Monday, May 2, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Prince of Chaos

Alas, April 30th has come and gone and no one has murdered Merlin, so I suppose I had best wrap up this series of reviews.

I was reading, of, I forget if it was Sign of Chaos or Knight of Shadows, and thought, man isn't it about time for Corwin to show up? When I started the series, I was expecting to see him, at the very latest, by some point in the second book, and all we get is a glorified cameo in the last one.

Prince of Chaos opens with Merlin nailing his aunt again before a demon fetches him to come back to the Courts of Chaos, which I thought was introduced rather inelegantly and abruptly. (Later on, he refers to Coral as his cousin, and while that's technically true in the loosest sense (a cousin is anyone with whom the subject shares a common ancestor. Technically, your siblings are cousins), but she would more typically be referred to as his aunt. Merlin calls Llewella and Fiona his aunts after all and they are both half-siblings to his father, the same as Coral. A biological aunt is technically a 1st cousin once removed, but rarely referred to as such, because there is a more specific term available. I don't know if this is Zelazny trying to be less squicky or a legitimate oversight on his/Merlin's part.)

Merlin takes off for the Courts and that's where much of the story in Prince of Chaos takes place. My biggest complaint about the setting is that it's just not alien enough in the Courts. The shadows in the novel Courts of Chaos are weirder than the actual Courts themselves. The shadows on the way to Amber in Nine Princes were weirder.

We get an interlude in the Hall of Mirrors again! It was lame when I thought it was just a one-off in Knight and it is used far too often here.

There is an interesting exchange between Luke's Pattern Ghost and Merlin:

 "Jasra got her instruction in sorcery from my mother? And she met Brand at Helgram? That would make it seem Helgram had something to do with Brand's plot, the Black Road, the war-"

"-and the Lady Dara going looking for your father? I guess so."

"Because she wanted to be a Pattern initiate as well as one of the Logrus?"

Hmm...that pretty strongly implies that Dara was already an initiate of the Logrus when she walked the Pattern, but in Trumps, Merlin made a big deal about being the only one to have the imprint of both. I suppose it can be justified by sufficient contortions (which, after all, is part of being a fan) but I think it's really just sloppy writing.

 She studied me for a moment, but I wasn't giving anything away either.

So, "When you were a child you went monosyllabic as a sign of petulance," she said.

"Yes," I said.

We began eating. There were more flashes out over the still, dark sea. By light of the last one I thought I caught sight of a distant ship, black sails full-rigged and bellied.
"You kept your engagement with Mandor earlier?"


"How is he?"


"Something bothering you, Merlin?"

"Many things."

"Tell Mother?"

"What if she's a part of it?"

"I would be disappointed if I were not. Still, how long will you hold the business of the ty' iga against me? I did what I thought  was right. I still think it was."

Why is Merlin so goddamn important that these godlike immortals crave his approval so badly? Also is he 15 years old again? This is how a teenager acts when you won't let him borrow the station wagon.

 "No," I responded. "I was referring to the business  about my being meant to be uniquely qualified.' How so?"
It must have been the lightning, for I had never seen her blush before.

I complained about the blushing in my review of Madwand. It's like Zelazny wants to insert a a rimshot sound effect to underscore the rhetorical point his character made, but he knows he can't, so he has the person  talking to the protagonist blush to signify it instead.

Last time Merlin stared down the Pattern. This time he tells off the Logrus.

It occurred to me that I might defy it now if I were really as valuable to the Logrus as Dara had indicated. So, "It's theoretically open to all comers," I responded.

"I am my own law, Merlin, and your Ghostwheel has crossed me before. I'll have it now."

"No," I said,  moving my awareness into the  spikard, seeking and
locating a means of instant transport to an area where the Pattern ruled. "I'll not surrender my creation so readily."

(If possible, the portrayal of the Pattern is even worse. A line that will live in infamy:  "Hey, Pattern, I want an iced tea of my own." If they really wanted to frighten the Pattern, Merlin and Luke should marry into the House of Windsor and produce a line of hemophiliac Amberites.)

Merlin flusters Dara with a bunch of lucky guesses and softball questions.

"Is he your prisoner, Mother? Do you have him locked away somewhere, someplace  where  he can't bother you, can't interfere with your plans?"

She stepped quickly away from the table, almost stumbling.

"Wretched child!" she said. "You're just like him! Why did you have to resemble him so?"

"You're afraid of him, aren't you?" I  said, suddenly realizing this could well be the case. "You're afraid to kill a Prince of Amber, even with the Logrus on your side. You've got him locked away  somewhere,  and  you're afraid he'll come loose and blow your latest plans. You've been scared for a long time now because of what you've had to do to keep him out of action."

"Preposterous!"  she  said,  backing away as I rounded the table. There was a look of genuine fear on her face now. "You're just guessing!" she went on. "He's dead, Merlin! Give up! Leave me alone! Never mention his name  in my presence again! Yes, I hate him! He would have destroyed us all! He still would, if he could!"

Earlier, Chris mentioned: Theodore Sturgeon and James Blish both placed the Amber books in the sword & sorcery camp. In his review of Guns of Avalon, Sturgeon wrote: "The genre's very nature dictates that the sword-swinging protagonist must be the same person at the end of the story as he is at the beginning. [...] true suspense is impossible for me if the central character cannot develop, age, fail, die, or (as is too often the case) even learn. [...] now and again there arrives a book so colorful, whose language is so cadenced and precise and whose characters (for all their basic changelessness) are so dimensional that you have to love them anyhow. Such a novel is Zelazny's The Guns of Avalon."

It's not that Merlin doesn't change. He regresses. He starts out as a somewhat self-absorbed adult and devolves into this this stunted man-child.

There's a big road trip where Merlin and his buddies go to save Coral, and while that part was kind of interesting, it reminds me of something else Chris D said about early reviews of the Amber books. "[Nine Princes in Amber and its sequel The Guns of Avalon] are fun books, enjoyable stories, but are mere light entertainment and not a series that will be looked back upon in future years as a classic."

That's exactly what I think of this section of the book. It's entertaining enough on it's own, but lacking sweep and grandeur that should be present at the conclusion of such an epic series.  That said, I enjoyed Dalt versus Ghost-Eric. I've always kind of liked Eric.

Later on Merlin observes. In a badly plotted story they'd have  paused outside the doorway, and I'd have overheard a conversation telling me everything I needed to know about anything.

Dude, this is a badly plotted story. You're not doing yourself any favors by drawing attention to it. Not to mention that your mom already did pretty much the same thing by talking about her plans to kidnap your girlfriend right in front of you.

We get more stupid mirrors again, more benefactors working to protect Merlin from his own stupidity. I'm going to steal a line I read in a Harry Potter review that said:  "I mean seriously, how many times can somebody get rescued from their own fuckups by smarter more capable people and still be considered a hero?" 

For the third time in the goddamn series, an incalculably powerful cosmic entity shows up and gets flipped the bird and then backs down, saying "I could destroy you trivially, but I won't." They stop being a credible threat after too much of this.

And then in the last ten pages, it's over. I remember watching Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings and I noticed that we were getting pretty close to the end and they'd need to wrap things up pretty quickly if they wanted to conclude things. And then a voice announces the end of part one and the credits roll. That's what it felt like here.

Zelazny goes for a change of pace by ending the book in a row with another magical brawl. I happen to like it. I thought the descriptions involved were really pretty cool. 

There were a few other things I liked.  You see, even though it's just a throwaway line, I really like this exchange:

"Good copy,"  he said,  "but not even the Pattern can duplicate Grayswandir."

"I thought a section of the Pattern was reproduced on the blade."

"Maybe it's the other way around," he said.

"What do you mean?"

"Ask the other Corwin sometime," he said. "It has to do with something we were talking about recently."

I actually do like the short stories that came after it though, because my interpretation is that Zelany mostly wrote the Merlin for financial reasons, he did come across some avenues that he intended to pursue when wrapping it up. The stories feel like they were the prelude to something big and I found them a lot more fun than the series that spawned them.  I'll probably cover them as a group somewhere down the line.

Also, I thought the shrines to the Amberites are kind of cool. I think something similar happened in post-war Japan, where society became fascinated by Western Culture.

I realized while working on this series of reviews that I somehow failed to cover The Graveyard Heart, so that's probably up next.


  1. Having finally read all the Merlin books, I have to admit to continued bemusement at your relentless antipathy for Merlin, Josh. Yes, he's young, overconfident, and cloddishly earnest. Beyond that, though, I don't recognize much about him in your criticisms. As it turns out, he's really been a pawn all along -- a breeding experiment targeted for a specific purpose -- which explains the general interest centered on him. Almost everyone seems to know more than he does. Nevertheless, he seems to have a basic sense of decency that drives him to keep trying to do the right thing. He has this strange idea that individuals are more important than political intrigues. Now, Zelazny might have handled the theme with more finesse and subtlety or developed it more thoroughly, but still, it's a refreshing idea.

    Beyond Merlin himself, I found the first three books to be enjoyable second-tier Zelazny. The last two weren't quite as enjoyable for me; too much hugger-mugger and seemingly arbitrary jumping about, a lot of characters thrown in (or reintroduced) but not developed, and a certain repetitiveness (all those walkings of the Pattern, or a broken Pattern, or whatever -- since they're all essentially the same experience, I wish Zelazny would have short-cutted most of those). Not to mention a fair amount of loose ends (whatever happened to Frakir, anyway? Just left hanging there on a bedpost?).

    Anyway, maybe my expectations were just lowered by all the negative stuff I've read about the Merlin books, but on balance I mostly enjoyed them. I'll probably reread them someday . . . though I may do a fair amount of skimming.

    --Chris DeVito

  2. I also found most of the sword fights to be opaque -- too much jargon. Somebody does a quarte, then a sixte, followed by a pinto or quantas or whatever. I didn't even bother looking these terms up, just skimmed ahead to see how the fight ended.

    And Zelazny seems to have indulged in an inordinate amount of said-bookisms . . . maybe Zelazny was winking at the reader, saying it's all just neo-pulp melodrama anyway, don't take it so seriously?

    --Chris DeVito

  3. And by the way, it does kind of suck that Zelazny threw Corwin back into a dungeon right after the end of the first series, and left him there until the end of the second. Seems like extreme auctorial laziness. (Or peremptoriness -- there's a bit of both evident in the last two or three Merlin books.)


  4. You've hit on the thing that annoyed me most about the Merlin series. I wanted Corwin, and when we finally get him after various teases and ghosts, we learn that he's been helpless in a dungeon since the end of the previous five books. Just as you don't make the villain apologize at the end of the movie, you shouldn't take the main hero and make him helpless in the background for the entire sequel. Had Corwin entered like a deus ex machina to save Merlin's ass at the end, rather than being rescued himself, I think I would have loved the final book.

    Chris Kovacs

  5. I was pretty much expecting the "ghost" Corwin to turn out to be the real Corwin all along, scamming the whole game. Instead, we get the anticlimactic revelation that he's been languishing in a dungeon all along. I kind of sensed the air wheezing out of the balloon at that point. (And then to have the ghost Corwin take his place seemed like adding insult to injury, or injury to injury, or something.)

    --Chris DeVito

  6. Chris D.: Do you own/have access to The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny (Volume 6) or Manna From Heaven? Both books include the story "Coming to a Cord." (Not to mention all the other Amber short stories.)

    Hopefully that will help answer some of your Frakir questions. =P

  7. Thanks for the reminder, Zack -- I do have all of the Collected Stories volumes. There's so much in them, though, that it'll take me a long time to digest it all, if ever (and yes, that's a compliment to Chris K. and his colleagues!).

    To be honest, my interest is not really so much what happens to Frakir after the series, but why Zelazny booted her offstage at the end of the fourth Merlin book. Frakir had been an integral part of the series up until then, growing in importance with each book; but apparently Zelazny suddenly decided -- 4/5ths of the way through the series -- that he didn't want the character anymore, for whatever reason, and unceremoniously stuck her to a bedpost like yesterday's chewing gum, barely to be mentioned again.

    I hate to say it, but that's the kind of sloppiness typical of (a) lazy writers, (b) hack writers, or (c) writers who just don't give a damn. Obviously the first two don't apply to Zelazny; but I have to wonder if, at that point, he'd just had enough of the Amber books and cranked out the last couple as quickly and easily as possible, without much concern for things like continuity and loose ends.

    --Chris DeVito

  8. On a random note, I found Zelazny's spell names to be somewhat dubious. Obviously they were meant humorously, but still . . .

    Though I do like Electric Porcupine. Would have made a great name for a late-'60s psychedelic band out of San Francisco.

    --Chris DeVito