Mon
Jun 21 2010 11:01am

The Chronicles of Amber: Nine Princes in Amber

Welcome to a look at the first book in Roger Zelazny’s 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, who we discover is named Corwin, may be an amnesiac, but we quickly learn that he’s 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 of what he discovers is a very large family. He learns that Eric, one of his brothers (and there are a few), has been keeping him in the hospital, drugged. Still in the bluff, Corwin sets out with another brother, Random, to make for the place called Amber, there to 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 to 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—we learn that 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, to 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 another device of Amber, 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, they assault Amber, resisted by their other brothers who are allied with Eric (or with Amber, depending). In the end, and because of the use of a powerful artifact called the Jewel of Judgment which Eric wields and which can control the weather, their joint forces are wiped out. In 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 and only some kindness from former friends of his serves as any respite 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. His website is www.rajankhanna.com and he blogs about beer, wine and spirits at www.fermentedadventures.com.

29 comments
jon meltzer
1. jmeltzer
Corwin is definitely sexist toward his family. He has this Big Brother Protective Thing about Deirdre (who is his only full sister; that might be why) and thoroughly underestimates and does not understand another sister (who doesn't come on stage for another couple of books; I trust we'll get there).
David Levinson
2. DemetriosX
It's been a while, but IIRC, Deirdre's "damsel in distress" thing is also largely an act she uses to manipulate her various brothers. That may be even less flattering than being an actual damsel in distress. (Or have I confused her with a different sister?).
Paul Weimer
3. PrinceJvstin
Hi Rajan,

I am a fan of the books, more as the world for the Amber Diceless Role Playing Game than the actual writing of the novels. (I think Zelazny has written better, elsewhere).

The sexist writing is hard to defend--although that is partly point of view. Corwin consistently underestimates the character Jmeltzer references above.

It will be interesting what you think when we switch from the Corwin to the Merlin novels, too, but that's a ways ahead.

FWIW, the next novel, Guns of Avalon, is a much stronger book than NPIA.
Paul Weimer
4. PrinceJvstin
@DemetriosX Deirdre manipulating her brother and only pretending to be weak? That is a classic interpretation of her. Remember, Deirdree breaks the back of a Weir over her knee during one of the combats in NPIA.
Ben Frey
5. BenPatient
I loved all of the books that focused on Corwin, and then when he basically disappeared from the series, I never really could get back into it. I finished the series, but it was sort of disappointing because I think he was the best character, and all but non-existant in the second half of the series. He also made a much better narrator than his brother.
Rob Munnelly
6. RobMRobM
Love the opening of the book. Beautiful set up for the family dynamics and shadow power to follow. Also agree strongly that Corwin's time on Earth has humanized him to the good - nice point.

I never saw Dierdre as manipulative. She never made herself central to the plot. Agree that more interesting women come later (Fiona, Dara).

Rob
bruhinb
7. bruhinb
I agree that the sexism in the first five Amber books mostly stems from Corwin's viewpoint. As the story unfolds, so very many of the things Corwin believes turn out to be either subtly or wildly inaccurate. Watching the worlds of Amber and Shadow slowly resolve with greater and greater clarity -- as Corwin gets a better and better understanding of the true foundations of his reality -- is half the fun of the series. The fact that he initially discounts his sisters as nothing more than "bitches, all" only serves to underscore for the reader how very much Corwin still has to learn. By the time we get to Battle of Patternfall, the reader can see through to the truth, despite Corwin still seeming slightly surprised that the women are fighting alongside the men.

This is all further complicated by the series' self-proclaimed status as "a philosophical romance shot through with elements of horror and morbidity." Commenter Jonathan M, posting at http://blogs.feministsf.net/?p=96 points out that, "Amber’s internal politics are a stylized and exaggerated version of renaissance politics. The female characters spend their time jacking men because that’s what Amber characters do, regardless of their sex." While I agree with this assessment, it only covers half the source problem. Corwin is both a product of Amber, and a product of Earth. After years of life as a mercenary during probably hundreds of wars all over Earth, his point of view, and hence the tone of the narration, comes across as rather "noir-ish." The character comes on with a hard-boiled swagger that reveals the hours Corwin spent reading Chandler when he wasn't actively soldiering. This is particularly evident in the beginning of this book, especially in Corwin's dealings with "Evelyn Flaumel."

I have to admit I was surprised when I looked up the 1970 publication date of NPIA right after i read this post. These noir-ish tones had led me to imagine NPIA dated to the forties or fifties. Only when I learned the true publication date did I realize how successfully Zelazny was deliberately affecting this tone!
bruhinb
8. Juhan R
Oh, Corwin is most definitely chandleresque...
David Barr Kirtley
9. davidbarrkirtley
I think the context is relevant for the "bitches all" quote. Corwin has just watched his army demolished, all his ambitions destroyed, he's been gruesomely mutilated, and is facing an eternity of imprisonment, and he's reflecting with extreme bitterness on the fact that his whole family seems to have turned against him.
bruhinb
10. Arref
The 'Noir filter' of this narrator's voice is not just a gimmick, it is a deliberate tone and a significant choice by the author.

If you make comparison to noir detective fiction, to a 'hardworking gumshoe' trying to pick apart a mystery that threatens himself or something he cares about a great deal...you see all the wonderful parallels to what Zelazny does with the framing of this story about the secrets of Amber and the missing king.

Truly, when other brothers/sisters offer opinions about their sibs, they are no less critical and incomplete and harsh. The children of Oberon tolerate each other, but cannot bring themselves to have a kind word ...unless it is respect/fear of prowess. And in this world of suspicion and high-stakes bluffing, it is more often the sword or army you bring that gets the respect.

The sexism and cruelty seems quite ordinary and expected in the culture (one may guess, a culture shaped by the missing king).

For all those reasons, there has seldom been such an immersive fantasy or intriguing series of first person adventures. Zelazny may have done bolder stories with greater challenges, but 'Nine Princes' still packs a very entertaining story that has aged well.
David Barr Kirtley
11. davidbarrkirtley
"He may hate many of his brothers, but he also affords them more respect."

I'm not sure. Corwin's overall impression of Random is "his word wasn't worth the spit behind it, and he'd probably sell my corpse to the medical school of his choice if he could get much for it. I remembered the little fink all right." He's also amused by the idea that Random might be violently murdered. And Random is arguably his favorite brother.
bruhinb
12. Juhan R
Well, yes. Corwin is bitter, cynical and sexist. But remember, folks, we're talking about the FIRST book here. In regards to this series, it is extremely interesting to watch the evolution of the main character. After all, one of Zelazny's favorite themes was change and the im-/possibility of it at all. We are dealing with near-immortal beings here who are all bored to death (and very flawed) and therefore probably see life in the multiverse a bit differently then we do...

Corwin however, once he is back in his familiar settings (i.e. Amber) and regained his old identity, slowly starts to understand that it no longer fits him. He is slowly starting to change towards the... better? more human? It remains to be seen. And of course it is questionable how much he can manage to change his ways at all, being eternal and all that.
Brook Freeman
13. LongStrider
In discussing any of these books, we have to remember we have one of the classic unreliable narrators. Corwin is telling these tales to his son that he has just met for the first time. They are warning, parable, history, genealogy, primer on dealing with family and personal self-justifying biography all rolled into one, and surely hedged to all heck to obscure things that he doesn't want/isn't read to tell his son. The most obvious example is in the next book in the creation of the titular guns where he basically says 'then I did something else I'm not telling you about.'
bruhinb
14. Christopher Byler
I wonder if we're supposed to infer that Corwin picked up some of his sexism on Earth.

It seems like the rest of the Amberites take women seriously, even when they hate them -- at least women of the royal blood. (On the other hand, Oberon did go through quite a succession of wives and mistresses.)

But given which years Corwin spent on Earth, it would have been easy for him to pick up an attitude of not respecting women as serious power players, even if he hadn't inherited his father's tendency for sleeping around. (Which gets him in some pretty serious trouble, eventually, although in the long run the effects aren't all bad.)

Maybe Earth's influence on him wasn't all good.
bruhinb
15. MichaelC
I've always thought that the two doubleday books were one story and the three Galaxy stories were a second story in the same universe. Both the five individual volumes (the way I first read the series) and the omnibus edition (pictured above) don't quite make the differences in publishing obvious.

It's worth looking at how the books were published affects the content.
Jon Evans
16. rezendi
I do love Nine Princes in Amber, but I have to say, its opening is extremely reminiscent of a sequence from a noir novel I read once - was it Chandler or Hammett? - I misremember now, but I remember reading it and thinking: Wow, Zelazny totally ripped this off.

(But he did it brilliantly, which is the important thing.)
Soon Lee
17. SoonLee
The opening sequence is masterful; the way Corwin starts off amnesiac, getting by using his wits as he slowly regains his memories, and we the reader get to experience the revelations with him. The noirish comparison is apposite.
Wesley Parish
18. Aladdin_Sane
I profess my captivation at Zelazny's world-building talent. But his character-building talent is just as strong, and he does a beautiful end-run around expectations with this novel.

We think we know what's going on, but Corwin nearly always does the unexpected - in the coronation scene, grabbing the crown and crowning himself, being King in Amber for a dizzying second or so before he is set-upon and bound, then forced to watch Eric crown himself.

And yes, he does start out rather up himself, and frankly a jerk, but he does grow up and face himself; the best part of the whole series is rescuing a dying Eric, and realizing he doesn't actually want the crown after all. Dara's mostly the icing on the cake of that disillusionment: and he strings us along nicely with defeated expectations of her as well. Dara - a demoness named Dara ... what would a demigod named Corwin wish from a demoness named Dara? What would a demoness named Dara wish from a demigod named Corwin?
bruhinb
20. Christopher Kovacs
Actually, it's not a "big brother protective thing" that Corwin has for Deirdre but an incestuous love that may or may not have been consummated in the past. There are repeated hints and references to this in the novels, Corwin later bemoans that Oberon forbade a brother-sister relationship, and Zelazny commented in an interview that the problems in Corwin's large dysfunctional family included incest among everything else he could think of.
bruhinb
21. Juhan R
@ Christopher Kovacs

Could you cite the interview. please? I'd like to read the exact words. Not that I don't believe you, I just don't remember picking this up in the books at all. Maybe I'm just slow. Could you give an example of some of the hints & references?

Thanks.
David Barr Kirtley
22. davidbarrkirtley
Near the end of Chapter 11 of The Courts of Chaos, Corwin says, "Deirdre ... she had meant more to me than all the rest of my family put together. I cannot help it. That is how it was. How many times had I wished she were not my sister. Yet, I had reconciled myself to the realities of our situation. My feelings would never change, but ... now she was gone, and this thought meant more to me than the impending destruction of the world."
Christopher Kovacs
23. Christopher Kovacs
@ Juhan R

I went through about 70 published Zelazny interviews as part of the research in writing the Zelazny biography "...And Call Me Roger" which is in the 6-volume collection from NESFA. Plus I went through hundreds of individual correspondence that he had with editors, colleagues and fans. While all that material is nearby I can't easily lay hands on that quote right now without reading through all of them. I can say that Zelazny said something simple but explicit such as the Amber series has everything you'd expect from a dysfunctional family, including incest, fratricide, etc.

If you reread the Amber series with this in mind then you'll see the hints laid down.

Here are some relevant selections:

Benedict to Corwin: “Pity Dad was always so dead-set against brother-sister marriages, as well you know.”

Corwin when stabbed and delirious: Deirdre… I would call my dear sister. If anyone would help me, Deirdre would. I would get out her Trump and call her. In a minute. If only she weren’t my sister…

Corwin seeing the visions in Tirna Nog’th of himself and Deirdre paired: Two figures, embracing, within. They part as I begin to turn away. None of my affair, but… Deirdre… One of them is Deirdre. I know who the man will be before he turns. It is a cruel joke by whatever powers rule that silver, that silence…

Corwin at the Courts after she dies: How many times had I wished she were not my sister. Yet, I had reconciled myself to the realities of our situation.

There are additional hints in the final five books when the pattern ghost of Deirdre returns and interacts with the various Corwins that we encounter.
bruhinb
24. Still Steve Morrison
@23:
This is a minor nitpick, but wasn't it Julian rather than Benedict who had the "Pity Dad was always so dead-set against brother-sister marriages" line? He seems to have been incestuously attracted to Fiona.

P.S. Thanks for your contribution to those excellent NESFA volumes! I have all six.
Christopher Kovacs
25. Christopher Kovacs
@24

Oops, you're right, I should have said Julian not Benedict. Julian was admitting his own infatuation with Fiona when he said that line to Corwin. The full quote was "I have always been very fond of Fiona. She is certainly the loveliest, most civilized of us all. Pity dad was always so dead-set against brother-sister marriages, as well you know."

Thanks for the kind words, they're much appreciated.
bruhinb
26. fionasilverhorn
I loved the books (at least the first 5). I never noticed them being any more sexist than most of the genre fiction that was written at that time, and the fact that they have literally strong, violent, women whose purpose in life involves more than their relationship to men makes them somewhat less sexist than average, when you consider where the genre was back then.

I loved Zelazny's swashbuckling bravado, his excellent dramatic portrayal of heroes (the tales are often good as the first spider man story), and his fascination with cosmology and mythology.
bruhinb
27. Grayswandir
This was one of the first fantasy genre books I picked up some 30yrs ago. I have read a boat load of books from this genre since then, but I always find myself drawn back to this series. To this day, I think this has one of the most original story lines out there. The whole idea of "shadow" worlds is simply intriguing all in of itself. Then you throw in the protagonist, Corwin, along with the rest of his dysfunctional and sometimes psychotic family and you've got yourself an endless adventure.
There is probably no book that I'd like to see a movie made out of this more than this. It's perfectly situated for it. The books are short enough that you could make 3 or 4 movies out of it without losing a lot of the detail. Hell, I'd even be happy if the SyFy channel would pick it up. They did a great job with Dune. They could do the same with this.
bruhinb
28. Mr. Muchacho
"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."
Well, I checked. Still nufin'. When exactly is the second part coming? :D

(The Guns of Avalon is my my favorite book in this series - hence my necromantic intrest in this post...)
bruhinb
29. Jen R
I loved this book as well as the Diceless RPG....in fact I was looking to reconnect with a good friend of my Felicia that was mentioned in the beginning of the book for the game. She used to be the GM for us a few years ago...maybe word of this will reach her.
Christopher Kovacs
30. Christopher Kovacs
@Juhan R -- It's so late after the fact that I don't know if you'll see this. But I did remember you wanted proof. One of the quotes from Zelazny admitting to incest in the Amber series is this one, and I used this quote in the Zelazny biography that was published within the six-volume Zelazny collection from NESFA Press:
“I intentionally set up a large family to work in every possible form of sibling rivalry and friendship one could visualize. So, I figured that no matter what sort of family a person grew up in, there would be some sort of identification. There’s everything from incest to intra-family murders.”

It comes from "An Interview by Roger Zelazny" by John Nizalowski, in The New York Review of Science Fiction 2006; 18 (7 ): p 1, 6-7.

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