Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Merlin, son of Corwin stars in Blood of Chaos, Trumps of Amber and Prince of Shadows!

There's the scene in Groundhog Day where Bill Murray's character Phil runs into an annoying acquaintance for the thousandth time and rather than tolerating Ned's idiotic patter, Phil just punches him in the face.

Ned: Phil?
Phil: Ned? [Punches Ned in the face]

If I ever meet Merlin, that's how I'm going to greet him.

Merlin, man! He's essentially the same character as Pol Detson from Madwand and Changeling and I didn't like him then, either.

This is Merlin distilled to his essence: When he meets Caine's Pattern Ghost, Caine slips a knife out of his sleeve with style and panache, and Merlin describes it in the most banal way imaginable.

He smiled and bowed, and his hands crossed and came apart. They’d been empty going in, but the right one held a dagger coming out. It must have come from a sheath strapped to his left forearm, inside the billowy sleeve. He had to have practiced the move a lot, too, to be that fast at it.

That's my emphasis on the last line. American Gods hadn't yet been written, but reading that exchange made me remember that whenever anybody met the fat kid, they always seemed to observe that his lines sound like something he practiced in front of a mirror.

Now I have the image of Caine practicing in front of a mirror, maybe in a green dressing gown. perhaps talking back to his reflection like Travis Bickle. "You talkin' to me?" (And strangely, this is now the second time I've referenced Taxi Driver in this series of Amber reviews.)

Or look at the treatment Borel gets. He was supposed to be the Benedict of the Courts, but when he actually shows up, he gets killed several times, the first of which is when Merlin trips and accidentally stabs him, which serves only to set up a punch line.

The next time he shows up, the implication is that Benedict can keep him busy for a couple hours with minimal effort.

[Benedict] gave me a quick salute with the weapon, at which moment Borel attacked. Benedict used an Italianate sixte which threw both their points off to the side, advancing as he did so. He reached forward quickly then with his left hand and pulled the other's nose. Then he pushed him away, stepped back a pace, and smiled.

"What do you usually charge for lessons?" I overheard him asking as Jurt and I hurried down the path.

I'm surprised he can make it out his door in the morning without stepping on a rake and knocking himself cold.

And that's why I don't like the Merlin series. Because it diminishes what has gone before.

The term Mary Sue gets thrown a lot on the Internet, so much so that it's lost a lot of meaning, and I don't think Merlin is quite in the land of Sueness, but he can certainly see it without a telescope, to steal a phrase from Neil Gaiman. Every woman wants him! Every man wants to be him! Come, Merlin, you are so wonderful, let us lavish gifts upon you!

I think a big part of this is that Zelazny doesn't write women well. In fact, I would expand that to say that he barely writes them at all in his earlier work. They generally have unimportant parts and appear infrequently. Link from Donnerjack is the closest thing to a female protagonist in his work, though that was a collaboration and I have the suspicion that she was more Lindskold's creation than his.

Merlin is characterized by his relationship with the women in his books. Julia has a fairly important role in the whole thing, but she comes across as flat and lifeless. Dara is just a shrew. (I do appreciate the bit of fankwank that posits the theory that the Dara who initially meets with Corwin for their fencing match really is Benedict's great-granddaughter but the one that eventually actually seduces him and the one we see in the Merlin books is really her mother or her grandmother, who had not died at all, accounting for the differences in personality and power. I think it needlessly complicates things, but sure, why not?)

What else bothers me? The names of the books. My friend Tim has observed that almost every Chinese restaurant in America can be made by matching Golden, China or Jade with Bowl, Wok or Wall. I see Zelazny was thinking along these lines when he named the Merlin books: Sign of Chaos, Knight of Shadows,Trumps of Doom, Prince of Chaos, and Blood of Amber. Jesus. I defy you to tell me which is which.

I mean, fuck, Roger, you're writing a sequel to one of the most beloved fantasy series of all time, not naming a Steven Seagal movie.

As much as I want to hate the series, I can't bring myself to do it, because it does have so many cool bits. Merlin is a gigantic tool, of course, but once you subtract him from the series, you have some really cool parts.



"I appreciate your making it clear."

"It's part of the job. So what'll it be?"

I raised my hands and the lines of force twisted like knives at each fingertip. Frakir dangled from my wrist and began to swing in an elaborate pattern.

Scrof smiled. "I not only eat sorcerers, I eat their magic, too. Only a being torn from the primal Chaos can make that claim. So come ahead, if you think you can face that."

"Chaos, eh? Torn from the primal Chaos?"

"Yep. There's not much can stand against it."

"Except maybe a Lord of Chaos," I replied, as I shifted my awareness to various points within my body. Rough work. The faster you do it the more painful it is.

Again, the rattling of the tin sheet.

"You know what the odds are against a Chaos Lord coming this far to go two out of three with a Dweller?" Scrof said.

My arms began to lengthen and I felt my shirt tear across my back as I leaned forward. The bones in my face shifted about and my chest expanded and expanded...

"One out of one should be enough," I replied, when the transformation was complete.

"Shit," Scrof said as I crossed the line.

That really is pretty cool exchange, and I love the concepts introduced in the series. If only the whole thing just weren't so wrapped up with Merlin. I mean, Frakir the strangling cord, the Logrus, the crystal cave, the Broken Pattern! Werewindle! Characters not named Merlin are generally pretty cool. Mandor and Dalt in particular vie with anyone from the original series for my affections.

I did enjoy the short stories set after the Merlin books. Luke's was fun and it's nice to hear Corwin's voice after so long.

Erick Wujcik points out something interesting too. Merlin is supposed to look a lot like Corwin. Jurt, son of the Duke Sawall is supposed to resemble Merlin and thus Corwin very much. So, what's going on here? Sure, they're shape-shifters, and maybe there's a little bit of that going on, but Wujcik notes that certain animals only need to mate once and go on to have multiple births, by storing fertilized eggs, which would probably be a simple matter for a shapeshifter like Dara. Or, he points out, even more simply, she already has Corwin as a prisoner in her personal dungeon and he probably enjoyed her visits more than Lord Rein's...

The Merlin series was something of a disappointment, but even mediocre Zelazny is pretty good. Still, I think I'd like something to cleanse my palate for my next review, so I'll be covering Jack of Shadows, one of my all time favorites!

7 comments:

  1. I didn't even read these as just a casual skim of one confirmed they didn't have the power or cohesiveness of the original series.

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  2. I loved the original 5 novels and after Lord of Light consider them RZ's best work. The Merlin books 6-10 are just dreadful and I never even finished them. Far too much "He said that she said they said but really they said that she said that he said...."

    As you say "Sign of Chaos, Knight of Shadows,Trumps of Doom, Prince of Chaos, and Blood of Amber. Jesus. I defy you to tell me which is which".

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  3. I loved the original 5 novels and after Lord of Light consider them RZ's best work. The Merlin books 6-10 are just dreadful and I never even finished them. Far too much "He said that she said they said but really they said that she said that he said...."

    As you say "Sign of Chaos, Knight of Shadows,Trumps of Doom, Prince of Chaos, and Blood of Amber. Jesus. I defy you to tell me which is which".

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  4. I don't disagree that the Merlin novels aren't as good as the original Corwin series, but I do disagree with Merlin being called a "douche" -- at least, if you're comparing him with Corwin! Come on, Corwin had a long stretch of using anyone and anybody he could to get what he wanted. Maybe his honesty in admitting it makes him more sympathetic?
    One thing I have noticed, though, is that despite the fact I didn't enjoy the Merlin novels as much as the Corwin series, it's surprising how often I misremember aspects of the Pattern and the Logrus introduced in the later books as having been introduced in the Corwin series. And it's not from lack of re-reading :)

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    1. DjF: Come on, Corwin had a long stretch of using anyone and anybody he could to get what he wanted. Maybe his honesty in admitting it makes him more sympathetic?

      That's pretty much it, at least for me. Corwin calls himself a monster:

      “In the mirrors of the many judgments, my hands are the color of blood. I sometimes fancy myself an evil which exists to oppose other evils; and on that great Day of which the prophets speak but in which they do not truly believe, on the day the world is utterly cleansed of evil, then I too will go down into darkness, swallowing curses.

      while Merlin generally attempts to rationalize and justify his actions. It doesn't hurt that Corwin has someone crazy and evil as his ultimate adversary. He certainly looks better for the contrast.

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  5. I think the Merlin series works much better if you also take them in context of how they are being told. IMO considering the first person narrative, and where Prince of Chaos ends, Merlin is most likely narrating his story to Corwin. Taking into consideration the idea of an unreliable narrator, as well as what some of the other specific posts in the individual books reviews have said regarding Merlin's naivete in regards to being used can alleviate some of the mary-sue'isms for me. You can't help but think that Merlin would want to come off as better to his father, so everyone loves him, vies for his attention, et al. Also, I seem to recall a line in Merlin's write up in the visual guide, something akin to Merlin's youth causing him to have a weaker voice in his memoirs. While I am in no way trying to influence your opinion, I do still think that the complete Chronicles of Amber rank as one of the best fantasy/sci-fi series ever written. It's in my top 3. Even with Merlin

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    1. I kind of like this interpretation, Merlin is trying is trying to tell a story to make himself look good, but he's so astoundingly naive that he has no frame of reference for what a realistic story would be, thus he spins an unbelievable tale of nonstop sex, admiration and accomplishment.

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