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
- The Guns of Avalon
- The Hand of Oberon
- Sign of the Unicorn
- The Courts of Chaos
- Nine Princes in Amber
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.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.
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.
"Take it and give it to Eric," he repeated.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.
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!"
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.