Roger Zelazny (1937-1995) was one of science fiction’s most renowned writers. He won several Hugo and Nebula awards, and numerous honors from other countries. He is considered one of the earliest writers to embrace the New Wave in science fiction, often focusing on his characters’ emotions and motives as well as their actions. He wrote dozens of books and short stories; some of his best-known novels include This Immortal, Lord of Light, and, of course, his ten-book Amber series, which has been combined into one large volume, The Great Book of Amber.
The Amber series can be divided into two sets of five books each. The first set, beginning with Nine Princes in Amber and ending with The Courts of Chaos, is told from the point of view of Corwin, prince of Amber. Zelazny published the first book in 1970 and the fifth in 1978. The second set, beginning with Trumps of Doom and ending with Prince of Chaos, is told from the viewpoint of Corwin’s son Merlin, a prince of Chaos, and was published throughout the latter part of the 1980s.
The plots of each novel are so complex they defy synopsis, but I’ll try to give you an overview of what you can expect. Zelazny tells a fast-paced, interesting, complex, long story here, about Amber, a place at the center of reality. All other places are mere shadows, and can be reached only by manipulating reality, changing it bit by bit until you arrive at the place you want to be. Earth is a shadow, too, you may be surprised to learn, and is a popular hangout for Amber’s royal family, especially for Corwin, the protagonist and narrator of the first five books.
Corwin is smart and suspicious, which explains his actions when he wakes up in a psychiatric institution at the beginning of Nine Princes in Amber. He realizes he’s been in a terrible accident, but he has amnesia, and he has a hunch that he shouldn’t trust anyone. So he pretends he knows exactly what’s going on — what happened to him, who Evelyn is, what to do with her pack of weird cards …
Eventually he discovers that he’s a prince of Amber, caught in a vicious struggle to gain the throne after the disappearance of his father. The first five books chronicle his attempts to become king, his battles with his brothers, his intrigues with his sisters, and the threat and eradication of the black road, a tear in shadow which allows evil beings to come dangerously close to Amber. Corwin may actually have created the black road, and he certainly must help to eradicate it. At the end of the last book in the first set, The Courts of Chaos, he must save Amber with one heroic deed, and decide for once and for all if he wants to be king.
Corwin’s numerous siblings form an integral part of the plots of the first five books. They are mysterious, colorful, larger-than-life individuals: Benedict, better than anyone anywhere with weapons; Random, young, footloose, and irresponsible; beautiful Fiona, who has studied the mysteries of Amber in depth; artistic Brandon, who seemed a bit mad before he disappeared — eight brothers and four sisters in all. They are very strong, heal abnormally quickly from illnesses and injuries that would kill ordinary humans, and live for centuries, Their ambitions and shifting alliances form an ever-changing maze through which Corwin must pick his way carefully.
As I stated above, the plots are complex. Corwin and the reader think they’ve discovered the truth time after time, only to find another layer of truth (or lies) below that. This complexity can make the books a bit difficult for the reader to follow, especially if she lets much time pass between reading one book and the next. Zelazny includes recaps in each book, (not in a special section at the beginning, but woven into the story) which can be helpful, or boring and irritating, depending on how much you need them.
The second set of books tells the story of Corwin’s son Merlin, or Merle, as he is known on the shadow Earth. Someone has been trying to kill Merle every April 30 for several years. He doesn’t know who, or why. When he discovers his lover dead, killed by a strange beast, he leaps into adventures that answer this question while raising dozens more.
These five books are set mostly in Amber and in Merlin’s home, the Courts of Chaos, the Courts being the antithesis of beautiful, orderly Amber. Merlin sets out to find his girlfriend’s murderer, and to find his missing father. He also has to try to control the Ghost Wheel, a construct he created to help Amber’s king, but which is now threatening to run amuck. And there are several people he must save at various points in the story, including himself, his best friend Luke, and Coral, princess of another shadow country. Once again, no one can be trusted, and layers of truth are peeled back to reveal betrayers who turn out to be friends, and relatives who are enemies. In the final book Merlin must decide whether to give his allegiance to his home, or to Chaos’s enemy, Amber, his father’s land.
This story is a wild ride, especially the last five books. Zelazny throws in everything: swords, guns, unicorns, gryphons, magic, computers, characters from Alice in Wonderland, and on and on. He tosses in numerous references to pop culture, too. And he’s funny! Sometimes just wry or droll, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. Merlin and Corwin have an insouciant way of telling their stories that is extremely appealing and keeps the series from bogging down, despite its length.
Of course I have a few niggling little complaints. Women are marginalized in these books, especially in the first set of five; it is assumed, for example, that Corwin’s sisters have no interest in obtaining the throne of Amber, but no reason is given for why they aren’t interested. Even in the second set of books, where women are more powerful and more involved in the story, their desire for power is generally presented as evil, or at the very least, suspect.
And some things are never explained. Why does Amber’s royal family like Earth so much? Why would Merlin go to school here, take exams, get jobs, when he’s a prince in Chaos, and a sorcerer to boot? His relationship with his father Corwin is never explored, either, and I would think that would make an interesting story in and of itself, especially since we’ve learned so much about Corwin’s character in the first five books.
Another complaint is Zelazny’s inconsistent use of language. Especially in the first set of books, Zelazny has a habit of switching from modern-day colloquial American English to archaic, courtly language when people are speaking, often switching in the same conversation. The juxtaposition is jarring, and the archaic language sounds silly and affected. The fact that dialogue plays an important part in these narratives, and the ease with which Zelazny tells his stories, make this flaw all the more noticeable.
Nonetheless, I find these books to be very pleasant reading. I like the first five best, and read them every few years. Zelazny has a distinctive and entertaining voice, and an easy way with a story. I highly recommend the Amber series.