Friday, May 20, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: The Curiously Canadian Combat Command: Black Road War

This post isn't exactly a Roger Zelazny book review, though it is an Amber book review. It's about Neil Randall's The Black Road War (with "in the world of Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber"  emblazoned in much bigger letters on the top of the cover).  I like it, though it has some significant problems. One of them is the introduction by Zelazny, where he gives the mother and the colors for the children of Oberon. Oh, and he casually reveals the Ganelon is really Oberon in disguise. That's not a big deal for anyone but me, but I bought a bunch of Zelazny one summer and after I read Sign of the Unicorn for the very first time, I decided I wanted a break from fiction, so I cracked open Black Road War, and there was the unnessary spoiler, right there. It was kind of stupid reading it before I had finished the series, but that does nothing to diminish my annoyance.

Another problem, well...let me tell you a story. Once I was camping in upstate New York, and Jen and I decided to hit the rest facilities before we turned in for the night. I finished first and I was waiting outside for her when a fellow camper struck up a conversation with me in the thickest McKenzie brother accent imaginable.

Him: "Where you from, eh?"
Me: *blink* "Uh, Pennsylvania."
Him: "I'm from Canada, eh?"
Me: "No shit."

(Maybe I just thought that last part.)

 Until I read the first segment of Black Road War, that was the most gratuitously Canadian encounter I'd ever had.  The first part of BRW, for lack of a better word, aggressively Canadian. In the fair city of Toronto, Derek, former Canadian army officer and Troy university alum is listening to the Blue Jays game on the CBC, waiting for his team which includes a hockey player and a french-speaker named Jacques. I'm pretty sure Derek has a Maple Leaf tattoo.   I expected the strains of "O, Canada" to float out of the book every time I opened it.

"Corwin killed my dad, eh?"
And I like Canada. I've only been there a few times, and the most recent visits were business trips, so I didn't see much more than the airport and office buildings, which pretty much the same no matter where you go, but I enjoyed my time there and I'd like to go back. But as the famous Groucho Marx quote that never happened says, "I love my cigar, but I take it out once in a while." (And I see by his CV that Neil Randall's thesis was on The Techniques and Effects of Humour in Six Canadian Novels. I begin to understand.) Also, the Canada stuff tapers off once Derek starts off for Amber, but it's pretty intrusive in the beginning.

Black Road War a choose your own adventure book. The reader guides Derek, son of Eric, from Toronto to Amber, "that incredible, beautiful, terrifying world where Random rules as king and Corwin the murderer wanders free."  You're probably familiar with the concept, but if not, it's a story where the reader influences the action at critical points. If Derek turns west towards Amber, turns to page 43. If he heads to Chaos, turn to page 78. That kind of thing. Additionally, it has a random element not often found in these kind of books, where the player rolls some dice and compares them against a chart in order to determine the outcome. Some of the fights were extremely difficult, (particularly the last one) and it pissed me off to do everything right and lose at the end through no fault of my own. (I think that was an element already present in the Combat Command series, though, so I'm not going to be too harsh about it.)

Also, at crucial points, the reader would have to identify a character from the Chronicles to proceed. You added up all the letters in the name, with A being 1, B being 2, etc, and turned to the appropriate page. That's find if you're trying to identify, say Dalt, but at one point you have to name Dierdre and I knew what her name was, I just couldn't spell it. Also, it's a pain in the ass to put the book down and find a pen and paper to add up the numbers.

However, I think the biggest problem is that Zelazny's introduction invalidates the premise of the book. Derek is trying to find out what really happened to his father, and when he meets various Amberites, he's told that Corwin's account cannot be wrong, because Corwin re-created the Pattern and all of reality reflects his deed. Anything he says, is ipso facto true.  However, in Zelazny's introduction, he's like, "You know how Corwin thought Random was his full brother at first? Well, he was wrong and that was just wishful thinking. Merlin was right to wonder how edited his father's account was."

Despite all that, I like it. The story is engaging and Randall does a solid job of imitating Zelazny's style. It reminded me of early Brust. No one would ever mistake it for a story by Roger Zelazny, but it's reminiscent enough not to pull the reader out of the story.

There's not a lot of point in recapping the plot, because it will be different each time. But, as they say, all roads lead to Amber, and assuming you last long enough, you'll have the same beginning and same end-game each time. The thing I like best is that Derek can only win by turning back, by abandoning his quest for revenge. When he left for Amber, the Blue Jays were at bat with a full count in a crucial game. Most endings lead to Derek dying in some way, but if he makes it to the end, there are two possible outcomes. In the good one, the Blue Jays win, the stock market improves, and things are a little brighter all over. If he has the bad ending, then they lose and things are little darker.

Conclusion: No point in giving this my usual letter grade, because that's a scale comparing a given work against all of Zelazny's books. It's an interesting novelty, and it did nothing to diminish the goodwill I feel towards Neil Randall for his work on the Visual Guide.


  1. Found your website looking for something else, and I'm really enjoying it, and your thoughts on opinions on Zelazny Amber series was pretty much matching my own. Until this one.

    The Black Road War is the worst book of the 'Choose your Own Adventure' design I've ever read. Try reading the book out of narrative sequence from beginning to end for a different perspective on it...

    Playing thorugh, your character will change his mind halfway through. Try going to the Courts of Chaos and he will change his mind for no good reason, and heads to Amber itself. The combat setups are boring and irrelevant. And there is no happy ending in that book for Eric, there's only an ending where he almost gets what he wants, but has it snatched away at the last moment. It's no wonder you had an unhappy ending - there are no happy endings, so no real point making any choices along the way.

  2. I'd have to read the book again. To tell you the truth, I barely remember writing this review. My impression of the good ending was different than yours however. I think it was intended to parallel Corwin's realization that he didn't really want the things he thought he wanted after all.