Monday, August 30, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Sign of the Unicorn

I read Nine Princes in the school library, and I bought some of the other books and as well as an Amber Choose Your own Adventure book called The Black Road War at a local place that has since shut down. It was a hobby store called The Imagination Workshop, set in a strip mall between a Bagelsmith and a Chinese restaurant and it always smelled wonderful.

As always, here there be spoilers, so read on at your own peril.

I recall now that I must have read them in the order of 1,3, combat command, 4,5 and then 2 later on because I was wondering if I'd be able to follow the narrative after missing the second book. One of the first things Random says in Sign is. "You didn't even have to kill Eric to get what you wanted. That was a stroke of luck." I was like, hey, thanks for the exposition, dude.

The copyright notice at the beginning of the book says that it was originally serialized in three parts in a magazine, and I suspect that Zelazny had decided from the beginning of the book that Ganelon was Oberon in disguise. His comment about the Trumps being monitored came awfully early in the book.

We've had appearances by the other children of Oberon, but this is the first time we see all of them together. I love each and every member of the Royal Family, though for different reasons. I've heard the story that Zelazny based Corwin and his brothers and sisters on folks he knew from an SCA style club, but I'm not sure to what extent this is true. I've mostly heard it online and I've never encountered in an account by the author himself, so I'm not sure I buy into it all the way. (I haven't gotten around to reading the final two volumes of the Complete Roger Zelazny, so perhaps there is something there.)

Zelazny has said that his original plan for the series was to have later books recounting the events of Nine Princes from the perspective of the other princes. That would have been really cool, but the closest we get are the evolving account of the car accident and this chapter from Random's point of view, regarding his attempted rescue of Brand. Also on display is something I mentioned in an earlier post, Zelazny cleverly retrofits the narrative through this revision and recapping from a new point of view.

I know damn well that Gerard would have chosen that moment to attack. The big bastard would have strode forward with that monster blade of his and cut the thing in half. Then it probably would have fallen on him and writhed all over him, and he'd have come away with a few bruises. Maybe a bloody nose. Benedict would not have missed the eve. He would have had one in each pocket by then and be playing football with the head while composing a footnote to Clausewitz. But they are genuine hero types. Me, I just stood there holding the blade point upward, both hands on the hilt, my elbows on my hips, my head as far back out of the way as possible. I would much rather have run and called it a day. Only I knew that if I tried it, that head would drop down and smear me.

I think I find Random the least interesting of the Princes, just because he seems to exist primarily as a foil for Corwin up until the end. He does tell an interesting story here, though.

Other siblings. Flora and Gerard aren't idiots. They are not as nuanced as their brothers and sisters, and Gerard is certainly not as brilliant as, say, Brand, but look at his speech below. I wouldn't call him smart, but he's not a moron either.

The sunrise was lovely, but the angle was wrong. By about ninety degrees . . .

Suddenly I was assailed by vertigo. It canceled out the beginning awareness of a roadmap of pains that ran along my back and reached the big city somewhere in the vicinity of my chin.

I was hanging high in the air. By turning my head slightly I could see for a very great distance, down.

I felt a set of powerful clamps affixed to my body-shoulder and thigh. When I turned to look at them, I saw that they were hands. Twisting my neck even farther, I saw that they were Gerard's hands. He was holding me at full arm's length above his head. He stood at the very edge of the trail, and I could see Gamath and the terminus of the black road far below. If he let go, part of me might join the bird droppings that smeared the cliff face and the rest would come to resemble washed-up jellyfish I had known on beaches past.

"Yes. Look down, Corwin," he said, feeling me stir, glancing up, meeting my eyes. "All that I need to do is open my hands."

"I hear you," I said softly, trying to figure a way to drag him along with me if he decided to do it.

"I am not a clever man," he said. "But I had a thought-a terrible thought. This is the only way that I know to do something about it. My thought was that you had been away from Amber for an awfully long while. I have no way of knowing whether the story about your losing your memory is entirely true. You have come back and you have taken charge of things, but you do not yet truly rule here. I was troubled by the deaths of Benedict's servants, as I am troubled now by the death of Caine. But Eric has died recently also, and Benedict is maimed. It is not so easy to blame you for this part of things, but it has occurred to me that it might be possible-if it should be that you are secretly allied with our enemies of the black road."

"I am not," I said.

"It does not matter, for what I have to say," he said. "Just hear me out. Things will go the way that they will go. If, during your long absence, you arranged this state of affairs-possibly even removing Dad and Brand as part of your design-then I see you as out to destroy all family resistance to your usurpation."

"Would I have delivered myself to Eric to be blinded and imprisoned if this were the case?"

"Hear me out!" he repeated. "You could easily have made mistakes that led to that. It does not matter now. You may be as innocent as you say or as guilty as possible. Look down, Corwin. That is all. Look down at the black road. Death is the limit of the distance you travel if that is your doing. I have shown you my strength once again, lest you have forgotten. I can kill you, Corwin. Do not even be certain that your blade will protect you, if I can get my hands on you but once. And I will, to keep my promise. My promise is only that if you are guilty I will kill you the moment I learn of it. Know also that my life is insured, Corwin, for it is linked now to your own."

"What do you mean?"

"All of the others are with us at this moment, via my Trump, watching, listening. You cannot arrange my removal now without revealing your intentions to the entire family. That way, if I die forsworn, my promise can still be kept."

"I get the point," I said. "And if someone else kills you? They remove me, also. That leaves Julian, Benedict, Random, and the girls to man the barricades. Better and better-for whoever it is. Whose idea was this, really?"

"Mine! Mine alone!" he said, and I felt his grip tighten, his arms bend and grow tense.
"You are just trying to confuse things! Like you always do!" he groaned. "Things didn't go bad till you came back! Damn it, Corwin! I think it's your fault!"

Then he hurled me into the air.

That's really an excellent scene, for a number of reasons. First, Corwin is always playing to win ("I hear you," I said softly, trying to figure a way to drag him along with me if he decided to do it.)

Also, I like Gerard's rebuttal to Corwin. For some reason, characters in fiction and RPGs tend to think that the obviousness excuse is a slam dunk, that they win the argument by saying "Oh, if I really had done what you accused me of, I never would have left evidence. It's a frame up!" I think Gerard's answer to that is spot on.

Gerard and Benedict are the only decent members of the family and Zelazny does an excellent job as positioning them as adversaries to Corwin without needing to hand anyone the idiot ball.

Deirdre is kind of a non-entity here, (and for me to make that comment of a gathering with Llewella present, is saying something) though I do like this line: She held my Trump in her left hand. She smiled. The others glanced our way as she appeared and she hit them all with that smile, like the Mona Lisa with a machine gun, turning slowly.

I like Julian. He seems fundamentally immature, having neither "passion nor compassion", but also subject to the occasional emotional outburst, such as the story Flora recounts in Nine Princes, at losing at his favorite game and throwing a glass of wine at Corwin. It reminds of William H. Macy in Fargo, when his schemes are falling apart and he throws the tantrum in his office. I could see Julian doing something like that. He doesn't have the cold control over his emotions that Benedict does. He just smothers them and they still flare up occasionally, because he hasn't really mastered them. He's just buried them.

He's smart, but what kind of socially stunted introvert says the following in front of the girl he's trying to impress:

"Pity," he replied. "I was hoping you would suggest we go looking for Dad now in the same fashion. Then, if we are lucky, we find him and someone puts him out of the way with more certainty. After that, we could all play Russian roulette with those fine new weapons you've furnished-winner take all."

"Your words are ill-considered," I said.

"Not so. I considered every one of them," he answered. "We spend so much time lying to one another that I decided it might be amusing to say what I really felt. Just to see whether anyone noticed."

"Now you see that we have. We also notice that the real you is no improvement over the old one."

I mean, fuck, dude. You've had several hundred years to learn how people talk to each other and it's not like this.  The whole thing reminds me of the scene in Taxi Driver, where Bickle takes Betsy to the porn theater on their first date, having no awareness that it's a tremendously bad idea.

Also, this discussion of Julian wouldn't be complete without discussion of the object of his affection, Fiona. Talk about cold-blooded! She stabs the newly rescued Brand, then tries to pin it on Julian, who has this unrequited crush on her.

I'll go down the list, subjective, intuitive, and biased as it is. Benedict, in my opinion, is above suspicion. If he wanted the throne, he'd have it by now, by direct, military methods. With all the time he has had, he could have managed an attack that would have succeeded, even against Dad. He is that good, and we all know it. You, on the other hand, have made a number of blunders which you would not have made had you been in full possession of your faculties. That is why I believe your story, amnesia and all. No one gets himself blinded as a piece of strategy. Gerard is well on the way to establishing his own innocence. I almost think he is up there with Brand now more for that reason than from any desire to protect Brand. At any rate, we will know for sure before long-or else have some new suspicions. Random has simply been watched too closely these past years to have had the opportunity to engineer everything that has been happening. So he is out. Of us more delicate sorts. Flora hasn't the brains, Deirdre lacks the guts, Llewella hasn't the motivations, as she is happy elsewhere but never here, and I, of course, am innocent of all but malice. That leaves Julian. Is he capable? Yes. Does he want the throne? Of course. Has he had time and opportunity? Again, yes. He is your man."

"Would he have killed Caine?" I asked.

"They were buddies."

She curled her lip.

"Julian has no friends," she said. "That icy personality of his is thawed only by thoughts of himself. Oh, in recent years he seemed closer to Caine than to anyone else. But even that . . . even that could have been a part of it. Shamming a friendship long enough to make it seem believable, so that he would not be suspect at this time. I can believe Julian capable of that because I cannot believe him capable of strong emotional attachments."

I love how every every character has such a distinctive voice. Brand in particular is a joy to hear. Contrast his manner of speech with Corwin's.

Brand: "In its place, dear brother. In its place. Sequence and order, time and stress-they are most important in this matter. Allow me to savor the drama of the event in safe retrospect. I see me punctured and all of you gathered round. Ah! what would I not give to witness that tableau! Could you possibly describe for me the expression on each face?"
Corwin: "I'm afraid their faces were my least concern at the time."
And Later, also from Brand: "...Beginnings are always difficult. Wherever I begin, something preceded it..."

Other stuff. I enjoyed the little interlude with Bill Roth on Shadow Earth, and that gave us a little more exposition. Also, how can you not love Brand going under cover as Doctor Hillary B. Rand? Clearly, it's a foolhardy decision, but if you're going to be doing these things, you might as well do them with style.

Also, when asked his age by the doctor, Corwin answers thirty-six, with the aside to the audience, "that's always safe". I'm turning 36 this year, so I have mixed feelings about that.

The chapter in Tir-na Nog'th was nice, with the bittersweet reunion with Lorraine and the sword fight with the ghost.

Overall, another solid entry in the series. I think it suffers in my estimation by being surrounded by what I consider the two best books in the series, Avalon and Oberon. (That sounds like a good name for a duet, come to think of it. Set to the tune of the Ballad of the Water Crossers.)


  1. Halfway through SIgn of the Unicorn and this line just floored me:

    "She hit them all with that smile, like the Mona Lisa with a machine gun."

    When Zelazny typed that, Raymond Chandler must have rolled over in his grave and said "Damn. How'd I miss that one?"


  2. I just finished The Dead Man's Brother (though I'm dragging my feet on writing up the review, because I think it will represent his last long work that I haven't yet covered) and it struck me how seamlessly his style works for that book. It really reads like a Zelazny book and it's no less one of one for the absence of the fantastic.

  3. Reading this review makes me want to read Amber again, but there are still SO MANY Zelazny books I haven't even read once! That's the current project, and I'm certain I won't get back to Amber until it's completed. =P

  4. ...but the fantastic isn't completely absent from THE DEAD MAN'S BROTHER, Josh. Zelazny couldn't abandon it altogether.

    Chris Kovacs

  5. For what it’s worth, Raymond Chandler wrote a couple of fantasy stories that were published in the genre magazines -- “The Bronze Door” was published in Unknown in 1939, and “Professor Bingo's Snuff” was published in Fantastic in 1952 (it appeared in a New York-area magazine the year before).

    I enjoyed Sign of the Unicorn quite a bit, especially when approaching it as "part 3" of the 5-part Corwin Chronicles (rather than considering it a stand-alone novel). The crazy world with the whirling boulders and rising corpses is a trip. The segment on "our" earth was particularly nice because of the introduction of Bill Roth, who actually seems to be a nice guy (though I haven't read the Merlin books yet -- maybe Zelazny reveals that Bill Roth was actually another Oberon mask, or somesuch [though I hope not!]). And going from "our" conventional earth to Tir-na Nog'th is a nice juxtaposition; makes the cloud city seem even weirder. Finally, the revelation that Amber itself is actually just the first shadow, and not the "real" reality, is something of a breath of fresh air -- I was getting a bit tired of the supposed perfection of Amber vs. the "unreality" of shadow.

    Anyway, a fun and enjoyable continuation of the story.

    --Chris DeVito

  6. I posted some scans from the original Galaxy serializations of Unicorn and Hand of Oberon on my Facebook page -- trying to get you into the sf mags, Josh!

    --Chris DeVito

  7. That line about "36, that's always safe" - Zelazny (b. May 1937) probably wrote SIgn in late '73-early '74.

    1. Ha! That's awesome! I never made that connection.

    2. Interesting deduction. He began writing it after August 1973 and handed the manuscript in sometime in the spring of 1974, because it was in production at Doubleday in July 1974.