Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: The post-Merlin short stories

Back, after a short hiatus, another Roger Zelazny book review:

I've been sitting on this post for a little while and I thought I'd finally publish it now since I'm having a hard time finishing up my review of Lord of the Fantastic.

I may have let it slip from time to time that I didn't really feel that the Merlin books were of the same caliber of the Corwin books. I did however, enjoy the short stories that followed the series, for a couple of reasons.

The first is how I read them. I had a subscription to Amberzine in the 90s (a subscription which extended into the next decade, because the publication schedule was a tad irregular) and I was too young to read fantasy magazines in their heyday, but reading Amber stories like this was like a throwback to that era, and it was great.

I do try not to speculate about why an author made a certain decision, but Zelazny was open about writing the Merlin books because he was offered a large advance from the publisher, and I really feel that the books would have benefited from a little more polish. Perhaps I'm projecting too much of my own personal reactions to the series, but it seemed like at the end that he was burned out on Merlin and just wanted things to be over with.  However, with these short stories, he seems excited to explore the concepts and do some real world-building.

To digress, I think readers sometimes romanticize the artistic process. A friend of mine once observed

 People look at great works of art -- be they books, paintings, movies, whatever -- and they say "Oh what talent you have" and talk about how this piece of art is an "expression of the artist's inner heart and soul" and rail against those who have "sold out" by creating works of art for money instead of because it's their "true calling". This is all bullshit.

There's little meaningful difference between writing a good story and building a wall. Each works best when you follow certain rules and certain structures.

Roger Zelazny, was, among a great many other things, a very talented craftsman with a stunning breadth of knowledge. He was perfectly capable of writing a readable story to spec. I feel that there may have been an element of this in the Merlin chronicles. There was a demand for a second series and he fulfilled it and everyone was happy. But it seems that somewhere along the line, concepts in the Merlin books took on a life of their own, and Zelazny wrote several stories to explore them. I'm reminded of his words in the introduction to the first Last Defender of Camelot collection, where he says, "...it is a fact of writing life that, word for word, novels work harder for their creators when it comes to providing for the necessities and joys of existence. Which would sound cold and cynical, except that I enjoy writing novels, too." The fact that he returned to short stories to tell these tales suggests that he was more interested in telling a story that needed to be told instead of writing just fill pages, which is how the Merlin books sometimes struck me. To put it another way, the stories that followed the Merlin books felt like they had a passion that their immediate predecessors lacked.

Anyway, this is just uninformed speculation on my part. The short stories seem more focused than the Merlin books. It strikes me that they're building to something specific.
Enough ramblings. Here's my commentary.

Prologue to the Trumps of Doom:

This is a really short story and there's not much too it.  Merlin negotiates the Logrus and it's the same sentence fragments and poetic imagery you get in the Pattern walks.

The Salesman's Tale

Here's where we really get underway. Luke is our narrator for the story and it's nice to have a voice other than Merlin's or Corwin's telling the tale. I like the beginning.

Glad I'd planned on leaving Merlin in the Crystal Cave for a long while. Glad he didn't stay the entire time. As I interrupted our trumped conversation by kicking over my glass of iced tea and shouting "Shit! I spilled it--" I turned over the Trump of Doom in my good hand.

Junkyard Forest. Nice sketch, that. Though it didn't matter what it depicted, which is why I'd had Merlin fan the cards face down and had drawn one at random. That was for show, to confuse the Pattern. All of them led to places within spitting distance of the Crystal Cave--which had been the real reason for their existence in the first place. Their only purpose had been to draw Merlin into the Cave's orbit, at which point a blue crystal warning system was to have alerted me. The plan was for me to get there in a hurry and find a way to make him a prisoner.

Unfortunately, I hadn't gotten the message when he'd drawn the Sphinx to escape from mom. Her neurotoxins had canceled a necessary trigger signal from his nervous system--just one of the many ways she's messed up my plans without half-trying. Didn't matter, though, in the long run. I got Merlin there, anyway. Only... everything changed after that.

The first part of the story is Luke musing on the events that led up to this point while recovering in the Crystal Cave. He summons Werewindle, then contacts Vialle via Trump and relates to her the current goings on of the Pattern and the Logrus.  She assembles some of her sculptures and queries them and receives cryptic answers from about the significance of these events. It implies pretty heavily that Greyswandir and Werewindle were spikards before they were swords, something confirmed in a later story. I was really enjoying the teasers that Zelazny was rationing out to attentive readers, like this bit from Prince of Chaos:

"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.

In the hands of a lesser author, this could have come across as heavy-handed and a bit weak. Portentous, ambiguous warnings from a supernatural source? That's straight out the introduction to The Lazy Author's guide to Fantasy Clich├ęs. Zelazny pulls it off though, injecting the scene with just the right balance of foreshadowing and foreboding. It also establishes Vialle as somebody more than some blind girl Random was forced to marry once upon a time, and I would have been interested in learning more about her.

Blue Horse, Dancing Mountains

The story opens with Corwin being his usual badass self:

 I  took a right at the Burning Wells and fled smokeghosts across the Uplands of Artine.  I slew the leader of the Kerts of Shern as her flock harried  me from hightowered perches among  the canyons of that place. The others abandoned the sport, and we were through, beneath a green rain out of a slate-colored sky. Onward and down then, to where the plains  swirled dust devils that sang of sad eternities in rock that once they were.

He's riding a shapeshifting horse named Shask from Chaos to Amber, to deliver some news to which the statues had alluded in the earlier chapter. He has some adventures, he encounters representations of Dworkin and and Suhuy playing chess with figures like Mandor as chess pieces.

I like this bit of cryptic ambiguity quite a bit less than the last story. 1.) We just saw it done better in the last story 2.) The chessmaster analogy is beyond stale at this point.

The Shroudling and the Guisel

Ugh. It's Merlin.

    I  awoke  in a dark room, making love to a lady I did not recall having gone to bed with. Life can be strange.

Yeah, isn't life like that?

The lady is Rhanda, Merlin's childhood friend. Though she has the fangs, she's not a vampire, but rather a member of an almost extinct race, the shroudlings. They live on the other side of mirrors.

It's not a bad story, but it just exemplifies everything I hate about Merlin. It introduces yet another patron utterly captivated by him. She's been spying on his behalf and they exchange exposition. Rhanda tells him that Julia was just faking their reconcliation to put him off guard, and he tells her that he's not the king of Chaos, since a number of claimants have come out of the woodwork since the end of the final book. This is irrelevant, unless they can defeat the Guisel, a terrifying monster out of legend named after one of the von Trapp children.

Merlin's boosters are falling over each other to come to his aid.  Why does he engender this kind of loyalty again? Kergma, the mathematical abstraction with the cool way of speaking, tells Merlin what he has to do, and he uses the godlike power of the spikard that somebody else had given him to do it.

He carves up the Guisel and clones it, sending the replacement back at the sorcerer who summoned it. This leads directly into...

Coming to a Cord

Frakir was tied where Merlin left her, in Brand's bedroom, her heightened intelligence slowly returning to her. She encounters Flora, the sorcerer against whom Merlin sent the second Guisel, the Guisel, and Luke, in that order. We get explicit confirmation that Werewindle was previously a spikard. Luke uses it to destroy the Guisel, and he does it without endangering innocent people or nailing any of his aunts, which puts him two up on his cousin.

The sorcerer here seems a lot more sympathetic than Rhanda described him and I wonder if she was manipulating Merlin into get rid of an enemy.

This is a pretty decent story. Luke is a lot more appealing than Merlin as a protagonist, plus it fits in very nicely with all the other stories in advancing the overall narrative.

Hall of Mirrors

We open with Corwin again. He's being ambushed by a bunch of bandits and finds himself suddenly insubstantial. He returns to Amber and encounters Luke, and the pair soon find themselves in the Hall of Mirrors. Once there, Oberon orders Corwin to stab Luke. Corwin refuses, but Oberon clarifies, explaining he wanted to demonstrate something. We get some more spikard lore with the following exchange:

"They're brother and sister weapons, you know, with a certain magic in common. In fact, they've a powerful secret in common," Oberon said. "Tell him, Corwin."

"It's a dangerous secret, sir."

"The time has come for it to be known. You may tell him,"

"All right," I said. "Back in the early days of creation, the gods had a series of rings their champions used in the stabilization of Shadow."

"I know of them," Luke said. "Merlin wears a spikard."

"Really," I said. "They each have the power to draw on many sources in many shadows. They're all different."

"So Merlin said."

"Ours were turned into swords, and so they remain."

I'm not sure if I buy this, as much as I dig it. Corwin in the first chronicles was pretty stunningly ignorant of the cosmology of the universe, his knowledge of the Courts limited to a single visit there as a child. It doesn't jibe that he knows so much about the fundamentals of underlying reality. It's possible that this would have been addressed in later works, but this was Zelazny's final Amber story,

We continue through the hall, meeting Dara and Eric through the mirrors. I think I've been pretty clear in disliking the leitmotif of the Hall of Mirrors, but this is its best presentation. The pair are led to the killing ground, (Alice, my love) and compelled to duel. Luke speculates "Could it be that for the first time Amber is starting to reflect Shadow, rather than the other way around?"

The two observers are revealed to be Mandor and Fiona. Corwin and Luke pass out, but not before Fiona tells him that she and Mandor are not as culpable as he might thing.

They awaken in the dispensary, with Flora attending to them. The story, and the saga of Amber, ends with these lines:

"Corwin," Luke said, "Did the Hall of Mirrors show up a lot when you were a kid?"

"No," I said.

"Hardly ever, when I was growing up either," Flora said. "It's only in recent years that it's become this active. Almost as if the place were waking up."

"The place?" Luke said.

"Almost as if there's another player in the game," she responded.

"Who?" I demanded, causing a pain in my gut.

"Why, the castle itself, of course," she said.

The stories were all pretty good. I generally favor Zelazny's short works over his long ones. In fact, he's been so influential on taste that I owe to him my belief that the novella is the perfect length for a work of genre fiction. The stories are all solid, and I would have liked to see more of them, perhaps leading into another full length series. But that's not what we got. I can even see an appeal of Corwin and Luke in the infirmary, preserved, as if in amber,  just as their creator left them.


  1. Blue Horse, Dancing Mountains, always felt to me like a bit of the Dilvish stories that he couldn't plug in anywhere else. But then, Dilvish always felt like a discount store Corwin, or a top shelf Merlin, take your pick.

  2. The Amber shorts feel, to me, more like afterthoughts, loose ends Zelazny played with, but didn't do much with. Bottom-of-the-barrel stuff.

    --Chris DeVito

  3. Much like Random, I'm strangely sentimental over the damnedest things, and I think the fact that these were the final Amber stories factored into my feelings towards them. It also didn't hurt that they came after the Merlin series. Compared to that, they look like LORD OF LIGHT.

  4. Wow, Josh -- your Merlin-hate seems to be growing exponentially!