Thursday, September 2, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: The Hand of Oberon, Part II

I never imagined Benedict looking quite so much like Fabio

I mentioned in the first half of the recap that I would cover what I think is the biggest disconnect in the books.

The children of Oberon are strong. Corwin, in the first book, instinctively throws an overstuffed easy chair hard enough to kill something that's probably stronger than a man. Later on, with a little help, he picks up and carries a Mercedes, which, in that era weighed upwards of two tons. Deirdre, his baby sister, breaks a werewolf's spine over her knee. After escaping from years of imprisonment within the dungeons of Amber, Corwin is still strong enough to deadlift four hundred pound boulders and carry them around.

Gerard is stronger than that. Gerard is so strong that he can pound Corwin unconscious with his bare hands. He's probably the strongest human being in existence.

Ganelon, on the other hand, as far as anyone knows, is just some dude Corwin dragged out of shadow. He beats up Gerard. Specifically, he does so by overpowering him, opening the fight by holding back Gerard's arm, so that Gerard can't move it forward. ("I moved to block his hand, but it halted in midreach. Turning my head, I saw that another hand had fallen upon Gerard's arm, was now grasping it, was holding it back...Gerard jerked his arm forward, but it did not come free.")

I occasionally used to bitch that in the Lord of the Rings, rings that turn the wearer invisible must be so impossibly common that it never even occurs to Gandalf that Bilbo's ring might be the One Ring. In Unfinished Tales, I think it is, Tolkien explains this, saying that he did in fact suspect this, quite strongly, but the Ring was fine where it was as there was nothing to be gained by rocking the boat. That actually sounds pretty plausible to me. But this bit with Gerard seems like a situation where things are so weird that someone should comment on that.

It's not hard to believe that Oberon can take Gerard. What is a little much to swallow is that some no-name shadow dweller can do it and nobody says anything. It's one of the weirdest disconnects in the entire series. They're just so blase about the whole thing. I have the feeling that if I were there and I commented on it, the response would be, "Boy, how about that? C'mon. Let's get a beer."

I enjoyed the conversation with Julian in Arden too. He is one of my favorites, even though as I mentioned earlier, he no longer strikes me as reserved, but rather as one whose emotional growth has been stunted.

A little later on Corwin observes: Could it be that the children of the unicorn took ages in which to mature...?

I really think that's the case with Julian. But that's a feature, not a bug.

It was a very delicate situation. If Dad were to return, Eric could step down and justify all of his actions to anyone's satisfaction-except for killing you. That would have been too patent a move to ensure his own continued reign beyond the troubles of the moment. And I will tell you frankly that he simply wanted to imprison you and forget you.

I think that's a good explanation for an action that made sense in a one-off adventure with Eric as a mustache-twirling villain, but less so in a series where he's as smart and calculating as the rest of his siblings.

Corwin refers to passage across the Primal Pattern as "Like striding through a field of electric wheat." I thought that was a neat visual.

I love the scene with Brand and Benedict in Tir-na Nog'th, but it's too long to reproduce in full, so I'll just comment on my very favorite parts.

My earliest fear had been that Brand would contrive to arrive directly behind Benedict and stab him in the back. I would not have tried that though, because even in death Benedict's reflexes might have been sufficient to dispatch his assailant Apparently, Brand wasn't that crazy either.


"You know I can do certain things the others cannot," Brand said. "If there is anything at all that you want and think that you cannot have, now is your chance to name it and learn how wrong you were. I have learned things you would scarcely believe."

Benedict smiled one of his rare smiles.

"You have chosen the wrong line," he said. "I can walk to anything that I want."

"Shadows!" Brand snorted, halting again. "Any of the others can clutch a phantom! I am talking of reality! Amber! Power! Chaos! Not daydreams made solid! Not second best!"

"If I had wanted more than I have, I knew what to do. I did not do it."

I like Zelazny's reading, but Bruce Watson, who took over for the final part of the recording does a really good job with Brand.

"You are too good a man to waste yourself on that mess in Amber, defending something that is obviously falling apart. I am going to win, Benedict. I am going to erase Amber and build it anew. I am going to rub out the old Pattern and draw my own... You will command our legions, the mightiest military forces ever assembled. You-"

"If your new world would be as perfect as you say, Brand, there would be no need for legions. If, on the other hand, it is to reflect the mind of its creator, then I see it as something less than an improvement over the present state of affairs. Thank you for your offer, but I hold with the Amber which already exists."

- "If you have to kill a man it costs nothing to be polite."

"Admit that you fear me, Benedict. All of you are afraid of me. Even when I approach you weaponless like this, something must be twisting your guts. You see my confidence and you do not understand it. You must be afraid."

Benedict did not reply.

". . . And you fear my blood on your hands," Brand went on, "you fear my death curse."

"Did you fear Martin's blood on your own?" Benedict asked.

"That bastard puppy!" Brand said. "He was not truly one of us. He was only a tool."

Again, I like Brand, but he's clearly psychotic. Bruce Watson nails this line too.

"Brand, I have no desire to kill a brother. Give me that trinket you wear about your neck and come back with me now to Amber. It is not too late to set matters right."

Brand threw back his head and laughed.

"Oh, nobly spoken! Nobly spoken, Benedict! Like a true lord of the realm! You would shame me with your excessive virtue! And what is the sticking point of this all?"

"You would shame me with your excessive virtue" is a phrase I actually do manage to work into conversation from time to time.

When Brand freezes him, Corwin observes that nothing that Brand had been saying had really mattered. It had simply been a running line of patter, a distraction thrown up before him while he sought cautiously after the proper range.That said, it was both smoothly executed and obvious in retrospect.

Zelazny is a notorious punster ("Then the fit hit the shan", anyone?), and it's only now, a good fifteen years after I read the book for the first time, that I caught the double meaning in the title. There's the obvious meaning of Oberon influencing events from behind the scenes, but it suddenly occurs to me that it also refers to Benedict's hand from Tir-na Nog'th. Well played, Roger. Well played.


  1. Yes, the Ganelon/Oberon disconnect is a glaring mistake. And very distracting -- I kept waiting for someone, anyone, to voice a suspicion that Ganelon was more than he seemed. This is a somewhat similar "disconnect" to the one in Eye of Cat mentioned by Chris Kovacs (see his comments to the Eye of Cat review), but I found it much more distracting because it's so central to the book (and the series). But I managed to get past it because I like so many other aspects of the book, many of which are discussed by Josh in his review.

    --Chris DeVito

  2. Josh, that's funny that you mention the "obvious" meaning of Hand of Oberon being Oberon's influence on events, whereas the secondary meaning is the actually hand from Tir-na Nog'th. For me, it was the opposite.

    When I first read The Hand of Oberon, it was this copy of the book:

    So, seeing the title next to that cover image, I assumed "Hand of Oberon" was referring to that strange-lookin' mechanical arm before I even started reading. As such, that was the only way I ever interpreted the title, until now, when you pointed out the "obvious" meaning to me.

    Funny how that works. =P

  3. Something that struck me is how appallingly incurious the Amberites are. Sure, if you can walk to anything you desire, that lends itself to a certain hedonism, but even that must pale after a while, and you would think that they'd start wondering about things. Benedict mentions that he hellrode to the Courts when he was young, but in the thousands of years they've had to play around, it never occurs to them to investigate real nature of the universe?

    I've been reading the Merlin books more closely, and Dworkin not only created the Trumps and drew the Pattern, but he also penned the Book of the Unicorn. He was locked away after that by Oberon, but he was around for decades, if not centuries, and if someone in my neighborhood was making me all these magical things AND he wrote my society's holy book, then I think I'd have more than a few questions for him.

    It's possible that Oberon discouraged inquiry along these lines, but still...

  4. Thanks for the link. There's really been a lot of nice art associated with Zelazny's work. I really need to get off my ass and pick up a copy of Ides of Octember already.

  5. The isfdb site has color reproductions of most of the covers, though they're low-rez. I can email high-rez scans of the books and magazines I have (though my collection is nowhere near as comprehensive as Chris K's!) to anyone interested; my email is my name (all one word) at aol, plus the usual dot com.

    --Chris DeVito

  6. I have high-res color scans of everything in the bibliography. I find it funny that a few people have simultaneously complained that a) the images weren't reproduced much larger and in color and b) the book isn't cheaper. Those complaints are mutually exclusive, i.e. you can't have it both ways, and you can't have either alone. The issues were simple:

    1) Color increases the production cost enormously and with it the price of the trade paperback would have become unrealistic.

    2) If the images were larger the book would have been longer and more expensive. I forget the exact count but there's 600-700 images in there.

    3) The size of the images had to be small in order to comply with "fair use" interpretation of copyright law, in this case that the images in the bibliography are being used as a reference (to identify a particular edition) and not to, say, admire the artwork. If the images were larger then every artist would have to have been contacted for permission and paid for use of the image. And then the cost would have become insane and the book would have never been finished. Plus it would have been impossible to track down all the artists or their Estates anyway.

    Chris Kovacs

  7. And since I'm editing older posts, I put the cover that Zach mentioned in this one.

  8. We had exactly the same issues with The John Coltrane Reference -- we reprinted a lot of album covers, and got complaints that they were too small and in black-and-white. But then we got complaints that the book is too expensive. (Although to be fair, the Coltrane Ref IS too expensive, by far. But we didn't have any say in that.)

    --Chris DeVito

  9. Josh, you've mentioned that you've listened to Zelazny's narration of these books, and I'm curious: how does he pronounce Fiona? Is it Fee-ohna or Fye-ohna? I've always done the former, but when I read the shortened version of her name ("Fi"), I find myself saying "Fye."

    Also, I just realized that in the book cover you posted above, the artist put Benedict's mechanical arm on the wrong side of his body. Whoops.

    1. It's funny. I was listening to 9 Princes just recently and I noticed some minor differences between the book and the audio version. ("Instead, she walked across the room to the bar, poured herself a shot of Jack Daniels, and tossed it off like a man" was changed to remove "like a man" at the end.) I wonder if that change persisted in the new recordings of the audio book.

      I had to check on his pronunciation, because I couldn't recall for certain. I queued up the Hand of Oberon, and he pronounces it "Fye-ohna" at least twice, and probably does so the same way throughout the story.

    2. Yeah, "Fye-ohna" makes more sense with the abbreviated form of her name, because I can't imagine you'd pronounce "Fi" as "Fee."

      Mind you, I'm still going to continue calling her "Fee-ohna" in my mind, but that's just because I'm stubborn and I like my way better.

      Anyway, thanks for checking on this! Also, that's an interesting note on the change in the audio book; and it's awesome that you had a sharp enough ear for the true text to recognize it.

  10. I'd been meaning to revisit my Nine Princes review. It's one of the earlier, flabby 'em " I needed a new heel for my shoe, so, I decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days. So I tied an onion to my belt, which was the style at the time" reviews that ramble off on ridiculous tangents of no particular meaning to anyone but me.

    I'm not sure if I want to revisit that review or just post a review of the Nine Princes comic instead.

  11. I like many aspects of the cover painting shown above (notably NOT that Benedict looks like Fabio), but what bothers me is that it is erroneous. Benedict lost his right arm and used the mechanical arm that Corwin found, but the painting depicts the left arm being affected. I don't know if the artist (J.P. Targete) made the error or if during production someone decided to use a mirror-image of the painting. I looked at the artist's website and none of the Amber covers are shown. He did covers for a reissue of all ten Amber paperbacks back in the mid-90s.

    1. A google search reveals what seems to be an image of the original painting on a different site. It seems it is the artist's error.

    2. Here is a higher resolution image: