Welcome to a look at Nine Princes in Amber, the first book in Roger Zelazny’s The Chronicles of Amber. Be aware that beyond the jump there are spoilers, lots of them. If you’re interested in reading the book, please do so first. This will be here when you’re done.
I’ve always admired Zelazny for the way he opens Nine Princes in Amber. We start off with an unnamed protagonist waking up in a hospital, with no memory of who he is and how he got there. We are carried along by the sheer charisma of the narrator’s voice and because of his lack of memory, we’re starting out on similar footing. As he figures things out, so do we, and this carries us through the majority of the novel.
The narrator, whom we discover is named Corwin, may be an amnesiac, but we quickly learn he’s also resourceful. Knowing very little in the beginning, he nevertheless spends the first chapters of the book bluffing his way through all of the encounters he finds himself in, learning a little more with each encounter.
All of this bluffing leads him to his sister, Evelyn (otherwise known as Flora), the first member of what he discovers is a very large family. Eric, one of his brothers (and there are quite a few), has been keeping him in the hospital, drugged. Corwin sets out with another brother, Random, to make for the place called Amber and confront Eric.
Along the way, Corwin learns that Random can move through worlds. They start off on Earth—our Earth—but as they travel, Random adds and subtracts elements of the world around them until they are moving through lands much different from ours.
Eventually they meet resistance and then outright pursuit. After meeting up with Deirdre, another of his sisters (there are a few of those as well), Corwin comes clean about his amnesia. His siblings are suspicious—they are not a trusting family—but they tell Corwin that if he traverses something called the Pattern, he might be able to regain his memory. The true Pattern lies in the castle in Amber, but there is a reflection of it in the watery city of Rebma.
Together Corwin, Random and Deirdre fight their way to the city where they are given sanctuary and where Corwin takes a moment to hook up with the queen. Then he is allowed to walk the Pattern.
The Pattern is just that, a large pattern inscribed onto the floor, like a line maze or labyrinth—mostly curves, with a few straight lines toward the center. Only a member of the royal family of Amber can walk it and it is what gives them the ability to move through Shadow and travel across worlds. Because Amber is the one, true city and it casts infinite Shadows in all directions, worlds that are reflections of various fidelity.
Corwin walks the Pattern and regains his memory. He remembers being a prince in Amber and fighting with his brother Eric over the succession after their father, King Oberon, disappeared. Eric won and cast Corwin into our Earth during the Black Plague. Corwin survived the plague, though his memory didn’t. The rest of his time was spent on our Earth up until the accident that landed him in the hospital.
Once at the end of the Pattern, Corwin transports himself (another property of the device) straight to the castle in Amber. There he fights his brother, Eric, and wounds him, but Eric escapes and calls for help. Corwin is forced to call for help himself, using the Trumps—tarot cards with all of the family members upon them. By touching the cards and looking at them, communication is possible between members of the family as well as transport. Corwin seeks aid from his brother, Bleys, who brings him over to the Shadow he’s in. Bleys is building an army to assault Amber and take the throne from Eric. Corwin and Bleys decide to join forces and worry about the throne later.
Corwin sets about building his own army, finding a Shadow where the inhabitants are strong and regard him as a god. We learn that a son or daughter of Amber can seek anything in Shadow and find it.
After much time assembling their forces, Corwin and Bleys assault Amber, resisted by their other brothers who are allied with Eric (or with Amber, depending). Eric weilds a powerful artifact called the Jewel of Judgment which allows him control over the weather, wiping out Corwin and Bleys’ forces. During the battle, Bleys falls off a mountain, perhaps saved, perhaps not, by a set of Trumps that Corwin throws to him.
Corwin is eventually captured and forced to watch the coronation of Eric (who up until now had been regent). After bearing witness to this, Corwin’s eyes are burned out by hot pokers and he is thrown into the dungeons. But Corwin has uttered a curse upon Eric, another power that a son of Amber has.
In the dungeons he leads a miserable existence, blind, kept half-starving. Only some kindness from former friends serves as any respite, along with smuggled-in packages of wine and cigarettes.
But Amberites are strong and superhuman, and after years of imprisonment, Corwin’s eyes start to grow back. He starts to hatch a plan for escape, but before he can do so, he is discovered by Dworkin Barimen, a strange old hunchback who is the keeper of the Pattern and who designed the Trumps. He is clearly mad, kept locked up by Corwin’s father, but he can use the power of his drawings, like the Trumps, to travel. Corwin gets him to draw a nearby lighthouse and then, when Dworkin is gone, he uses it like a Trump and transports himself from the prison.
He spends some time with the lighthouse keeper, recuperating and resting before leaving. On his exit, he sees a dark road leading into Amber—the result of his curse—a doorway for dangerous creatures. As the novel ends, he sends a message to his brother, Eric, saying that he is coming for the throne.
Commentary: One of the amazing things about this novel is that it’s mostly set-up for what comes later. It’s certainly engaging and exciting, but it has very little to do with the storyline that becomes the focus of the next four books. What it does do is introduce us to Corwin, show us his family and their allegiances, and explains Amber, the Pattern, and the Trumps. All of these elements will be tweaked a bit in later books, but they’re established here for later use.
Also established are Corwin’s changed ways. We get to see a lot of the negative qualities of the Amberites—their pride, their cruelty—but we also see how Corwin has changed from his time on our Shadow Earth. He dissuades Random from killing the tanker driver on their ride through Shadow and he spares Julian when he can easily kill him. These incidences are partially explained by guile, but we start to get a picture of an Amberite marked with compassion.
The most troubling aspect to the novel, for me at least, is Zelazny’s treatment of women. A commenter on my previous post expressed puzzlement over the sexist label this, and the other novels, receive. The thing is that Zelazny doesn’t really give us any real women characters. It isn’t until the next book that we get our first attempt.
Consider, Corwin has four sisters, yet the novel is called “Nine Princes.” Of the sisters that we see, Flora is an opportunistic follower and Deirdre serves as a damsel in distress. None of them are given any role in the defense of Amber—the fighting is left to the men. Of the non-Amberite women, Moire serves as a conquest for Corwin and little more, despite her being the queen of her people. Even Corwin disregards his sisters, saying, “And what of my sisters? Forget it. Bitches all, they.” He may hate many of his brothers, but he also affords them more respect.
Please share your thoughts and commentary on the book in the comments. And check back for a post on the next book in the series, The Guns of Avalon.
Rajan Khanna is a graduate of the 2008 Clarion West Writers Workshop and his fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Way of the Wizard, GUD, and Shimmer. He narrates stories for Podcastle and Starship Sofa. He blogs about beer, wine, and spirits.