Monday, September 6, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: The Courts of Chaos

Here we are already. I'll probably cover the Merlin books in one post and then move on to some of Zelazny's other work. Lord of Light or Jack of Shadows is probably next. LoL because I found an audio version of it, Jack of Shadows, because it's next chronologically.

I downloaded the Audible app for my phone on Friday. I'd had a membership a while back, but the files are in some weird format that wouldn't play on my cheap mp3 player, so I canceled it. I had only opened it in the first place because that was the only place I could find Lord of Light on audiobook.

When I installed it on my phone, it prompted me for my password, so I signed in using my old account and there was Lord of Light!

Anyways, back to this review. I think Courts is the second weakest of the Corwin Chronicles. It has its moments, but for some reason it doesn't appeal to me as much as the earlier books. I think it's the lack of mystery. I don't know if I'd call it noir precisely, but I don't think it's a stretch to claim that Amber had its roots in some of the same antecedents that inspired Raymond Chandler. Corwin never knows who he can trust for the first four books. He knew, for really the first time, what was going on, and the steps that need to be taken to fix things and this is just going through the motions. It seems like the interesting part of the story was that mystery and that's why CoC is a bit of a letdown for me.This felt like a protracted denouement.

The other problem is structural. It was serialized in Galaxy magazine over the course of four months and it shows. Reading it light of this knowledge, it seems more liked four linked novellas than one complete work. We get the drumbeat of chapter-chapter-chapter-cliffhanger! repeated three times.

The books never feel like they are set in a specific era, but rather the eternal now. Amber herself is timeless and Zelazny shrewdly keeps mum about details on shadow earth, so as not to date the books with some unforeseeable anachronism (My Name is Legion, I'm looking at you and your punch card computers) and it's not so much the substance but the style that makes Courts seem like a period work. All the psychedelic weirdness with the talking ravens and talking trees and talking jackals makes it seem like 1970s to me.

It really is a decent book, and as Jake said elsewhere, even Zelazny on an off day is best than most writer's best work. So I'll quit bitching about the stuff I didn't like and focus on the stuff I did.

The inscribing of the Pattern is beautiful. I recall not liking free verse of the hellrides, and the the first time I read Courts and when I saw that this chapter was going to be more of that, I just skipped to the end. Now, though, it's one of my very favorite passages

. . Cassis, and the smell of the chestnut blossoms. All along the Champs-Elysies the chestnuts were foaming white . . . .

In general I didn't care as much for Brand in CoC as I did in the earlier books. In Oberon, he had some of best lines in the whole saga, and now he's just crazy.

Corwin and Borel.

Corwin's first fight in the chronicles is kicking another dude in the crotch. His final fight is the one everybody remembers.

Drawing Grayswandir, I leaped after him. I caught him just as he had brushed my cloak aside and was struggling to rise. I skewered him where he sat and saw the startled expression on his face as the wound began to flame.

"Oh, basely done!" he cried. "I had hoped for better of thee!"

"This isn't exactly the Olympic Games," I said, brushing some sparks from my cloak.

That's Corwin in a nutshell.

"I saw Deirdre in black armor, swinging an ax."
As far as I know, this is the only reference to Deirdre's martial prowess or preference for an axe, but by god, in from fan-produced material about Deirdre, you'd think she sleeps with that axe.

And Benedict, the gods know you grow wiser as time burns its way to entropy, yet you still neglect single examples of the species in your knowledge of people. Perhaps I'll see you smile now this battle's done. Rest, warrior.
Another lovely turn of phrase.

And the man clad in black and silver with a silver rose upon him? He would like to think that he has learned something of trust, that he has washed his eyes in some clear spring, that he has polished an ideal or two. Never mind. He may still be only a smart-mouthed meddler, skilled mainly in the minor art of survival, blind as ever the dungeons knew him to the finer shades of irony. Never mind, let it go, let it be. I may never be pleased with him.

The wikipedia summary claims that there "They contact GĂ©rard, who tells them that the multiverse is fine, although seven years have passed." I didn't remember that and it's an awfully specific. , so I reread the final chapters very carefully. The closest thing I found to that line was: Random's last act after defeating the storm was to join with me, drawing power from the Jewel, to reach Gerard through his Trump. They are cold. once more, the cards, and the shadows are themselves again. Amber stands. Years have passed since we departed it, and more may elapse before I return. The others may already have Trumped home, as Random has done, to take up his duties. But I must visit the Courts of Chaos now, because I said that I would, because I may even be needed there.

I always read that as metaphorical, that it felt like years. On reflection, I suppose a literal reading is more likely, but I don't know where he gets seven. It's such a specific claim that I wonder if it's mentioned in the book he cites as a source.

And we have come to the end of the Corwin saga. I'll be back in a day or two with more Zelazny blogging.

Good-bve and hello, as always.


  1. One small technical note: Although Courts was serialized over 4 months in Galaxy, it was actually only three issues (i.e., the novel was serialized in 3 parts, not 4), as one was a combined issue: November 1977, Dec./Jan. 1978, and February 1978. Illustrated in a rather crude and unappealing style.

    --Chris DeVito

  2. That's interesting. Was it broken into four parts and two of those parts happened to appear in the same issue?

  3. No, it was a typical three-part serialization. Part I is Chapters 1 through 4; Part II is Chapters 5 through 9; Part III is Chapters 10 through 14.

    In the Galaxy serialization, the chapter numbers are Roman numerals; in the Doubleday hardcover, they're Arabic numerals.

    I haven't read the original Amber books since the '70s, and I've never read the second series. Few people seem to like the second series, but still, I'm looking forward to it.


  4. If you're interested, there's another blog I follow, and right now he's looking at the short stories that follow the Merlin books and trying to figure out what Zelazny was trying to set up:

  5. Crikey, the blogger's semi-coherent "analyses" go on longer than the stories. I gave up when I came to his Amber fan fiction -- Bad Writing 101. ("I did things with my own eyebrows." Double-crikey!) A definite "care wreck," as the blogger would put it. But thanks for the heads-up -- I got a few chuckles out of it.


  6. Progressing through the first five Amber books, it becomes more and more clear that they really are one extended five-part novel. Earlier tonight I finished reading Courts of Chaos (and for some reason immediately then started on Homer's Odyssey, the story of the grooviest blind cat ever, but that's not really relevant here).

    I'll try to throw out some more coherent thoughts about the other Amber books soon, but for now I'll just say that Courts is in some ways my favorite of the five books, for the same reason that Josh has his doubts. I like that it dispenses (mostly) with the intrigue and hugger-mugger of the early books, and consists mostly of a trippy journey through acid-etched weirdness.

    Josh, I'm not sure why the talking raven etc. evoke the 1970s for you; that decade was my formative years (I was born 1961), and my leftover subconscious mush of the '70s disturbs me nightly with Vietnam, Watergate, Nixon, gas shortages, Led Zep (especially "Kashmir"), punk rock, Saturday Night Live, Richard Pryor, Taxi Driver, women's lib, Billy Beer, Jimmy Carter's lustful peanut heart, and of course all the usual personal tragedies that color and crush a life. No talking trees.

    Here's maybe my favorite bit in the whole thing:

    "Hugi lowered his head.

    “ 'I'll see you eat crow first,' he said, and he chuckled.

    "I reached out quickly and twisted his head off, wishing that I had time to build a fire. Though he made it look like a sacrifice, it is difficult to say to whom the moral victory belonged, since I was planning on doing it anyway."

    I mean, what can you say to that? Hunger makes us do terrible and astonishing things.

    --Chris DeVito

  7. Chris: Josh, I'm not sure why the talking raven etc. evoke the 1970s for you.

    Honestly? Because it makes me think of H.R. Pufnstuf.

  8. Ha -- must be a generational thing.


  9. Theodore Sturgeon and James Blish both placed the Amber books in the sword & sorcery camp. In his review of Guns of Avalon, Sturgeon wrote: "The genre's very nature dictates that the sword-swinging protagonist must be the same person at the end of the story as he is at the beginning. [...] true suspense is impossible for me if the central character cannot develop, age, fail, die, or (as is too often the case) even learn. [...] now and again there arrives a book so colorful, whose language is so cadenced and precise and whose characters (for all their basic changelessness) are so dimensional that you have to love them anyhow. Such a novel is Zelazny's The Guns of Avalon." (Galaxy, March 1973, p. 155.)

    I disagree strongly that the characters in the Amber novels are "basically changeless." Even in the first two books Corwin is struggling with both his conscience and his expanding consciousness, and he certainly has his failures (sometimes spectacular, as in the first book) and learns as he goes along.

    Blish's review of Nine Princes in Amber is an interesting contrast to both the Lester del Rey review (which harshly criticized Nine Princes for its cliffhanger ending) and Sturgeon's later review. Blish wrote that 9PiA "is Zelazny's version of sword-and-sorcery, but not for addicts only. Zelazny has not borrowed the standard apparatus for this sort of thing, but has invented his own, and the result is an adventure story with real originality and zest. [...] the ending [...] leaves the door wide open for a sequel. I'll be looking for it." (F&SF, May 1971, p. 39.)

    Reading all five books back-to-back (as they really are a single multi-volume novel, and to hell with Oscar Wilde), I think it's undeniable that Corwin has learned and changed enormously over the course of this five-book novel -- he goes from a man who would do anything to become king (in the first book), to a man who rejects being king when it's offered to him (in the last book). I think that's a pretty big change. And of course that's just the most visible result of his transformation, the tip of the iceberg.

    (As a tangent, I wonder if Blish's positive review was somewhat politically motivated by the fact that 9PiA is a straightforward adventure novel. Blish had harshly panned Creatures of Light and Darkness a year earlier because of its experimental nature: "It is a flat failure. It is a failure in conception. [...] It is ignorant and inconsistent. [...] Stylistically, it is a hash. [...] Moreover, this is another of those recently multiplying novels of apparatus, told in bits and scraps, zigzagging among viewpoints and tenses, and dropping into quotations or verse for no reason beyond an apparent desire to seem experimental or impressive." [F&SF, April 1970, pp. 50-51.] Given Blish's obvious bias, he may just have been happy that 9PiA was a conventionally written adventure novel.)

    Anyways, I like this five-book novel a lot. And I regret having neglected it for so long . . . but I won't make that mistake again.

    --Chris DeVito

    1. I was just rereading some old posts and for some reason I had failed to realize what a great series of observations you had made here.

  10. I have my moments, though they've been getting fewer and farther between . . .