Trapped in Amber

In a couple of weeks I’ll be moving, so I’ve been putting my books in boxes. 45 boxes. I got down to the Z’s in the science fiction section, and box 44 was full, and the Roger Zelazny novels were still on the shelf. So I sat down and started reading the Amber series.

I think I have the original edition paperbacks. All five volumes, published in the ’70s. Black covers. The paper is yellowing by now. I must have read them at the time … or maybe not. I tended in those days to start things and then get distracted. I remember only a few bits and pieces from the first three books.

The story kept me turning the pages, I’ll say that for it. This time, I read all five books straight through. And yet, at the end, I find myself very dissatisfied. The Amber saga is flimsy. For the benefit of any writer who might stumble onto this blog while contemplating (or actually developing) a fantasy series, here are a few not entirely random observations.

The story is narrated throughout by Corwin, a prince of Amber. As a lead character, Corwin is rather too capable — a skilled swordsman, a cunning politician, and quite literally inexhaustible. He claims, from time to time, to be too weary to go on with whatever quest has been thrust upon him, but then he gets up and goes on anyway.

On the other side of the coin, Corwin’s emotional investment in the cataclysmic events of the story is somewhat tenuous. He beds several women, in that casual 1970s way, but never falls in love with any of them. He hates his brother Eric, who has usurped the throne, but when Eric dies (at the end of book 2), he dies not at Corwin’s hand but of his own weakness. And by book 5, Corwin has decided he doesn’t actually want to be king at all.

There are quite a lot of thoroughly Medieval battles in the series — massed troops slaying one another with swords and maces and crossbows and whatnot, on horseback or afoot. This facet of the story is fairly tedious, not least because Zelazny never lets the reader get to know those who are about to die. And we seldom see the battles close-up. They’re usually described as a general would see them, from afar.

Amber doesn’t seem to be a kingdom, nor even a city. At one point Zelazny observes that its riches come from naval trade routes, but he never follows up by letting us meet a merchant or see a ship. Okay, there’s a big naval battle with ships galore, but nary a merchant vessel bearing cargo. Of Amber itself, all we ever see is a castle atop a mountain. And the castle itself is curiously devoid both of splendor and of servants. A few guards are mentioned (and Corwin knows their names, a charmingly democratic touch), but when the princes want food and drink, they serve themselves. After a while this gets downright weird.

The other princes — Bleys, Gerard, Brand, Random, Eric, Benedict, Caine, and Julian — never quite develop distinct personalities. Julian hangs out in the forest and has a hunting horn, Benedict’s right arm has been hacked off in a battle just before we first meet him, and Brand is an artist of sorts, but really they’re rather interchangeable. As are their sisters, the princesses Fiona, Flora, Llewella, and Deirdre. But here’s what’s really strange: They’re all entirely celibate. Of the lot of them, only Random is married, and he’s forced into the marriage. We’re later told he has come to love his wife, but Zelazny never actually shows the two of them in a scene together. Their relationship isn’t important to the story. And none of the others even has a consort or a mistress. Okay, they’re all thousands of years old, and maybe the whole sex thing has come to bore them, but in other respects they seem quite human, and we see no indication that sex bores Corwin, so that’s not a good hypothesis.

The passages in which Corwin navigates Shadow, moving from one world to another, are interesting at first, but after a while their sameness becomes numbing. You can skim two pages and not miss anything. Zelazny is trying for some sort of psychedelic special effects, but his imagination isn’t quite up to the challenge.

When Zelazny isn’t describing battles, hand-to-hand combat, or travels through Shadow, he’s spinning out great gouts of palace intrigue. Who stabbed Brand? Who stabbed Corwin? Is Dara lying? Is Martin dead or alive? The machinations the princes and princesses indulge in, in their quest for the throne abdicated by their absent father, Oberon, are labyrinthine and at least mildly entertaining. They would have been more entertaining if it were easier to tell the princes apart.

By far the most interesting character in the story is mad Dworkin the wizard, but Dworkin appears in only two brief scenes, unless you count the ending, where he is seen at a distance, briefly, driving a funeral wagon. Among the loose ends left at the end of the series is the question of whether Dworkin was really mad, or whether he was helping Oberon all along.

The final volume, The Courts of Chaos, is padded out with several encounters that seem to be intended to have some literary effect but that fail to move the story forward. Corwin is on his Ultimate Quest, riding alone toward his destiny, the fate of Amber in his hands — and what does he run into? A talking crow, a giant head, a mysterious stranger, a lady who offers him a picnic lunch, and a bunch of dwarves who trick him into going to sleep so they can murder him and eat his horse. He escapes, of course.

By the end of the third book in the series, Zelazny has overcome his tendency to lapse into slangy ’70s diction and settled into a more elevated tone. But he still can’t resist having Corwin (who narrates the whole saga in the first person) toss off literary allusions to books from our own Earth, a place where Corwin spent a good deal of time, but which is only one of an infinite number of realities that are the playgrounds of the princes of Amber.

Perhaps the most jarring of these, near the climax of the final volume … well, to understand this, you have to know that the princes and princesses can converse with one another or teleport into one another’s presence, even at fantastically remote distances, using what look quite like Tarot cards. (They’re even referred to as Tarots at a couple of points, though more often as Trumps.) The cards are portraits of the members of the royal family, who use them rather like private telephone lines. Zelazny also plays with the question of whether the infinite worlds of Shadow have an independent existence, or whether the princes of Amber create Shadow worlds by imagining them. This, Corwin realizes, is a form of solipsism. So then we reach a moment where Corwin alludes to Alice in Wonderland by imagining that he might tell his brothers and sisters, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” Tolkien would never have been guilty of this sort of lapse.

There’s a bunch of magic too. And a unicorn.

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