Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Q&A about the Merlin books

I'm sorry for taking so long to get back to you. I think I'll make this an actual post, rather than reply in the comments section, because it did wind up being pretty lengthy.

Chris DeVito :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.

The short version is that there's a very wide gulf between Merlin as we're told and Merlin as we're shown and I think they're irreconcilable. (The even shorter version is that this is the Internet and I think it's more fun to write a post full of outrageous hyperbole than it is to state, "I found Merlin a less compelling character than Corwin.")

We're *told* that he's this charming and brilliant polymath who mastered the Logrus, Logrus sorcery, the Pattern, Pattern sorcery,  Trump artistry, and computer programming to the extent that he could build his own AI demigod, all before his 30th birthday. Also, he's an Olympic caliber athlete, a brilliant fencer, and irresistible to women. I can accept that. There are incredibly talented people out there and he does come from a race of superhumans with almost endless resources to call upon, so I'm willing to give that a pass.

But when he has to demonstrate that brilliance, he's really painfully slow. Bill Roth is attorney, and probably a good one, but like I said, he's got to hold Merlin's hand through the painfully obvious. And, yeah, smart doesn't mean sensible, and yes, Bill is largely there to provide exposition for the reader but Jesus, for someone who is paranoid and ostensibly brilliant, Merlin is consistently slow on the uptake.

We're never shown why he's so great; we're only shown by the reactions of established characters. The core of my dislike of Merlin is that the story is that his presence warps the characterization of characters from the fist book. Gerard was the rock of Amber. He was above the squabbles of the others, and he loved his family, with all their faults, and he loved Amber. Now he has to stand to with his brothers and sisters to curry favor with Merlin.

With the first series, I always felt that Corwin only barely triumphed through desperate cunning and Herculean effort. But this never reflected poorly on him. Quite the opposite. It elevated his adversaries and therefore it elevated him. Merlin never has to exert himself, coasting to victory after victory by dumb luck, powerful patrons or straight up incompetence on the part of his opponents (And after all that he went through, didn't you feel a little sorry for poor Jurt?)

Chris DeVito:  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.

That's the impression I get too. I do like the short stories that followed the Merlin books. It feels like they were leading up to something, rather than just trying to end something that had already gone on too long. (Then again, it may be a matter of personal preference, because I think I prefer Zelazny's short works over his longer ones.)

1 comment:

  1. Well, Josh, I think I more or less understand your feelings here. Mine probably are not all THAT different, actually -- except in intensity. Merlin wasn't a very compelling character for me, but I didn't want to shove his head in the toilet and flush it, or anything like that. My problems with the second Amber series have more to do with Zelazny's choice of direction in the last book or two, rather than with Merlin.

    --Chris DeVito