Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Sign of Chaos

Trumps of Doom and Blood of Amber had already been released by the time I started actively seeking out Zelazny books, but I had to wait for Sign of Chaos. It's strange to think back to a time when I was craving more stories about Merlin, but that was teenage Josh. He liked all sorts of crappy things.

I think this is the book where the wheels begin to come off the whole Merlin saga, though again, it does have a few things to recommend it. For instance, the beginning in Wonderland is a pretty entertaining read.

I felt vaguely uneasy, though I couldn't say why. It did not  seem  all that  unusual  to be drinking with a White Rabbit, a short guy who resembled Bertrand Russell, a grinning Cat, and my old friend Luke  Raynard,  who  was singing  Irish  ballads  while  a  peculiar  landscape shifted from mural to reality at his back. Well, I was impressed  by  the  huge  blue  Caterpillar smoking  the hookah atop the giant mushroom because I know how hard it is to keep a water pipe lit. Still, that wasn't it. It was a convivial scene,  and Luke was known to keep pretty strange company on occasion. So why should I feel uneasy?

Merlin is hardly a tool at all when he's drunk. Much like Dennis Wexroth, Fred's guidance counselor in Doorways in the Sand, he's "considerably more congenial" when he's inebriated.

Luke relates his an account of his glider-borne invasion of the Keep of the Four Worlds. Hang-gliding shows up an awful lot in this series, though Random did it first, of course. (Though it was the hang-gliding in Isle of the Dead that I happened to think of first.)

It gives us our first real appearance of Mandor and Mandor is a pretty cool cat.

I held it before me and put the others away, studying the blue eyes and the young, hard, slightly sharp features beneath a mass of pure white hair. He  was dressed all in black, save for a bit of white collar and sleeve showing beneath the glossy tight-fitting jacket. He held  three dark steel balls in his gloved hand.

Mandor is one of the few people who isn't falling over himself to marvel at Merlin. In fact, he tells Merlin that he's kind of a fuckup, which may be why I like him so much.

I really enjoyed the interaction between Mandor and Fiona. Then we get back to Amber, and it really starts to drag again, though this line made me chuckle. "I'd like to meet the person who wrote the reports. There may be a great creative talent going to waste in a government office." Heh heh. Silly Merlin. He gave that up and now he's a guard in Castle Amber!

I thought they were doing something with the throwaway line about the Ghost of Oberon, but it never really went anywhere. It probably became the Pattern Ghosts we see in the next book.

This was also a very nice exchange between Luke and Merlin.

"Oh,  I know most of it, in theory. I wouldn't mess with it, though. I think it takes away something of your humanity. You don't much give a shit about  other  people  or human values afterward. I think that's part of what happened to my father."

What could I say? Maybe that part was true and maybe it wasn't.  I  was sure  Luke  wanted  to  believe in some  external  cause for his father's treachery. I knew I'd never contradict him on it, even if I learned differently.

You know, I could come to like Merlin if he had more lines like that. I think that is the most kind and profoundly human thing he says across the entire series.

This was pretty interesting. I liked learning a little more about the magic system:

Not Art. Whoever enjoyed the luxury of  living  near  and  utilizing  a power  source  such as this would doubtless get very sloppy as time went on, only using the basic frames of spells as guides,  running  rivers  of  power through them. One untutored, or extremely lazy, might possibly even dispense with that much after a time and play directly with the raw forces, a kind of shamanism,  as  opposed to the Higher Magic's purity-like that of a balanced equation-producing a maximum effect from a minimum of effort.

Ultimately it suffers from the same flaws as the other books in the series, though they were certainly more pronounced here. Merlin is almost universally loved, respected and admired. Coral is smitten, Jasra is instantly charmed. Merlin is not just a tool, he's the whole shed. When I think of the image on his Trump, I can't help but imagine it as Merlin with a hipster haircut, smirking over the late 80s Macintosh he used to create Ghostwheel.


  1. Josh: "Merlin is almost universally loved, respected and admired."

    As I've been reading the Merlin books this time around, I've been watching for this sort of thing. And I have to say, I don't really get the impression that everyone trips over themselves trying to show their love for Merlin.

    It seems to me that everyone who goes out of their way to impress him is actually using him. Coral is smitten? I don't think so--she clearly just came to Amber to walk the Pattern, and of the three people she first met (Vialle, Llewella and Merlin), which is the most likely candidate to be seduced for her purposes? I'm gonna go with "the male, because he's male."

    Yeah, she hugs him and cries a bit on the stairs down to the Pattern, but that's because she was scared and he happened to be there. She probably woulda hugged Droppa MaPantz if he'd been her escort.

    And was Jasra really charmed by Merlin? If anything, I'd think maybe she was charmed by Mandor. And even so, she's such a devious, intrigue-loving lady that I wouldn't believe any sort of "charmed" emotion she's showing on the surface.

    As far as Nayda/Vinta Bayle/Meg Devlin goes, well . . . the ty'iga has known Merlin for many, many years. It's not like it's a crush at first sight. And I'm not even sure it *does* love him--it may just be seducing him (once again, Merlin is getting used, not being a charming chap!) to keep him from running off, so it can better protect him.

    In your TRUMPS OF DOOM review, I seem to recall you saying that the Amber family was tripping over themselves to try and get a private audience with Merlin. But, once again, knowing what we know about how the Amberites work, I just assumed this to be their attempts to feel him out and see how they could potentially use him--especially since there were rumors that maybe Corwin had gone mad and was behind the attacks on Caine and Bleys.

    Beyond that, I can't think of any other instances where people went out of their way to try and impress/love Merlin. I really feel that he's mostly being used, which actually makes him a somewhat sympathetic character in my mind: he may be a brilliant scientist and sorcerer, but for all his power and intelligence, he's too naive to be playing this game the others have mastered over the years. He's in over his head most of the time, and that makes me want to root for him.

    1. I can't believe it, Zach. Merlin's gotten to you, too.

    2. He's just so lovable! I want him to be my friend.