Primer: The Chronicles of Amber
I would be remiss in writing a regular column on fantasy if I didn’t cover my favorite fantasy series of all time, The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny. In last year’s NPR poll on the top 100 science fiction and fantasy books, the series came in at number 40 . I would put it in the top 5. The first book, Nine Princes in Amber, appeared in 1970, and over the next 26 years Zelazny would add to the series, completing an original arc of five books, later following that with another five book series, and finally writing a few short stories to address dangling plot threads shortly before his death (though, sadly, without writing everything he’d planned).
Zelazny remarked that parts of Amber came to him, virtually fully formed, as he began to set it down. He was discovering the story as he wrote it, but he felt as if these people and their story already existed, the shape within the clay, so to speak. That it had this kind of life to him is evident in the vibrancy of the series.
Amber is Zelazny at his best, letting loose with all the weapons and tools in his arsenal. A witty, sarcastic, poetic first person protagonist. A deep and inspired fantasy world. A plot with plenty of action and reversals. Classical references in a variety of languages. And plenty of bells and whistles.
Though the books don’t contain gods or any true earth myths per se, they do deal with immortal beings, and the characters and their interactions can be likened to the gods of Greek or Norse myths. I even see elements of eastern thought in the books, in their approach to the nature of reality, and their riffs on the concept of Maya, the world as an illusion. The series also references Arthurian and Celtic mythology and Zelazny employs these elements in ways both clever and original.
The first book in the series, Nine Princes in Amber, introduces us to Corwin, the narrator of the first five books (who was mentioned in my previous column). At the start of the book, Corwin awakes in a medical clinic with no memory of who he is or why he is there.
“It was starting to end, after what seemed most of eternity to me.
I attempted to wriggle my toes, succeeded. I was sprawled there in a hospital bed and my legs were done up in plaster casts, but they were still mine.
I squeezed my eyes shut, and opened them, three times.
The room grew steady.
Where the hell was I?
Then the fogs were slowly broken, and some of that which is called memory returned to me. I recalled nights and nurses and needles. Every time things would begin to clear a bit, someone would come in and jab me with something. That's how it had been. Yes. Now, though, I was feeling halfway decent. They'd have to stop.
The thought came to assail me: Maybe not.
Some natural skepticism as to the purity of all human motives came and sat upon my chest. I'd been over narcotized, I suddenly knew. No real reason for it, from the way I felt, and no reason for them to stop now, if they'd been paid to keep it up. So play it cool and stay dopey, said a voice which was my worst, if wiser, self.
So I did.” - Corwin, Nine Princes in Amber
Corwin is clearly smart, and driven, and realizing that his condition is not to his benefit, he makes his escape. Using information gathered from the clinic, he tracks down the the woman who was keeping him there, who he also comes to realize is his sister. Though knowing very little, Corwin bluffs his way through the encounter with his sister, and when a brother pops up, we get an idea of what this family must be like.
It’s not long before we get a larger glimpse of the world. It turns out that Corwin, along with a number of brothers and sisters, is part of the royal family of a world called Amber. And not just any world. Amber is the one, true world. Whereas Corwin starts off on our Earth, that, like a myriad of other worlds, is just a shadow of Amber, cast out through infinity. The royal family of Amber has the ability to walk through these shadows, to not just traverse the worlds, but to find specific worlds, worlds of their desire, in the infinite echoes that Amber creates.
"Amber was the greatest city which had ever existed or ever would exist. Amber had always been and always would be, and every other city, everywhere every other city that existed was but a reflection of a shadow of some phase of Amber. Amber, Amber, Amber ... I remember thee. I shall never forget thee again. I guess, deep inside me, I never really did, through all those centuries I wandered the Shadow Earth, for often at night my dreams were troubled by images of thy green and golden spires and thy sweeping terraces. I remember thy wide promenades and the decks of flowers, golden and red. I recall the sweetness of thy airs, and the temples, palaces, and pleasances thou containest, contained, will always contain, Amber, immortal city from which every other city has taken its shape, I cannot forget thee, even now, nor forget that day on the Pattern of Rebma when I remembered thee within thy reflected walls, fresh from a meal after starvation and the loving of Moire, but nothing could compare with the pleasure and the love of remembering thee; and even now, as I stand contemplating the Courts of Chaos, telling this story to the only one present to hear, that perhaps he may repeat it, that it will not die after I have died within; even now, I remember thee with love, city that I was born to rule..."
- Corwin, Nine Princes in Amber
Corwin discovers that his father is missing and presumed dead, and this has caused a struggle for the succession. Corwin’s brother, Eric, has assumed the throne, but Corwin believes that since Eric is a bastard (of the birth type) it should be him. Thus starts a long struggle for Corwin to return to Amber to reclaim the throne.
Much of Corwin’s appeal is in his voice - it’s smart, savvy, and irreverent. He’s part hard-boiled detective, part swashbuckling rogue. But he’s also a poet, and like much of Zelazny’s writing, Corwin’s narrative is sprinkled with classical references, including a number of references to Shakespeare.
“In the State of Denmark there was the odor of decay...” - Corwin, Nine Princes in Amber
But Corwin is not a saint. He’s smart, yes, but also proud, vengeful, and headstrong. Of the seven deadly sins, he clearly demonstrates wrath, envy, and pride (and the occasional lust). Hardly a Gary Stu, he’s flawed, and several of his actions during the books have long-reaching consequences which end up threatening those he cares about.
Did I mention that Amber is a kind of medieval realm with castles and knights and the like? Did I also mention that Amberites are virtually immortal, are very strong and heal rapidly? What about magical tarot cards, Trumps, that can be used not only for communication across distances but as transportation? The Amber series is brimming with great ideas, interesting characters and family politics and intrigue.
It’s difficult to go into too much detail on the series as a whole without spoiling parts of the story. Suffice it to say that Corwin’s ambitions get pushed aside when other issues come to the fore, for example a black road that seems to cut through Shadow, letting a number of truly wicked creatures through. As the Amberites investigate the origin of the black road, they uncover even more mysteries, and larger threats.
The external arc of the series, the overarching plot, deals, of course, with saving Amber, and, by extension, all worlds. Corwin has to not only find out what threatens Amber, and try to fight it, he must also negotiate thorny family dynamics to do so. As the series progresses, the stakes ramp up until the very universe is in peril.
Corwin’s internal arc, however, is just as engrossing. The series makes clear that he started off as a typical Amberite - smart and brave, yes, proud, sure, but also cruel, and somewhat heartless. The events of the book, however, transform Corwin who, in turn, catalyzes transformation in other characters. He never ceases to be Corwin, but he is different by the end of the books all the same.
“When I said I wanted to die in my sleep, I meant I wanted to be stepped on by an elephant while making love.”
- Corwin, The Guns of Avalon
Zelazny also accomplished a neat little metafictional trick in the first series. He placed himself in the novel as a prison guard named Roger who is “writing a philosophical romance shot through with elements of horror and morbidity.” In a universe where our Earth exists as a shadow of Amber, couldn’t our Chronicles of Amber likewise be the product of a shadow of that guard Roger? It fits together so nicely.
I’ll paraphrase Steven Brust here, a Zelazny fan himself, in saying that some of the best books are those that you digest really quickly, but that stay with you long after you’re finished. For me, the Chronicles of Amber, especially the first five books, are just that. They’re incredibly fun and entertaining, but there’s substance there as well.
Which is not to say that the books don’t have their problematic areas. They were written in the 70s and this shows in the language and window dressing. Certainly some of the shiny from that period has faded over time.
Even more troubling, though, is the way Zelazny handles the female characters in the series. Seeing through Corwin’s POV, some might consider it excusable that he calls his sisters “neither interested or fit” (for the throne). And when he says, “And what of my sisters? Forget it. Bitches all, they,” it can be written off as Corwin’s misogyny. But Zelazny gives us several female characters who seem ripe for further development and then gives them very little to do.
Still, even with those faults, Zelazny’s first Amber series remains as one of the best stories I’ve ever read, fantasy or otherwise.
In 1985, Zelazny returned to the world of Amber to the delight of his fans. Because he had told the story he’d wanted to tell with Corwin, he decided to start with new characters and used the character of Merlin, Corwin’s son, as his protagonist. Being the 80s, Merlin is a computer science student and utilizes both magic and science in the course of the books. Like Corwin, Merlin serves as our narrator. Here’s the beginning of Trumps of Doom, the first book in the Merlin Cycle:
“It is a pain in the ass waiting around for someone to try to kill you. But it was April 30, and of course it would happen as it always did. It had taken me a while to catch on, but now I at least knew when it was coming. In the past, I'd been too busy to do anything about it. But my job was finished now. I'd only stayed around for this. I felt that I really ought to clear the matter up before I departed. I got out of bed, visited the bathroom, showered, brushed my teeth, et cetera. I'd grown a beard again, so I didn't have to shave. I was not jangling with strange apprehensions, as I had been on that April 30 three years ago when I'd awakened with a headache and a premonition, thrown open the windows, and gone to the kitchen to discover all of the gas burners turned on and flameless. No. It wasn't even like the April 30 two years ago in the other apartment when I awoke before dawn to a faint smell of smoke to learn that the place was on fire. Still, I stayed out of direct line of the light fixtures in case the bulbs were filled with something flammable, and I flipped all of the switches rather than pushing them. Nothing untoward followed these actions.” - Merlin, Trumps of Doom
Unlike Corwin, Merlin is calmer, more thoughtful, and benefits in some ways from not being raised in Amber. Also unlike Corwin, who was driven by the desire to rule in Amber, Merlin demonstrates a lack of ambition. He’s happy to just do his research, combining computers with the Trump system (the Tarots mentioned above), and, of course, avoiding being killed.
Like his father before him, however, Merlin gets caught up in a series of events that involves not only Amber, but a number of related worlds. And where Corwin had his relatives to contend with, Merlin has an even greater number, dealing with his father’s family as well as his mother’s. His adventures give Zelazny the opportunity to expand on the ideas introduced in the previous Amber books.
Generally, though, the Merlin books aren’t up to the stuff of the Corwin series. Maybe Zelazny’s heart wasn’t quite in it, or maybe he’d just forgotten the feel of the earlier books, but the second series is generally considered inferior. Which is not to say that they’re no good. But if you stopped at The Courts of Chaos, the last Corwin book, you’d be fine and wouldn’t necessarily “miss” anything. Indeed, points are raised in the Merlin Cycle that are never wrapped up. Which leads us to the next and last set of Amber stories.
In the 90s, after the Merlin Cycle had concluded, Zelazny returned yet again to the world of Amber. He had decided to write a number of connected short stories to wrap up some of the loose ends of the previous books. Unfortunately, only six stories were written before his death, and the entire sequence was never finished. While I treasure these stories for being the last that Zelazny gave us, they’re for the completists, those who have read the Merlin Cycle and wish to read all there is of Zelazny’s Amber. They can be found collected in Manna from Heaven, a collection from Wilder Press that also includes other Zelazny stories.
John Betancourt’s Amber Prequels
In 2002, Zelazny’s estate authorized John Betancourt to write further novels set in the Amber universe. Rather than write sequels, Betancourt’s The Dawn of Amber focuses instead on Corwin’s father, Oberon. Three more books in the series were published before the publisher, iBooks, went bankrupt.
The series’ existence is somewhat controversial. Zelazny indicated several times in his life that he didn’t want other people writing in the Amber universe. However, since this was never indicated in his will, his estate was given the authority to allow this. Still, in the same way that Neil Gaiman and Steven Brust respect this, and won’t write Amber stories despite clearly having interest, I’ve never read the books and I don’t intend to. Your mileage may vary.
There’s no denying that Zelazny gave us something special in his Amber universe. In a time when fantasy novels are often load-bearing, Zelazny’s short, snappy novels are engaging and quick and full of wonderful ideas. Corwin and Merlin are both engaging, likable characters, undeniably cool, and worthy protagonists of their stories. The Chronicles of Amber are true fantasy classics and have influenced people from Steven Brust to Neil Gaiman to, well, me. I give them my highest recommendation and urge you to give them a try. All ten books in the series are available, conveniently, in one volume called the Big Book of Amber.
If you've read the books before, what did you think of the Merlin books? Do they hold up to Corwin's story? Anyone read the prequels and care to defend them?
Image by Donato Giancola
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