May 24 2010 4:45pm

Roger Zelazny’s The Chronicles of Amber

Writing about Michael Moorcock recently made me think of the writing legends that had the most influence on me. These include people as far apart as Oscar Wilde and Fritz Leiber. But no one, perhaps, more so than Roger Zelazny.

I was in college when I discovered Roger Zelazny, reading “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” in a class. I really enjoyed it and thought about reading more from the author. But it wasn’t until a year or so later, when I discovered The Chronicles of Amber, that I really fell in love with his writing.

My girlfriend at the time had the old two-volume Science Fiction Book Club edition of Zelazny’s stories. One with a yellow cover, the other an almost avocado color, both with the same Boris Vallejo cover of a shirtless man in a ridiculous red cape facing off against two cat-like creatures in a dark forest.

I needed something to read, so I picked the first volume up and found the fantasy series that would change my life. That sounds like hyperbole, I know, but both as a reader and a writer, Zelazny’s Amber books had a huge effect on me.

To start with, they had many of the things I enjoy in stories. Witty, charming, and delightfully unreliable first person narrator? Check. Near-immortal beings? Check. Travel between worlds? Check. Dysfunctional families and the resulting politics of such? Check. And yet it was so much more than this laundry list of items.

To this day, the Amber books are some of the select novels that I will re-read on a regular basis, usually every few years. And I never seem to tire of them. The novels that can stand up to that kind of regular scrutiny are few and far between for me. My interest and excitement in these books hasn’t waned, not in the five or so times I’ve been through them.

Zelazny wrote ten Amber novels—five that are amazing, five that have their flaws—and a scattering of short stories. In the coming weeks, I plan to go through them and take a look at each, sharing my thoughts on them as I go. If you’ve read the books, please feel free to take a look back with me. If you never have, feel free to read along. The books are short. You could easily get through one in a week.

Let us walk through Shadows together, and make for Amber.

1. iamnotspam
Borrowed these from my Dad when I was 12 read them all in a gulp. Loved everyone of them. The construction of the alternate shadows was the best part. I remember best Random's story about the rocks that moved in the sand and his flight from there to Corwin. The first time I ever learned about flow-of-conciousness writing. Man now I feel old. That was a while ago.
Fade Manley
2. fadeaccompli
This is one of those series I keep wishing I could love as much as everyone around me does. Maybe it's just that I'm not cut out for reading books with an unreliable and unlikable narrator unless it's for an English class.

I've tried, really. But I got as far in the first book as the point at which Corwin was blinded and thrown into prison, and set it down, deciding that the story couldn't possibly improve from that point. I disliked the narrator enough that I actively wanted him to end up in prison, forever. (I didn't much like anyone else, either, but at least the others I didn't have to spend time with for as long.) Reading on would have inevitably meant he'd get out, and show people up, and otherwise enjoy himself.

Possibly I should try different Zelazny, some time. I could tell while reading that it was brilliantly written, for all my dislike.
Eve Conte
3. empresseve
A friend of mine recommended these books to me recently. I couldn't find the individual paperbacks, I guess they are out of print. But, there is a complete trade paperback edition, which I ended up getting. Haven't gotten to really read much of it though, as I find the book itself hard to handle. I really wish I could have found the individual paperbacks. I look forward to your upcoming articles about the books though, it might inspire me to give them another try.
4. Tom Dell'Aringa
How about that, I'm currently re-reading them now myself. (On book 4). I also had the book club versions at one time with the silly illustration (I suppose it's supposed to be Corwin - the red cape makes no sense).

I've always thought the idea of shadows of the real world was a genius idea.
Ty Margheim
5. alSeen
I read this series about 20 years ago when I was 12. It is still one of my favorite series. I reread it about every 2 years or so. I joke with my wife that part of the reason I married her is that her name is Amber.
Ian Tregillis
6. ITregillis
I am so thrilled by this post! Zelazny was a true wizard.

The Amber books are very special to me-- my dad gave me the SFBC editions of Corwin's Chronicles when I was 8 or 9, and though I absorbed about 5% of the story the first time around, I still go back and reread the series every so many years. (I just finished rereading the series back in February).

I do have to say, having just read them all back to back, that Merlin's Chronicles are kind of a slog compared to Corwin's Chronicles, in my humble opinion. But it's still Zelazny.

I'll definitely be following along. I've never taken the opportunity to hunt down the related short stories, so this will be a good excuse.
Mitch Wagner
7. MitchWagner
I read these books when I was 16 and loved them, and have re-read them several times since. The second five volumes were disappointing the first time I read them, but I found them quite enjoyable and inventive when I re-read them recently.

I have the same SF Book Club edition of "Amber," with the cover from back in the day when it was embarrassing to be seen reading sf in public. You'd think a guy with as much wealth and power as Corwin could afford a better haircut and nicer pants.
Torie Atkinson
8. Torie
I only recently read the first book maybe a year ago, and absolutely fell in love with it. I'm a sucker for wise-cracking protagonists, and like @ 4, I loved the idea that there are shadows of this world. There were so many genius world-building details, too, like the cards.

Though I picked up the second one and loved what I was reading, I got huuuugely distracted and had to return it to the library. I keep meaning to go back and finish.

Looking forward to your posts.
9. John McCarthy
A friend of mine loaned me those self-same volumes in high school.
(I later got my own set--with identical covers.)
I'm sure I never thanked him properly for introducing me to that universe.
David Levinson
10. DemetriosX
I discovered these when I was about 15 and only the first four had been published. I was enthralled enough to run out and get The Courts of Chaos in hardback as soon as it came out. But somehow, that fifth volume disappointed me tremendously, enough so that I never bought any of the later books or returned to the original series. Maybe I ought to dig them out of storage and give them another try.
Larry Sica
11. lomifeh
I started reading these with the first Merlin book, got hooked and went back for the rest. Just reread them myself. The progression of Corwin from a total douche to a man willing to die to save everything he loves and has learned to value hooked me in a big way. The books also had some great humor in them

It bummed me out when Zelazny passed on. As long as they avoid the dunning of the books we should be ok though.
Jennifer McBride
12. vegetathalas
I found this series a year ago, though I didn't finish--petered out in "Trumps of DOOM." Worst. Name. Ever.

Despite that, I liked it a lot. I think there are parts of the series that haven't shown their age as well, and parts that make me want to tear my eyes out, but it's still worth reading for the history of SF, even if you haven't got a deep set love of Corwin.

For the person who didn't read past the blinding...yeah, the first book wasn't my favorite, either. The whole "I took another step and killed another three guys. Then I took another step and killed four guys!" was kind of silly. I thought the 2-4 were better. I wished Merlin had turned out to be a cooler character.
13. KingBoo
I recently downloaded all of these onto my phone to read in my spare time. I have no idea why I read all of them since I didn't really enjoy them that much. Very interesting take mix of sci-fi/fantasy.
Tony Zbaraschuk
14. tonyz
I'll add to the chorus of "liked the first five, enh on the second five".
Allison Lockwood Hansen
15. Talisyn
"I plan to go through them and take a look at each, sharing my thoughts on them as I go

I love these books! Thank you for talking about them Rajan. I look forward to reading your thoughts.
16. mirana
Oh man, I have those two exact same books and was just looking at them last night. I read them when I was about 13, as hand-me-downs from one my my parent's sci-fi/fantasy crazy friends. It has been a long time since I read them last.
17. boquaz
Great idea.

Already this discussion is interesting. Were Corwin's flaws a bit overdone? Did Merlin not have enough flaws to be interesting?
Patrick Garson
18. patrickg
"This is one of those series I keep wishing I could love as much as everyone around me does."

Me too! I actually prefer Zelazny's other work (e.g Isle of Dead, To Die in Italbar, etc.). I found Amber - after it being relentlessly talked up to me - a bit too free-form and unstructured. I felt like Zelazny was making it up as he went along, and - contrary to the spirit of the entire series - I wanted more _rules_, lol. Everything was too god-like and easy.
19. Alexander K.
I listened to the remarkably bizarre (and sadly abridged) audio versions of the first 5 books last summer. Ultimately, I have absolutely no clue what I thought of them. The world building was absolutely fantastic, and the family drama worked really well. But on the other hand, despite the intimacy of the first person narrative I never really understood where Corwin was coming from. I can almost forgive that because I can see Corwin (as I imagine him) writing his story that way. You know, because he's a hard-boiled ultra-macho mega-prince who has walked the patten.

Actually I think it was the casual sexism of the narrative that bothered me the most. I think that's probably why I haven't returned to the series.
Wesley Parish
20. Aladdin_Sane
I picked up the first book when I was about 38 or so. loved it. Zelazny was one of my favourite authors when I was reading SF in High School, and my impression from Nine Princes in Amber, was that he hadn't changed, except for the better. Merlin had a few good jokes but it wasn't as good as the Corwin series.

still, I enjoyed it immensely, and hope to be able to write like that myself, one of these days.
Madeline Ferwerda
21. MadelineF
Erick Wujcik published a roleplaying game of Amber in 1991... The most important diceless game ever, still has conventions devoted solely to it going all these years later. There are a lot of aspects of the book that helped make the game a winner. It has limitless scope; there are interesting characters that you'd like to interact with; Corwin, the model protagonist, models an amusing devil-may-care dickish attitude mixed up with a enduring dutifulness.

So, I came to RPGing through the Amber Diceless RPG in 1994ish, joined the Amber mailing list in 1996ish... For a decade and a half I've been interacting with the Amber books. The Amber community has built up a huge wodge of assumptions in that time that have little bearing on the books... It'll be really refreshing to see new stuff about them.
22. Jennee
I discovered Amber completely by accident when I was about 12. I still have no idea how that first book ended up in my bookshelf... I re-read Nine Princes in Amber 10 times before the great age of the internet; my first dial-up connection told me there were 9 more books. What do you know, only the first one had been translated and the publishing house didn't bother mentioning the rest. Getting the omnibus for my birthday was the highlight of that year, in a time when Amazon wouldn't even ship to Romania.

I very much look forward to this series, it's going to brighten up my mornings at work :)
23. Carnil
This is going to be great. I also remember the Amber cycle as one of the best fantasy books I have read so far.
I discovered them when I was about 20, at the university library, which had an assorted section of fantasy and SF books, and they captivated me.
I had the chance of buying them a couple of years ago for a good price, and I reread them and found myself immersed again in the politics and intrigues of Amber and its ruling family.
Absolutely a must read.
jon meltzer
24. jmeltzer
I'll go against prevailing opinion here in that I liked some of the Merlin books. The first two. Somewhere in the third or fourth book Zelazny started adding too many plot coupons for me (the spikards? Still more princes and princesses? The Pattern being sentient?). And the fifth doesn't work as an ending; it reads as though he intended a sixth but had to rush things out due to his illness.
Rajan Khanna
25. rajanyk
Hey everyone, thanks for all the comments. I'm now even more interested to see what people will say of the individual books.

And while I love the books, I know they're not perfect. My biggest issue with them is the sexism that was mentioned before and I hope to touch on that in future posts. You can say they are a product of their time, but that's still not ultimately satisfying.

I was surprised to see recently, as some have mentioned above, that the books are currently only available as the massive one-volume collection, The Great Book of Amber. I find it unwieldy, too, to cart around. I'm very disappointed that they aren't available (at least legally) in ebook versions. I would definitely download duplicate copies for my phone or ereader.
Michael Grosberg
26. Michael_GR
It is a continuing mystery to me that these books were never optioned and turned into a TV series or a movie trilogy. The worldbuilding is unlike any film or TV show to date, yet it should not be overly costly to create. There's family drama, and an epic war, and a complex mythology, action, love, in short everything you'll need to base a movie trilogy on, or, if you want, expand into several seasons. If any producer or director is reading this... please please option it! (SyFY producers and Rober Halmi need not apply)
Marc Houle
27. MightyMarc
Yay! I was wondering when someone would do a review of Amber.
Skip Ives
28. Skip
25. rajanyk - I know what you mean, I'm in the process of moving, so all of my books are going into boxes, and I would love to grab a paperback or e-book for a little light reading.

I think the long tail will make e-books popular in the long run. Books like Zelany's will sell steadily for decades.

I am looking forward to the reread though, it has been awhile since I read it.
Chris Meadows
29. Robotech_Master
I liked all of the Amber books.

What I hated was the cliffhanger the series ended upon—the cliffhanger that, thanks to Zelazny's death, will never be resolved.

Though to be fair, it does leave a great jumping-off point for Amber GMs to decide what happened next in their own version of the world.

I hope you'll look at the Amber RPG books too.
30. Jeff Dougan
I happen to like the Chronicles (again, put me in the Corwin Cycle = really good, Merlin Cycle = OK camp), but my favorite Zelazny is "A Night in the Lonesome October." There's really a right way to read it the very first time, one chapter at a time through the month of October.
M Linden
31. mlinden
I remember my first read-through of the Merlin books, and thinking they didn't resonate nearly as much as the Corwin books, but they were still fantastic. I was left with the strong impression that they were unsatisfying because Zelazny had more planned for Merlin and the world of Amber...they felt very much like the middle of a larger story arc and while the story itself was lacking in places, the payoff was going to be fantastic. The frustration comes from knowing that the "payoff" will never come to be. RIP Mr Zelazny.

Also, I picked up a collected edition of Zelazny's short fiction from the library recently, and was blown away all over again. If anything, his short fiction is even better than the Amber books. Well worth a re-read, or some blog posts.

How 'bout it, June as Zelazny month?
Clark Myers
32. ClarkEMyers
Most of Zelazny I like much better. A very little of Zelazny's prose is worse, some tiny fraction much worse.

Still I wonder why the slopes of Kolvir didn't run brown with sewage?

The original series is, I would argue, the epitome of unfair mystery in an invented as it goes along world - the reference supra to a later surfeit of plot coupons is spot on.

The reboot with Merlin is equally unfair in the traditional sense - as opposed to say Asimov's Lije Bailey or Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy where the mystery is fair - but fair in the unique sense of daring the reader to guess what next? - what mcguffin will Zelazny pull and from where? one damned thing after another - hold that ty'ager-

As a tour in which the order of stops is arbitrary - see some of the discussion in another thread of plot and progress in Candide and other works - the books do show some interesting places to visit - where few would want to stay long.
Eugene Myers
33. ecmyers
I picked up those SF Book Club editions at Traveler Restaurant a few Readercons back. And one of these days I will actually read them...
jon meltzer
34. jmeltzer
@32: "Hold that ty'iga". Yeah, the fit really hit the shan on that one ...
35. Juhan R

Roger Zelazny is my favorite author and the Amber books were the first of his I ever read. What great works they are!

Those books hold a very special place in my heart - they changed how I saw the world around me when I read them for the first time as a kid and now, as I get older, I still find more and more nuances with each re-reading.

The Guns of Avalon remains my favorite in the series.

BTW, what is this sexism everyone is talking about in regards to this series? I don't see it at all. Does that make me sexist as well?
36. Eugene R.
I was fortunate enough to start the Amber books not long before the long-awaited (original) concluding volume, The Courts of Chaos was published. The opening of Nine Princes in Amber could serve as the exemplar of how to hook a reader.

In one of the introductions for NESFA Press's The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny, Walter Jon Williams discusses how Mr. Zelazny became interested in roleplaying games in later life and would join Mr. Williams's games on occasion. Sadly, his failing health prevented Mr. Zelazny from joining the Amber game that Mr. Williams was planning to run.

An Amber game, run by Walter Jon Williams, with players like George R. R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass, and including Roger Zelazny. Think 'pon it and be amazed!
Fred Kiesche
37. FredKiesche
Liked the first series better than the second. The second seemed a bit of a re-tread (on the other hand, an off day by RZ is still better than most people's good days!). I also like several of the books that are kindof-sortof like Amber by RZ (for example, "Dilvish the Damned", "Jack of Shadows", "Roadmarks").

A particular favorite is the "Visual Guide" that he did as a collaborative project. If you can find it, pick it up. Some funny jokes in there and it is a good guide to Castle Amber.

I had the diceless RPG, the supplement, the game-related fanzine that had fiction by RZ in it. All lost in a basement flood. Have you ever priced those fanzines? No way I can afford them ever again!

Man, I miss Zelazny. I'll start the NESFA Press series sometime this year. I most recently re-read "Doorways in the Sand"--what a funny book. What a great author.
Soon Lee
38. SoonLee
I highly recommend the NESFA volumes.
Rob Munnelly
39. RobMRobM
Love the re-read concept and Zelazny's snarky fun narrators. Always been a big classic Amber fan - the opening scene with Corwin operating with no memory, the beautiful writing involved in Corwin's fleeing from and fighting with Benedict, his final encounter with Dara at book end. Wonderful. (I only read the Merlin books recently, and agree with those who believe the latter books are only OK (sentient Pattern; Merle's sentient - ugh)). Also love This Immortal (my favorite of his standalone novels, Lord of Light (to a lesser extent) and many of shorter works (especially Rose for Ecclesiastes).

Looking forward to revisiting these old favorites. Rob

p.s. Note that you can always get a Zelanzy vibe infusion from Brust's Vlad Taltos books.
Beth Young
40. zbyoung
I read these books ages ago and all I remember is that I liked them. I just found the omnibus trade edition and bought it, planning a re-read. Now I can re-read along with you. (Assuming, that is, that I can manage the gigantic trade paperback itself; whew it's huge.)
Tonya Hernandez
41. delwyncole
Found that exact two volume set, in my basement when I was about ten. It was probably the first fantasy series I had ever read, and I adored it. I re-read about every 18 months or so, and am just about due to start another reading now.

Lost mine in a house fire last year, but I'll be replacing them next months. I know it's not popular, but I like the Merlin chronicles every bit as much as the Corwin chronicles, just for almost entirely different reasons.
Soon Lee
42. SoonLee
The second series is not quite as good as the first, but I don't think they are nearly as bad as some people think.

The second Amber series seems to me as more geek-friendly; Merlin as a character is more interested in how things work, and it doesn't get more geeky than constructing a computer that shuffles Shadow.
43. Juhan R
So... where's the first trip to Shadow? It's been a while. Surely, you've finished rereading NINE PRINCES IN AMBER?
Rajan Khanna
44. rajanyk
@43 - It should be going up soon. I hope to get the following posts up in a more regular fashion.
45. Juhan R
Okay, thanks. Looking forward to it!
46. phil.romero
I have enjoyed these books many times over and I just love the style with which the stories are told in all 10 books. I don't quite understand why people,who have given the series a try, get so hung up on Corwin's character so easily? Most of shadow was created by the family so there is bound to be some arrogance on behalf of the Amberites. Corwin at least moves beyond this as the story unfolds.

I thought this style of writing was pretty unique until I read some of Henry Kuttner's writing. I see very clearly now where Zelazny received much of his inspiration for Amber. Do read the "Dark World" stories by Henry Kuttner should you get a chance. It will be very familiar for you Amberiphiles
47. Alex K.
I just finished re-reading these books a few days ago. I'm glad I love these books so much, because I can't really escape them. My middle name is Corwin, my mother's name is Deirdre, and my father uses the handle "Brand" for almost all online endeavors.

There were no coincidences there, either. All three of those things are because of these books.
Jonathan Levy
48. JonathanLevy
First five books were great. Last five books - not so much.

What struck me most is how quickly and completely you get sucked into the narrative of book 1. I remember once deciding to re-read just the first chapter, to savor it, and wound up re-reading the whole series. I've been more careful since.
49. Tom Sheperd
I think someone should make a series on all amber books, like 10 episodes for each book, will be better then game of thrones even!.
Jon Bergen
50. RolfOfFeldane
Zelazny's Amber epic (not to mention the rest of his impressive science fiction and fantasy output) became a major part of the foundation upon which so much of today's scifi and fantasy now stands. But it will be forgotten without being reinvented somehow, presented in a fresh way to those born after Zelazny's untimely demise. The SyFy Channel purchased the film rights a few years back and seemed prepared to do just that. And then: nothing.

Be careful what you wish for? Will we wish they HADN'T made a movie or mini-series out of "The Chronicles of Amber" (if one ever gets made), or not?

Personally, I am of the opinion that More is still More. If they fail at the series/movie/whatever, the books remain. On the other hand, another medium, done properly, can add something.

So there it is. That be my logic. If nothing else, a video version of Amber will mean a resurgence of interest in things Amber-related, and in Zelazny's work as a whole. Done well enough, we might even appreciate it.

Appreciated enough, there might even be an inclination to follow our wise-cracking hero past the abyss. This would not be hard to do. For instance, Corwin has lost direction, yet must concern himself with: his Pattern, his son Merlin, the new Amber-Chaos relationship, the new prominence of Shadow, the introduction of technology and/or science into the equation, etc. There are places to take this after "The Courts of Chaos," and those are some of them.

Meanwhile, SyFy Channel - or whoever - let's DO IT!
Rob Munnelly
51. RobMRobM
Good reminder - where did this re-read series go? C'mon, let's get the author back on this.
52. Zizany
Not sure if this was mentioned, but zelazny wrote these for a monthly periodical. He pretty much made it up a chapter at a time, month by month. You can feel it sometimes in the fluidity of the chapters. Te Merlin books came much later, at the close of his writing career. It was his attempt to both recapture what he missed in his earlier days, as well as close out the mythos. Whether you like the story, characters, writing or not, the mythos of Amber is pretty darn unique, powerful and clever.
53. Jannisar
One of my all time favorite fantasy series. next time i read them will be around my sixth or so. my first time reading them opened up the idea of an incredible universe. I just wish more books had been done. There are so many side adventures that could have been explored. oh well, just have to treasure what there is.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment