cut off beside Deirdre.

  11. He digs Amber...


    --Chris DeVito

  12. An essay that I wrote about influences and allusions in the first five Amber books is now available for free on-line at The New York Review of Science Fiction, July 2012 issue. This short link will get you there:


  13. Another announcement that may be worthy of its own entry:

    www.Speaking-Volumes.us has been releasing Zelazny's unabridged readings of the first nine Amber books on CD and mp3. They're up to Trumps of Doom (released earlier this month) and they're supposed to have a seventh release in August. For some reason they seem to have delayed Blood of Amber to October, and are going to release Sign of Chaos in August and Knight of Shadows in September. I previously asked them what they will do about the last book, Prince of Chaos, because Zelazny never recorded it. They replied that it will be released with someone else doing the reading. No info has been posted about it yet.

    But today I discovered that www.Audible.com has released all 10 books at once in new readings. The first five books are read by Alessandro Juliani ("Gaeta" from Battlestar Galactica) and the last five books are read by Will Wheaton ("Wesley Crusher" from ST:TNG).

    I welcome these releases but I hope that the Audible versions don't interfere with the planned release of the remaining three books read by Zelazny. Blood of Amber and Knight of Shadows have only previously been released in an abridged version of Zelazny's reading, while the unabridged reading of Sign of Chaos was released on cassette. I'm looking forward to hearing the full versions as read by him.


  14. comment at: http://songmeanings.com/songs/view/3530822107858528192/

    A Salty Dog

    Procol Harum does some really cinematic songs.

    It predates one of my favorite works of fiction, Nine Princes in Amber, and writerly person I am, I think back stories and to me, this is head canon for part of Prince Corwin's past which has little comment by the author.

    Corwin was for a time, a pirate. He sails the seas of all worlds of shadow and in this song, I see him bringing his crew to Amber, the true world. A sand so white, and sea so blue, no mortal place at all.

    The narrator of the song is an anonymous sailor who is a balladeer to match his Captain. Why he burns his ship in Amber, I know not. Wherever he might do such a deed would put him in mortal danger.

  15. And sticking with Procol Harum, their first hit, A Whiter Shade of Pale is also head canon for me, becoming in my mind, a drunken party in Rebma. The line about as I wandered through my playing cards is another piece that ties it to Amber for me as well.

    (And a Steven Wright joke seems to fit Zelazny's richly imagined world too: "I played poker with a deck of tarot cards. I got a full house, and three people died." Well, with the Major Arcana of the Amber Tarot, who knows?)

  16. just finished book 1. is the following a plothole?

    In his cell, corwin mentions not knowing how long it would take for the guards to notice his food being uneaten, if he were to escape.

    He escapes through the Lighthouse etching by the card maker, and spends 4+ months with the Lighthouse keeper!

    Is Eric so busy to not check out the cell or listen to a report on two strange etchings on the walls of the scene of corwin's disappeance?

    Or have they all really not noticed and have been shoving 4 months worth of water bottles and bread under the prison cell door?

    Maybe the card maker came in every day, with a light source, and took the extra food?