Shadow Boxing

Having finally crawled out from under Trollope’s massive (and goopy) Can You Forgive Her?, I thought I’d reward myself by reading some classic SF and fantasy. Preferably novels that are faster-moving and shorter. Someone mentioned Roger Zelazny’s Amber epic, and I have all five paperbacks in the original series, which I bought and read sometime in the late ’70s. Didn’t remember much about it. Let’s go for it.

Zelazny’s story is rather silly. Highly imaginative, and highly dramatic, but silly. Amber is supposedly the True World, of which the world we know, and thousands of others like or unlike it, are but Shadows. Amber is sort of a cross between Camelot and Heaven: Impossibly grand and beautiful. The nine princes in Amber, who are functionally immortal, though they can be killed, have the power to pass from one Shadow world to another.

The lead character, Corwin, is one of the princes. His brother Eric is in the process of seizing the throne in Amber, their father Oberon being missing and presumed dead. In the beginning of the first book, Corwin is on our familiar Earth, and has lost his memory. In the process of recovering it, he waxes wroth with Eric. He decides he’ll muscle Eric aside and crown himself king instead.

This is really quite juvenile, as a driving force in a plot. Eighth grade boys are bound to love it; adults, not so much. There’s no explanation of why Corwin is so avid to cast Eric aside, though Eric has clearly Done Him Wrong in the past. Wanting to be king is just, you know, a natural thing for Corwin, like breathing. He’s happy to raise and army and let his men be slain by the thousands. He hacks and hews, and stout warriors fall beneath his blade like grass. He has maybe an eye dropper full of compassion and a vast dark lake sloshing with ambition.

Nonetheless, he’s not only the hero but the first person narrator. We’re clearly meant to feel he’s the good guy.

About halfway through the first book (page 94 out of 175, if you care), Corwin has sneaked into the glorious city of Amber, sneaked into the palace, and emerged through a secret panel into the library. Not for any particular reason, just so Zelazny can set up the first mano-a-mano confrontation between him and Eric. But before Eric shows up, a servant enters the library, intent on cleaning. The servant starts emptying the ashtrays.

What??? Yes. In the glorious eternal city of Amber, people smoke cigarettes. Granted, the novel was published in 1970, and Zelazny was by that time in his 30s. I don’t know if he smoked, but it’s a good bet. Authors who smoked frequently found it normal and inevitable for their characters to smoke. Still, putting ashtrays in Amber seems a bit slipshod in the world-building department.

In Corwin’s third and final confrontation with Eric, he (Corwin) is utterly defeated. At which point, Eric makes the classic mistake that villains everywhere have been making since storytelling was first invented. Rather than kill Corwin, which any sensible tyrant would have done just to be on the safe side, Eric has his eyes put out and tosses him into the dungeon, so he can be hauled out once a year at the anniversary of Eric’s crowning and displayed in all his filth and humiliation.

But wait: It gets worse. While languishing in the dungeon, Corwin is befriended by a sort of minstrel guy named Rein, who occasionally brings him extra food, a bottle or two of wine, and … cigarettes. And matches, of course. But not just cigarettes, no. Rein smuggles in a carton of Salems.

I kid you not. Salems. I wonder if they were menthol.

Corwin eventually escapes from the dungeon, with the aid of a convenient deus ex machina. His eyeballs have already started to grow back. He will live to fight another day Whether I’ll have the patience to ride alongside him into the fray clear to the bitter end remains to be seen.

Still, this is a potent lesson for any aspiring writer. The things that will make your novel preposterous are precisely the things you take for granted — the unexamined assumptions that you make about the world.

A carton of Salems. The mind trembles.


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