Thursday, August 26, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: The Guns of Avalon part I

On the off chance that you've stumbled upon an obscure website and you're now reading the fifth in a series of lengthy review of Roger Zelazny books, be aware that this particular book has significant spoilers for the entire series.

I'm going to split this review into several different parts, because it's looking to be a long one.

I've been listening to it at work when I don't need to be on the phone and it really adds an additional element. Ganelon says of the Wardens of the Circle: "Their voices lack the thrust and dip of men chewing over their words and tasting them." That's why I like Zelazny's reading of his own works so much. He's at his best when reading his own dialogue, which tends towards the deliberate. You can hear the dip and thrust as he chews over the words, understanding what each character is thinking as he speaks for them.

Two people who read the review of Nine Princes expressed polite disagreement with my opinions that the first book isn't as strongly rooted in the Amber universe as the others. I think we agree on the basic facts, but for them, this different tone is a feature and not a bug. And it really is a matter of personal preference. Guns of Avalon, for me, is where the series really found its groove. I like how concepts introduced in Nine Princes are expanded and explored. That's what science fiction should be about, in my opinion, and it's in the area of introducing factors that are not present in the real world and exploring them to their logical conclusions that I think Zelazny is strongest. In Nine Princes, he throws out a lot of concepts, and in The Guns of Avalon, he extrapolates where those concepts might lead.

I mentioned that I borrowed any number of elements from Zelazny to populate my Mazeworks game, but never more so than with GoA. I pretty much lifted the first third of the book wholesale as the first adventure. I stole large swaths of text and even minor characters like Ganelon's physician, Roderick. (I called it Avalon rather than Lorraine, because Lorraine is kind of a dumb name for a country.)

(As an aside, when the characters returned after toppling the Horned One, they encountered an Avatar of Nyarlathotep that I called the Opener of the Way)

He weeps blood from empty eye sockets. Lean, emaciated, clad in rags of black and silver, and wearing a black beard shot through with gray that speaks of long imprisonment and terrible deprivation, the man looks barely able to stand, but an inhuman power radiates off him like heat. The clasp that holds his cloak is a silver rose, so tarnished as to appear almost black.

I thought that was a kind of cool concept that came out reasonably well.

Anyway, enough about my game. On to the book!


He sat at a heavy wooden table near a wide window overlooking the courtyard. He wore a brown leather jacket over a black shirt, and his trousers were also black. They were bloused over the tops of his dark boots. He had about his waist a wide belt which held a hoof-hilted dagger. A short sword lay on the table before him. His hair and beard were red, with a sprinkling of white. His eyes were dark as ebony.

His background suggest that he is based on the traitorous knight in the Song of Roland to a certain extent. (I guess that would make Charlemagne a shadow of Corwin.) Zelazny has also stated that The Dark World by Henry Kuttner was an influence on Amber, and the main character there is named Ganelon.

To me, the interesting question is when Zelazny decided that Ganelon was really Oberon in disguise. I'd guess somewhere between Sign of the Unicorn and the Hand of Oberon. I have a vague recollection that the novels were first published as serials in the science fiction magazines, though I can't confirm that now and I may well be mistaken. If that's the case, I'd revise that back a little and say he knew it by the end of Sign.


I didn't like her much at first.

Her hair was rust-colored with a few strands of gray in it. I guessed she was under thirty, though. Eyes, very blue. Slightly pointed chin. Clean, even teeth inside a mouth that smiled at me a lot. Her voice was somewhat nasal, her hair was too long, her make-up laid on too heavily over too much tiredness, her complexion too freckled, her choice in clothing too bright and tight. But I liked her. I did not think I'd actually feel that way when I asked her out that night because, as I said, liking her was not what I had in mind.

I guess I felt she wasn't worthy of Corwin, which is such a fanboy thing to think. She was just some floozy shadow dweller to teenage Josh. She grew on me as I grew older, though I can't say exactly why.


When the demon Strygalldwir comes to find him, it leads to what I think of the definitive Corwin exchange.

"Who are you?" I asked.

"Strygalldwir is my name. Conjure with it and I will eat your heart and liver."

"Conjure with it? I can't even pronounce it," I said, "and my cirrhosis would give you indigestion. Go away."

"Who are you?" it repeated.

"Misli, gammi gra'dil, Strygalldwir," I said, and it jumped as if given a hotfoot.

"You seek to drive me forth with such a simple spell?" it asked when it settled again. "I am not one of the lesser ones."

"It seemed to make you a bit uncomfortable."

"Who are you?" it said again.

"None of your business, Charlie. Ladybird, Ladybird, fly away home-"

"Four times must I ask you and four times be refused before I may enter and slay you. Who are you?"

"No," I said, standing. "Come on in and burn!"

Earlier reference to Zelazny;s characteristic "laid-back, easy-going, wise-cracking, homicidal protagonist", cause, man, you get every one of those elements here.

It's pretty cool to hear Zelazny say "Misli, gammi gra'dil", which according to an article in the late, great Amberzine, (now available at obscene prices on Amazon. ) is actually a phrase in Shelta Thari meaning "Be off, and bad luck to you!" He delivers the whole phrase quite fluidly.

Kind of interesting link on the background: Shelta Thari

Also, I had the amusing thought where Strygalldwir goes to introduce himself to his new coworkers and he's like "Hey, I'm Strygalldwir. I'm starting in accounting," and they're like "Strygalldwir, huh? How's that spelled?" and he's all like "Jesus, dude, just like it sounds." (If you're curious, Zelazny pronounces it in three syllables, Strig-wall-dir, with slight stress on the first.)

The Greeks have a concept called Akrasia , which is basically choosing an action against one's own better judgment. I've occasionally referenced the fable about the fox and the scorpion. If you're not familiar with it, the scorpion is on the bank of a river and he asks the fox if he can ride on the fox's back. The fox says, "Well, okay, but if you sting me, we're both going to die." and the scorpion is like, "Naw, that would be stupid." So he climbs on board and half-way across the river, he stings the shit out of the scorpion, who's like "Dude, wtf?" and the scorpion just says, "It's my nature."

In Princes, the characters are more archetypal. I've heard them liked to the Gods of the Greeks. Hubristic. Larger than life. They are governed by their ruling passions, often unwise, abiding by a specific code of honor, and equally capable of dolling out lavish gifts or disproportionate revenge at the drop of a hat. But one thing they never are is small. While they are fallible, they are always majestic. That never leaves them, but they grow more nuanced as the series progresses.

Corwin must know that the smart thing to do is to move on right past Lorraine. But due to the guilt and sense of responsability that he feels over his actions, he stays and cleans up the mess. He calls the Horned One "My sin against a thing I loved."

All things considered, a very tight little adventure that open up the series to some elements that I feel really enrich it.

That's it for this installment. I'll be posting the second part shortly.

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