Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Trumps of Doom

After I finished with the Corwin Chronicles, I reviewed the Merlin books as a group, but I decided to come back to them because as much as I do hate Merlin as a character, there are certain elements that I really do like about the books. There's a website called Garfield minus Garfield which is just what it sounds like. Somebody took a bunch of Garfield strips and photoshopped the titular cat right out of there. I really wish that somebody would do that with the Merlin Chronicles, because they're a perfectly serviceable series of fantasy books marred by a smug dickhead of a protagonist.

Trumps of Doom, taken alone, is not as atrociously bad as my endless bitching about Merlin would suggest. I'm even fond of the beginning.

It is a pain in the ass waiting around for someone to try to kill you. But it was April 30, and of course it would happen as it always did. It had taken me a while to catch on, but now I at least knew when it was coming. In the past, I'd bin too busy to do anything about it. But my job was finished now. I'd only stayed around for this. I felt that I really ought to clear the matter up before I departed.I got out of bed, visited the bathroom,showered, brushed my teeth, et cetera. I'd grown a beard again, so I didn't have to shave. I was not jangling with strange apprehensions, as I had been on that April 30 three years ago when I'd awakened with a headache and a premonition, thrown open the windows, and gone to the kitchen to discover all of the gas burners turned on and flameless. No. It wasn't even like the April 30 two years ago in the other apartment when I awoke before dawn to a faint smell of smoke to learn that the place was on fire. Still, I stayed out of direct line of the light fixtures in case the bulbs were filled with something flammable, and I flipped all of the switches rather than pushing them. Nothing untoward followed these actions.

Also, I happen to like the art on the paperback editions.

The hardcover, not so much

Jesus, what the fuck is that?
Edit: Per Chris Kovac's suggestion, I edited in the image from which the Trumps of Doom hardcover had been copied: 

Any resemblance is surely purely coincidental

I forget where I read a quote that went something like "A Musician has a lifetime to produce the first album and six months to produce the second." The impression that I get from the Collected Stories is that Zelazny was offered a large advance to write a second Amber series, and it's not something he would have initiated at the point in time if not for the offer.

And I can't fault him for that. I think it was Jane Lindskold who wrote that Zelazny took pride in being able to write up a story on spec. Also Neil Gaiman has some choice words about fans and their entitlement issues.


So, Trumps of Doom. What do I think?  The elements that would come to annoy me were all mostly already present, Ghostwheel, Merlin's smug stupidity (particularly with the Sphinx), everyone being obsessed with Merlin. (That last one drives me crazy: His boss wants him back!  As soon as he gets back to Amber, the Elders are falling over each other to be his buddy!)

Everything in the Corwin books fits together, but some things just seem poorly thought out, uncharacteristically so for such a normally fastidious author. Like Merlin going to college. Sure, there are benefits to a higher education, and it would make sense if he eventually went to college, but doing it in his late teens or early 20s just seems like asking for trouble.  Bill Roth observes "back when you came you weren't even certain how most people here behaved", so a period of adjustment would have been logical.

Or take this:

"He's Master of the Logrus. He's an uncle of mine, too. He felt that the Pattern of Amber and the Logrus of Chaos were incompatible, that I could not bear the images of both within me. Random, Fiona, and Gerard had taken me down to show me the Pattern. I got in touch with Suhuy then and gave him a look at it. He said that they seemed antithetical, and that I would either be destroyed by the attempt or the Pattern would drive the image of the Logrus from me, probably the former. But Fiona said that the Pattern should be able to encompass anything, even the Logrus, and from what she understood of the Logrus it should be able to work its way around anything, even the Pattern. So they left it up to me, and I knew that I had to walk it. So I did. I made it, and I still bear the Logrus as well as the Pattern. Suhuy acknowledged that Fi had been right, and he speculated that it had to do with my mixed parentage. She disagreed, though-"

Dara, of course, walked the Pattern before her son, and she's shown using Logrus powers later in the series. The best way to reconcile this is to conclude that she negotiated the Logrus after walking the Pattern, but I don't think it's ever really addressed. But it seems unlikely that she would have done so after Merlin did, but since the conversation here seems that the experts believe the Imprint of both is utterly irreconcilable.

"Now you come along with a story that makes me believe Pandora's box has been opened again. Why couldn't you just want a divorce like any sensible young man? Or a will written or a trust set up? A partnership agreement? Something like that? No, this sounds more like one of Carl's problems. Even the other stuff I've done for Amber seems pretty sedate by comparison."

"Other stuff ? You mean the Concord-the time Random sent Fiona with a copy of the Patternfall Treaty with Swayvil, King of Chaos, for her to translate and you to look at for loopholes?" 

I once remarked that I thought the exposition in the Corwin Chronicles was well handled. I don't even know what the fuck that was. That's fan fiction level of exposition right there.

Bill Roth comes across as thorough and reasonably bright in all his appearances. We're told how smart Merlin is, but Bill Roth is running circles around him. Smart doesn't mean sensible, of course, and he might be a brilliant engineer and clueless in other arenas, but there's a large gap between Merlin as described and Merlin as shown.

Also, Ghostwheel. I like the concept, but, well, like so much in the series, I just didn't enjoy the execution.

"Ghost, within five thousand Shadow veils, this location-how many Shadow-storms are currently in existence?" 

The words camne as if spoken within the hoop: "Seventeen."

"Sounds like-"

"I gave it my voice," I told him. "Ghost, give us some pictures of the biggest one." 

Of course you did.  You're your own biggest fan! I bet Merlin was sockpuppeting support for himself on Usenet message boards back in the 90s.

Is it all bad? No. It's Roger Zelazny after all. Fiona, probably my favorite among the sisters, gets substantial development and shows herself as a force to be reckoned with. Luke is introduced, and I think he's one of Zelazny's finest characters.

It has some memorable exchanges:

"Who are you?" I snarled. 

"Jasra," she spat back, "dead man!"

She opened her mouth wide and her head fell forward. I felt the moist touch of her lips upon the back of my left forearm, which still held her own right wrist against the chair's arm. Seconds later I felt an excruciating pain there. It was not a bite, but rather felt as if a fiery nail had been driven into my flesh. 

Also one of my favorites:

 People who work in slaughterhouses know that there is a spot on an animal's forehead to be found by drawing an imaginary line from the right ear to the left eye and another from the left ear to the right eye. They aim the killing blow , an inch or two above the junction of this X. My uncle taught me that. He didn't work in a slaughterhouse, though. He just knew how to kill things.

As a side note, I'll probably make a post about the Amber Diceless RPG. Those who play the RPG have a different conception of the novels than those who have only read the books. Among fans of the RPG, it's practically an article of faith that Caine faked his death a second time.

The ending is nice too.

I count the days by the lightening and darkening of the blue crystal walls. It has been over a month since my imprisonment, though I do not know how slowly or rapidly time flows here in relation to other shadows. I have paced every hall and chamber of this great cave, but I have found no way out. My Trumps do not work here, not even the Trumps of Doom. My magic is useless to me, limited as it is by walls the color of Luke's ring. I begin to feel that I might enjoy even the escape of temporary insanity, but my reason refuses to surrender to it, there being too many puzzles to trouble me: Dan Martinez, Meg Devlin, my Lady of the Lake . . . Why? And why did he spend all of that time in my company, Luke, Rinaldo, my enemy? I have to find a way to warn the others. If he succeeds in turning Ghostwheel upon them then Brand's dream-my nightmare of vengeance-will be realized. I see now that I have made many mistakes . . . Forgive me, Julia . . . I will pace the measure of my confinement yet again. Somewhere there must be a gap in the icy blue logic that surrounds me, against which I hurl my mind, my cries, my bitter laughter. Up this hall, down the tunnel. The blue is everywhere. The shadows will not bear me away, for there are no shadows here. I am Merlin the pent, son of Corwin the lost, and my dream of light has been turned against me. I stalk my prison like my own ghost. I cannot let it end this way. Perhaps the next tunnel, or the next..

I think it's kind of cool that Merlin wound up imprisioned in a crystal cave.

I'll be back with the next in a couple days.


  1. ...and the funniest thing about that awful cover on the hardcover (I love your comment about it) is that it was plagiarized from a Michael Whelan painting! Not an auspicious start to the Merlin series.

    Chris Kovacs

  2. I remember reading that in the Collected Stories and I finally got around to finding an image of the right version of Brother Assassin, and I've got to say, I much prefer the original from which it was plagiarized.

  3. I think you should edit your post to add that cover so people can see what we're talking about.

    Chris Kovacs

  4. Good Idea. I edited it in below the other book.

  5. And for those who don't know the story, here's an excerpt from the biography I wrote:

    Zelazny: "When I got the book, I thought the cover looked sort of familiar. And my son walked by and said, ‘That cover looks kind of familiar.’ Fred Saberhagen happens to be a good friend of mine, and I’d walked past a print of the original in his back hall all the time. In fact, I had read the book.
    “So the publisher got a telephone call from Michael Whelan’s attorney just a few days after the book was out, saying, ‘You realize that’s a plagiarized cover?’ Usually a publisher would give you some argument over something like that, saying, ‘You’ve got to talk to our attorneys and see if they think it’s a plagiarized cover.’ But they got a copy of Saberhagen’s book and held it next to Trumps of Doom and said, ‘Yeah, that’s a plagiarized cover. How much do you want?’ I don’t know what he got in the way of a settlement. But then, after he agreed to take a certain amount of money for damages, they said, ‘Well, now that we’ve got the thing, and we’ve spent all this money advertising the book with this cover on it, how much more do you want to let us go on using it? We don’t want to change the cover at this point.’
    “So that was my only Michael Whelan cover. I got it by way of plagiarism...I wish I could get a real Michael Whelan cover under the proper circumstances for the proper story. That would be something and a half."

    One of the things that I'm proudest about with THE COLLECTED STORIES OF ROGER ZELAZNY is that I insisted that we try to get Michael Whelan to do the cover art. No, people said, he doesn't do book covers anymore. But we shared Zelazny's sentiment with Whelan and he enthusiastically agreed to the task right away. I later met Whelan and he thanked me for my role in getting him to do it!

    Chris Kovacs

  6. This may get me labeled as a Zelazny heretic -- the orthodoxy seemingly being that the Merlin books suck -- but I thoroughly enjoyed Trumps of Doom. I think it's as good as the second through fifth books of the original series, and on a par with them in many respects.

    Josh, I'm baffled by your virulent dislike for Merlin -- does he remind you of someone you hated in high school, or something like that? As Amberites go -- not the most likeable lot to begin with -- I find him more tolerable than most. He at least displays a certain amount of self-awareness ("Grief and anger shrink my world [...] I grow smaller in my single-mindedness"; "All my life I have had a tendency to overreact to things. It seems to run in my family"). His remorse over Julia's death and his belated realization that he'd been in love with her came across, to me, as genuine. His willingness to seek and (mostly) follow Bill Roth's counsel seems like a plus to me, not a negative. I don't think he comes across as smug at all.

    Sure, he's a bit cocky and full of himself now and then, but what else would you expect from Corwin's son?

    Without an active dislike for the main character, I found Trumps of Doom to be lots of fun. I particularly enjoyed the fact that much of the book was set on "our" Earth (and it didn't bother me at all that Merlin had gone to college, and been good at his job). I liked Merlin's encounters with Julia's ex-boyfriend and mad Victor Melman; his riddle contest with the sphinx (shameless on Zelazny's part, granted -- though not quite as shameless as naming the court jester Droppa MaPantz -- but fun nonetheless); all the scenes with Bill Roth; the shout-outs to George Carlin and Pink Floyd; Random using an empty suit of armor for target practice (at least, I assume it was empty); Frakir; the crazy shadow worlds on the way to the Ghostwheel gizmo, and Merlin's imprisonment in the crystal caves.

    I wouldn't argue that it's a great book, but I think it's solid second-tier Zelazny. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

    --Chris DeVito

  7. Chris: Josh, I'm baffled by your virulent dislike for Merlin -- does he remind you of someone you hated in high school, or something like that?

    I'd like to put off answering that for now. I grew to like Merlin less and less as the series wore on, and I think knowledge of his future deeds is informing my perception of Merlin's actions in this one. To answer your question, I'd have to allude to stuff you haven't read yet, and I really don't like to spoil works for people.

  8. I'm going through the books pretty quickly (halfway through Blood of Amber now). Since I've never read the Merlin books or even read much about them, I have no idea where Zelazny went with the second series. I'll see if Merlin wears out his welcome!

    --Chris DeVito

  9. I'm currently re-reading Amber (and I've convinced several friends to read it for the first time--hurrah for spreading the Zelazny gospel!), and I've gotta say: I think you're in my head, Josh. I just finished Trumps of Doom, and I found Merlin to be more annoying than I remembered.

    Now, it's possible that I've just come to this conclusion because, the last time I read these books, I wasn't an avid reader and didn't really have any set of literary standards set in my mind. As far as I was concerned, Amber was the coolest thing ever, and that's that. So maybe now that I've been reading a lot more and have diversified my tastes somewhat, I'm seeing flaws I otherwise wouldn't have noticed or cared about.

    That, or you're just in my head.

    In any case, there was a lot about Trumps of Doom that made it less entertaining than the Corwin series for me. One of my gripes is all the exposition with Bill Roth, and not just for that awful line about Swayvill you quoted. It seems to me that Zelazny just decided to come out and explain exactly how everything in the Courts works, when he could have led us into it a little more slowly, like he did with the rules of Amber in the original series. I would have appreciated a little more mystery, but instead I was just told everything up front, over the course of a few pages in what mostly amounted to a Merlin monologue.

    Anyway, I also feel like the last half (or maybe third) of the book just didn't include anything terribly noteworthy. It was mostly just making an appearance in Amber and then taking a long walk to Ghostwheel.

    That being said, I did enjoy the stuff that happened on Earth, and I loved the exchange with the sphinx. And I'll agree that Luke is an awesome character. But upon finishing the book, I just got a general feeling that not much had happened, and I'm not really sure how to explain that.

  10. Zack: It seems to me that Zelazny just decided to come out and explain exactly how everything in the Courts works, when he could have led us into it a little more slowly, like he did with the rules of Amber in the original series. I would have appreciated a little more mystery, but instead I was just told everything up front, over the course of a few pages in what mostly amounted to a Merlin monologue.

    I think that I quoted Erick Wujcik in one of my reviews saying that one of the things he really loved about Amber was how it seemed to get bigger with each book. At times, it almost strikes me as Zelazny was discovering these new things himself, and the reader was right there for the journey. I agree, that's an element that largely seems absent from the Merlin books.

    1. Josh: "At times, it almost strikes me as Zelazny was discovering these new things himself, and the reader was right there for the journey. I agree, that's an element that largely seems absent from the Merlin books."

      I think a prime example of that would be the Shadow Storms; we've never heard anything about these phenomena previously in the Amber books, and then Merlin takes a quick moment to explain to us what they are, essentially telling the reader, "This will be significant soon."

      I feel like, in the first Amber series, this would have been handled differently: we'd have been thrown into a Shadow Storm first, and *then* have it explained.

      Anyway, after writing that last post, I thumbed through the book again to get a better idea of the events in the story. Reviewing the chapters led me to believe that I may have treated the book unfairly in that last post, because there really is some good stuff in there, but the parts that bugged me mostly happened at the end, so that's what was most fresh on my mind when I started writing.

    2. Now, now, don't be hard on yourself. You never need to apologize for hating Merlin around here.

  11. If I'd read this review ten years ago, I'd probably argue virulently against your perceptions of Merlin, but subsequent re-readings... yea, he sucks.

    I think my earlier fondness was because "Trumps" was the first Amber novel that I ever read. I picked up the paperback for something like 50 cents at a church thrift sale. I had never read anything by Zelazny before, and it was like nothing I had ever read, and even though it confused the hell out of me (I was barely in high school,) it really grabbed me. It wasn't until later that I tracked down "Nine Princes" and then read everything in order. But even the "worst" of Zelazny's work can come across as pretty spectacular to the uninitiated. ;)

    Of course, now I'm finally making my way through the "Collected Stories," and Merlin just pales in comparison.

    1. I loaned out the Merlin books to a friend one time and they were these cruddy used book store paperbacks. She came to me a couple days later, very upset, telling me that she had spilled some tea on them and that they were unreadable.

      I didn't tell her that I thought the were unreadable *before* the tea.