Jul 29 2013 3:00pm

Advanced Readings in D&D: Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazny Nine Princes in AmberIn “Advanced Readings in D&D,” writers Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode take a look at Gary Gygax’s favorite authors and reread one per week, in an effort to explore the origins of Dungeons & Dragons and see which of these sometimes-famous, sometimes-obscure authors are worth rereading today. Sometimes the posts will be conversations, while other times they will be solo reflections, but one thing is guaranteed: Appendix N will be written about, along with dungeons, and maybe dragons, and probably wizards, and sometimes robots, and, if you’re up for it, even more. Welcome to the eighth post in the series, featuring Tim’s look at Roger Zelazny and the beginning of the Amber series.

Okay, let’s get into this.

Though the complete Chronicles of Amber combine to form a towering ten volumes, I merely sampled the first book in the series, Nine Princes in Amber, originally published in 1970, and that was more than enough.

“Egads!” you may shout at me. “The Chronicles of Amber is a classic fantasy series, worthy of great acclaim and even worthy of its own reread!

That may be true, but if the first book in Roger Zelazny’s Amber series is considered any kind of classic, then it must be because the novel is graded on a curve. A curve called “pretty good for an opening novel in a series that gets a whole lot better,” or maybe a curve called, “better than a lot of other, trashier fantasy novels released in 1970, when there was nothing on television but episodes of Marcus Welby and the Flip Wilson Show to keep us entertained.”

I haven’t read the rest of the series, so I don’t know if it really does get better, though I suspect it must, once the protagonist actually starts to do something instead of floundering into trouble. And I don’t know every other trashy novel that came out in 1970, but I’m sure there had to be something of more merit than this one.

Nevertheless, I stand by my statement that the first of the Amber books is certainly less than what I would consider legitimately good reading.

It’s not that I found Nine Princes in Amber uninteresting; it’s just that I found the novel shockingly discordant and unsatisfying to actually read all the way through. It’s a novel that slams together jokey Hamlet references in the narration with pop psychoanalysis and superhuman beings and shadow realms and dungeons and swords and pistols and Mercedes-Benzes. That mixture could work, but like in Stephen King’s first Dark Tower novel, the clash of genre and ill-defined weirdness and too-homey familiarity just give the whole book an inconsistent tone, one that isn’t quite explained away by the protagonist’s foggy lack of awareness.

And since I’m looking at this book in terms of its influence on Dungeons and Dragons in addition to its merits as a novel in its own right, the only link I can see between Nine Princes in Amber and traditional fantasy role-playing games is that opening conceit: the amnesiac protagonist. It’s a story-starter not only used in tabletop gaming, where it removes the need for players to develop backstories before the first session, and “you wake up in a dank cell, and you can’t remember how you got there, or who you are” is an old standby, but it remains a common trope in video games as well. Skyrim begins with a minor variation on that old cliché, and it’s not alone.

Because other than that I-don’t-know-who-I-am opening sequence, the rest of Nine Princes in Amber is quite un-D&D like. Sure there are some of the elements of fantasy, like a dungeon that plays a role later in the story, but unlike a D&D dungeon, this one’s just a boring place for prisoners, hardly worth exploring at all. And though there are the pseudo-medieval trappings and ancient weaponry and the usual bits those setting details might entail, this isn’t a book about heroic deeds or monster-slaying or even solving mysteries and overcoming obstacles.

Instead, Nine Princes in Amber is about a man, Corwin, who gets screwed over by his brother, Eric. The plot of the entire novel is this: Corwin doesn’t know he’s a Prince of Amber—this magical shadow world—and he runs around trying to figure out who he is, and then he does, and he tries to overthrow Eric the Jerk, but he fails and ends up in the dungeon where he is sad. Spoiler alert: he escapes in the final pages.

That’s a complete novel according to the standards of 1970?

I should mention that the whole trying to overthrow his brother thing is not a whole lot of pages in the book. It’s mostly Corwin’s search for his identity and his crossing over into the shadow world. Then a brief fight that he loses. Then some moping around the dungeon.

What a weird structure for a novel. It’s more like three long chapters of a much larger book, presented as a stand-alone novel. Because Corwin escapes at the end, I guess this opening novel just presents the first act of the bigger story, but in the strata of novels about finding a hidden shadow world and seeking adventure there, it would rank pretty significantly below the heights of something like C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or even Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. Both of those stories, likely targeted for readers younger than Nine Princes in Amber, get their protagonists to the alternate reality realm rather quickly, by comparison, and establish reasons for us to care about what happens to the characters.

Roger Zelazny takes his time getting us there, and doesn’t make Corwin, or anyone else, worth rooting for. They just feel like pieces in his made-up game of Risk, where some of the playing pieces have been brought in from other games, like the race car from Monopoly and some playing cards from Aleister Crowley’s old deck.

Yet, as I mentioned earlier, Nine Princes of Amber isn’t without interest. It’s not at all compelling, but some of the ideas Zelazny attempts to explore evoke greater ambitions than what he’s able to successfully pull off in this first Amber book.

I may have mocked the hero-with-amnesia opening above, but Zelazny does push it a bit further than we usually see it done. He creates a sense of anxiety, only amplified in retrospect when we realize how powerful Corwin is, because it seems possible that the protagonist is insane. We don’t know how reliable his narration is—and it’s a first-person narration throughout—so we don’t know if we can trust our “senses” just as Corwin doesn’t know who or what is real and unreal. The nature of Amber, as a shadow world that overlaps into our own, makes the unreliability even more unsettling. Ultimately, we have to take Corwin’s word for what happens, because it’s the only point of view we have in this book, but Zelazny seems interested in the uncertainty of his protagonist’s reality. Or he at least seems willing to question it, even though the uncertainty undermines any confidence in what happens or why we should care. An approach that’s certainly unusual, but not necessarily effective as far as making the story matter to the reader.

The only other worthwhile bit of the novel revolves around the mystical device known as “the Pattern.” Zelazny plays with mythical resonances and Jungian archetypes throughout the novel—and, presumably, that approach continues in the sequels, or so a cursory glance tells me—and the Pattern, which is literally a pattern on the floor but also a kind of trans-dimensional psychic gauntlet (if I understand it correctly), is Corwin’s passage back into his true self. His memories return and he locks back into his role as a Prince of Amber, even if the political structure has changed since he last departed for his Earthly journey. The Pattern, along with the notion that the hierarchy of Amber is kind of its own Tarot deck (with character-specific cards named in the novel), provides exactly the kind of narrative hook to make Nine Princes in Amber engaging. The crucible of the Pattern is the kind of drama and revelation that Zelazny can’t match in the rest of the novel, though the book desperately needs more of that stuff and less of the driving around looking for Amber and the talking about how bad everything’s gotten because Eric’s around.

I will admit that Corwin’s escape, which is also the first time he actually feels like the protagonist of the novel—someone who is ready to take action on his own—almost made me want to keep reading and continue on to book two of the Amber series, The Guns of Avalon. But even after the relative brevity of Nine Princes in Amber, I feel Zelazny-ied out. Maybe I’ll feel differently about his inconsistent prose and uncomfortable structural choices if I read all five books in the Corwin cycle, if not all 10 of the Amber series. Then again, maybe it will just be more of the same.

If you’ve read any of this stuff, let me know what you think, because I don’t see much here to compel me to continue any deeper into the realm of Amber.

Tim Callahan usually writes about comics and Mordicai Knode usually writes about games. They both play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons.

Joe Pace
1. Joe Pace
Personally, I think Nine Princes is the best of the Amber cycle, so if you didn't enjoy it, best if you don't continue.

I found some very interesting components here - the use of the tarot deck of siblings as a way to communicate and even travel was fascinating to me, and I thoroughly enjoyed the sprawling monarchic family, with shifting alliances, some personalities shrouded in mystery even to Corwin's imperfect memory.

Not a perfect novel - but some strong scenes and memorable characters keep in on my shelf.
Steven Halter
2. stevenhalter
Well, I guess it probably just isn't your thing. Many people like this book the best out of the volumes (I like all of the first series).
"I feel Zelazny-ied out"
I don't think this is actually possible. Perhaps you are being held captive and this is a desperate encrypted cry for help? If so, please twitch your left eyebrow. ;-)
Seriously, though if you haven't read much Zelazny, you should rectify that with some of his short story collections and "Lord of Light" and "Jack of Shadows" and ...
Walker White
3. Walker
The Amber RPG was an example of inspired but flawed gameplay. It worked really great if you wanted to capture the feel of the series (particularly with throne battles). But the mechanics made character progression or leveling pointless.

Sort of like the series.
Graham Hattersley
4. GrahamH
I remember devouring the Amber cycle over a very short period of time, but I had an omnibus edition so Nine Princes really was the first few chapters of a much larger book. I remember enjoying the overall series, but I remember that a few books weren't that good. Unfortunately it's been too long to comment on further.
5. MarquiseArtemise
I just love this book from the beginning. :)
I'm less fan of the Merclin cycle, but I reread the Corwin series regularly, and enjoyed to play LARP in this universe.
You may try to read at least the second book : it's more classical in structure and more action-driven., and the plot behind the plot began to be discernable...
Paul Weimer
6. PrinceJvstin
For D&D qua D&D, the Amber series really doesn't have a lot to offer someone interested in that. Family and court intrigue, worlds spanning conflicts are just the wrong fit for a lot of D&D games. Corwin doesn't do dungeon delving. He has a more elegant solution to coming up with money involving a shadow and a beach full of diamonds...
Derek Broughton
7. auspex
If you haven't yet figured out that Amber is not a "shadow world", you kinda missed the point on this one, Tim.

As for "That’s a complete novel according to the standards of 1970?", well, yes, it is. He hit the magic word count, and too bad if he wanted to publish the Chronicles of Amber as one novel, or two (as I have it from the Science Fiction Book Club) , but the publishers are going to make it five.
David Levinson
8. DemetriosX
I would argue that the Amber series had as much influence on the Law/Chaos alignment axis as Elric did. Amber (represeting Law) and Chaos are actual physical places here and not just divine factions as they are in Moorcock. I think the Trumps have analogues in some of the more spectacular ODD magic items, though it's been far too long for me to name something (plus I played a knock-off version with a slightly different focus). There were other artifacts that also felt more like they came from Zelazny than from Vance. The Pattern also has a strong D&D feel to me. The whole concept of Planes may have come primarily from Amber as well.

On top of that, there are other Zelazny works which also may have had some influence. A few of the Dilvish stories had already been published, and they are much more standard fantasy (or as standard as Zelazny can get). And Jack of Shadows came out in 1971, which is a little late, but could have influenced some of the early magic/tech blends.
Joe Pace
9. Hfastian
My feeling after reading Nine Princes in Amber was "Hmm. Interesting idea, but the book itself left me cold. Maybe the series gets better later on..."

I gave up after The Guns of Avalon.

The only other Zelazny book I've read is Lord of Light, which I can't recommend highly enough but which isn't really translatable to D&D unless you're playing in a very different campaign world.
10. JoeNotCharles
Yeah, I remember reading this in high school and kind of slogging through it until the end, and then not caring enough to pick up the next one.

Lord of Light was also pretty terrible, which disappointed me because I'd heard so many great things about it.
Joe Pace
11. JohnnyMac
Mr. Callahan, I find your take on "Nine Princes in Amber" dead on target.

I remember waiting for this book to come out with great anticipation. The title was gorgeous and evocative. And, better still, it was by Roger Zelazny! Author of novels like "This Immortal", "Lord of Light" and "Creatures of Light and Darkness"! Not to mention a pack of amazing short stories. "This will be great!" I thought. Then I read it. Oh, the disappointment. As you put it above: "...shockingly discordant and unsatisfying to actually read...". It was as if Zelazny was trying to write like E. R. Eddison and Terry Pratchett in the same novel and failing to match up to either one (by the way, for the pickier pundits among us, yes I know this came out before the first Discworld books hit the shelves, work with me here OK?).

I did read the next two or three in the series in a fading hope that Zelazny would redeem himself but it never happened.

I do know that there are plenty of people out there who think this series was the greatest thing since sliced bread. To them I simply say: "Glad you enjoyed it. Somehow it just did not work for me."
Walker White
12. Walker
In terms of its influence on D&D (as opposed to the 90s Amber RPG), Gygax clearly took his cosmology of the Shadow Plane from this series. The 7th level Illusionist spell Shadow Walk is an exact description of what the princes do.
Rob Munnelly
13. RobMRobM

Judging the Amber series from the first book, which only has a limited character arc (Corwin finds his identity, partners with Bleys in a rebellion, is blinded and jailed and escapes), is not a sound strategy, especially given that you haven't even met several of the major players and Corwin is an incredibly unreliable narrator at this point in the story. It grows more convoluted (there be Chaos at the far other extreme of Shadow; higher level tricks that can be done by Amberites and others; even girl characters who don't make Corwin's eyes tear up) and subtle, and fun.

I actually favor This Immortal as my favorite Zelazny novel, not that it matters for D and D purposes. I believe it tied Dune for the Hugo that year. Read it.
Joe Pace
14. Matthew E
I'm with you. I've tried Zelazny several times and I find him quite overrated. I've never made it through the Amber series; it's pleasant enough but there's not a lot there. Couldn't do _Lord of Light_. I did like his contributions to the _Wild Cards_ shared-world superhero series; that was good.
Tim Callahan
15. TimCallahan
auspex -- Amber is presented as a shadow world throughout the entire book -- a parallel reality that intersects with the "real world" or vice versa. So...what am I missing? Where in the first book does it present Amber as anything other than that?
Joe Pace
16. Random
Other than the idea of alternate prime material planes, realms of chaos, and perhaps the various magic cards (deck of illusions, deck of many things), the amber series doesn't have many obvious contributions to D&D, at least not compared to Jack Vance's Dying Earth, or the Lord of the Rings.

But it is an awesome series! I suspect that Gary may have loved it because the royalty of amber embody the idea of what a PC should be: you have a special destiny, awesome foes, and secret powers. You are a quite a bit more bad ass than the shadow beings around you. You are not an NPC, you are a player.

I would encourage you to read the second book.
Steven Halter
17. stevenhalter
Each of the books reveals more of the nature of the reality that Zelazny has crafted. Each has a story it is telling and is a piece of the larger story. For more details, I guess you can check out the reread thread as I don't want to post spoilers in a post on a single book.
Steven Halter
18. stevenhalter
RobMRobM@13:"This Immortal" is very good. "Lord of Light" is my personal favorite. Zelazny writes in a style that is beautiful and poetic while at the same time condensed. Zelazny can move a plot further in a couple of pages than you will see many current tree busters get in a thousand.
Erik Harrison
19. ErikHarrison
I love the Amber novels specifically, and Zelazny generally. I would say to you, Tim, that if you didn't dig Nine Princes, to leave Amber alone for a spell and come back to it if something else sells you Zelazny. I'll back up This Immortal, Lord of Light, and Jack of Shadows (though the last there is a bit dated). Also the short stories in The Last Defender of Camelot.

Everything that Zelazny does is in the Amber books - namely, a morally damaged protagonist, high poetry and bare prose shoved side by side, literary references, pulp tropes, low word counts and structural experimentation. If those things sound like it would add up to a book you might like, then there is a Zelazny book for you - the slurry sometimes hits, sometimes misses.

And when you think of early, strange DnD, before AD&D 1st, in fact, before Shannara managed to commodify Tolkien into a Standard Fantasy Product (something I don't hold against Shannara, which at least had the originality to do it first) - that is where the Zelazny influence is most felt, by pressing strange things together and seeing what happens. That's why you've got elves fighting Lovecraftian horrors, in Power Armor they got from the Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. Early DnD was never about "story" it was a combat simulator used in the service of the most imaginative weirdness that could come out of Gygax's brain. And as a DM when I can't think of what else to do, that's where I go, and it always works
Joe Pace
20. Sisyphus
Amber novelties for 1970 include casual multiverse travel, a "root" universe that employs medieval weapons owing to different physical laws that frustrate the invention of gunpowder and other explosives, the use of a rough equivalent of sports trading cards for communication and point to point navigation/teleportation. Corwin's amnesia has provided him with everyman identification and life experiences that make him a more sympathetic character than his snooty, ruthless siblings, and our Earth is relegated as just another shadow realm of no particular relevance to Amber. Pretty heady stuff for 1970, and stuff that would be "homaged" a thousand times since.

As far as D&D goes, Corwin serves as a pretty good approximation of a novice player's character in this book. Burdened with a great but mysterious and unrealized potency and threatened at every turn. A cast of characters of untested potency, loyalty, and good will (NPCs).

But it is not his finest work. It is on the leading edge of a new market for fantasy novels written as series that publishers hoped would ignite another selling frenzy on the order of Lord of the Rings. For Zelazny's finest you need to start with Lord of Light, Bridge of Ashes, This Immortal, and "A Rose for Ecclesiastes".

The central action of this first novel is Corwin regaining his identity and reclaiming his place in a greater order of things. That his ambitions are not satisfied at the end is simply the initiation of the primary arc of the serial.

I personally found the series unsatisfying at the time because I was much more interested in traversing the ideosyncracies of Amber's shadow realms (including us) than the rivalry of princes in and around Amber. For my taste it never achieved its promise despite an inspired framework. Past the Corwin cycle the reviews of Amber and the word of mouth were not at all favorable. I stopped with the Corwin cycle.
Walker White
21. Walker

Ah, yes - Jack of Shadows. The inspiration for the Shade (as opposed to the Shadow) from D&D.
Joe Pace
22. ShutUpBanks
I read this at aged 15, an age at which I was playing D&D. I loved the hell out of it and its sequels. The Guns Of Avalon is my favourite book of the series, though, with this a close second: it set up a sequel while still being reasonably complete within itself. What I really enjoyed (and still enjoy nearly 30 years later) was the uncertainty but complete competence Corwin displays when getting hold of his identity and finding out what he wants to do and the qualms he experiences when learning that the years he spent in shadow may have given him a conscience.
Joe Pace
23. adamant
Amber is not presented as a "shadow world" but the Prime world - all the other worlds are shadows of Amber - Amber is the original that casts shadows into all the other worlds. The book starts in "our real world" but shows right away that our world (in the narrative) is just one of an infinite bunch of shadow worlds that ALL are reflections (some close - some very shadowed indeed) of the one true world of Amber.
At least that is how it is presented in the 1st book - things change a bit as you go further along. Indeed some of the most interesting characters have not been shown in that first book.
In today's world - the 1st 5 books would have been One book - then the 2nd five - the 2nd book. If you want to know about Amber - read a few more - it's like you stopped after the 1st 1/5th of the story if you only read "Nine princes in Amber".
Derek Broughton
24. auspex
It's never said in the first book that Amber is the "Prime" (at least, I can't find the word prime in my e-book), but Corwin does explicitly call Earth a shadow realm when he walks the Pattern in Rebma: "I remembered . . . my life within the Shadow place its inhabitants had called the Earth." He then places Amber as the focus: "Amber had always been and always would be, and every other city, everywhere every other city that existed was but a reflection of a shadow of some phase of Amber."
Joe Pace
25. Reiko
Zelazny may not have had much of an effect directly on D&D necessarily, but he did have an effect on some kinds of gaming descended from D&D. One kind is the roguelike, a category of turn-based computer games with an emphasis on survival due to the permadeath feature. There are quite a few roguelikes out there now, some of the more famous including the original 'Rogue', the classic 'Nethack', and the more split variants including Angband and ADOM.

One variant of Angband, called ZAngband, was entirely inspired by Zelazny, with many custom features including an entire magic school based on the Trumps, which were much less reliable than the other schools and often had random effects.
Constance Sublette
26. Zorra
1) is this essay about the first novel in the Amber series?

2) is this essay about a game?

3) is it about both?

4) is this a criticism that says this game is a poor one because it is based on pooer material?

Totally confused here, maybe because I am not a game player of any kind -- don 't even play solitaire, on screen or off.

But if you are speaking of the novel at all, my first experience reading it was entirely different. I outgrew it, as I've pretty much outgrown most of the field after reading so much, so I no longer re-read these, or most, novels. But I recall very clearly how I felt reading them back then, and how much I liked them. As posted on the Amber re-read:
... I do recall the excitement I felt the first time I got to this part: 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. The Count of Monte Cristo! Also, The Greater Trumps (1932) by Charles Williams! This lit-hstory grad student was so delighted!

That is what it was about Zelazny the writer: he drew you in, in every which way, and pulls you along with his gift of story-telling, which is so much the function of his protagoinst's narrative voice: you want to know what happens next. And those little hints such as Dumas and Williams plot elements? They provide further proof that this is a writer who can be trusted to know what he is doing, which is to entertain the reader.
And further, as one of Zelazny's hallmarks (and one of the first of the sf/f writers to do this, but by now it's nearly universal) was to embed field meta within his texts:
Corwin, and his voice, and much else in the Amber (the first one, 1970) novels always seemd to me to share a great deal with Heinlein's Oscar and Glory Road (1964).
Constance Sublette
27. Zorra
Also, Zelazny did this without bloat -- let us look at the current piece at the top of this site, "Less is More, More or Less: The Black Guard by A. J. Smith" by Niall Alexander, which opens with:
Even the most fervent fantasy fans would admit, I think, that the genre sometimes tends towards the tedious. Too often, the term epic is misunderstood to mean massive. Length is mistaken for depth, development is traded for needless detail; an accumulation of confusion rules rather than a convincing attempt at complexity.

Authors great and small are guilty of this over-valuation of size as opposed to substance.
Love, C.
28. chaosprime
A highly notable influence of Amber on D&D comes in the inspiration it lent to the finest work of art yet produced in video game form, Planescape: Torment, which by sheer luck is a D&D property. I actually nearly passed up Torment, but the back-of-the-box copy hit several beats, the amnesiac protagonist among them, that made me go, "hey, this sounds Zelaznyesque". Which it was, and I am infinitely grateful to that back-of-the-box copy.

In case the link seems vague, Chris Avellone, Torment's lead designer, has said in interviews that Amber was the single biggest influence on Torment.
Alan Brown
30. AlanBrown
I almost missed reading this article--since it used the same cover art that the Amber re-read series used, I just scrolled right past it, thinking I had already read it.
I don't think the impact of Amber on D&D was direct, it is clear from the list of books in Appendix N that Gygax mentioned books that connected with him, not just books he got ideas from.
I remember gulping this book down in a few short days that were short on sleep, and loving every minute of it. Although I was puzzled by the abrupt end--in those days, we were not conditioned to expect books to kick off an extended series--stories generally wrapped themselves up within the covers of a single book.
Rob MacAnthony
31. Robert MacAnthony
Lord of Light is my favorite, and I agree with the comment above that This Immortal is also quite good. I enjoyed the Amber books quite a bit, and I liked Nine Princes in Amber as much as any of them. Different tastes.
32. hoopmanjh
I did enjoy the Amber books (well, mostly the first five) quite a bit, but as far as actually relevant to D&D I think Jack of Shadows and/or Dilvish the Damned would be closer to the mark. I suspect Gygax listed the Amber books just because they were Zelazny's big, ongoing series at the time the DMG was published. (In fact, was the series even complete at that point? Courts of Chaos was serialized in 1977 and published in book form in 1978. )
Walker White
33. Walker

I don't think the impact of Amber on D&D was direct

Go back and read the wording of the 7th level illusionist spell Shadow Walk in the first edition PHB. The entire shadow cosmology comes from this series.
Joe Pace
34. Finious
As someone has already mentioned in this thread, I first read this series in an omnibus edition, so each "novel" seemed only like a larger chapter break in the ongoing story arc. That being said, I really dug not only the individual elements of the story, but the over-all arc of Nine Princes, as well as the prose.

My D&D campaigns back in the day stole from it pretty heavily. So while it may not have inspired much of the game's creation, it certainly inspired me to role play similar worlds, characters and ideas.
Kevin Maroney
35. womzilla
I agree with the comments above that Nine Princes in Amber is one of the touchstone texts of the type of fantasy where a character from our world moves into an unfolding adventure. It's a great example, too, of authorial improvisation, and of a type of fantasy adventure outside the usual "gather a party and loot a dungeon" boardgame model.

But most of all, it's an amazing series of fantasy images--the Trumps, Remba, the Pattern, Mad Dworkin in the dungeon, the hellride, the Courts of Chaos, Corwin's fight up the stairs....

It's very much a novel of opening questions rather than giving answers, but the questions are so gorgeous that I love this novel nigh to death. And most of the questions are pretty well satisfied by the end of the last Amber novel, 1978's The Courts of Chaos.
Thornwell Simons
36. Thorn01234
The thing to remember about Zelazny is that every book of his is an experiment and in the Amber series he was experimenting with writing a pulp fantasy potboiler. It has a lot of flaws but it's not intended to be his best work, it was a fun side project he did for cash. He didn't win his Hugo awards for _Amber_ novels, he won them for _Lord of Light_.

People who don't like the Amber books aren't wrong -- they're deeply flawed. But they are wrong if they think that the Amber books are Zelazny's best work. They aren't. They're what paid his bills. His best work is stuff like _Lord of Light_, _Creatures of Light and Darkness_, _Isle of the Dead_, _A Night in the Lonesome October_ -- funny, original, intricate, deep and deeply original works.
Derek Broughton
37. auspex
I don't buy that analysis. Nobody writes novels to win the Hugo — or, maybe, everybody in the genre hopes each novel they write will win a Hugo — but I see no evidence that Zelazny wrote Amber as "pulp". He himself admits they're somewhat derivative, so I doubt he ever expected Amber to be his best work, but I equally doubt that he thought Lord of Light would be.
Joe Pace
39. Scotley
Most of the Amber books were originally written in an abridged serialized form. I think the first book was actually written for a fanzine of some sort for which he also wrote a Dilvish story. Perhaps that has something to with the pulp references and the often odd transitions of genre. I read these for the first time when I was a middle schooler and I found them quite facinating and perhaps because of that I've long been a fan. I started playing AD&D at about that same time. The two seemed to be a natural fit to me at the time and I'm sure I stole ideas about the multiverse from them. The early cosmology of D&D with its 'prime material' world certainly feels like it could be influnenced by Amber and Shadow. The importance of Law and Chaos as well seem to have aquired something from Zelazny as well as Moorcock. I liked a lot of Zelazny's other work in particular Roadmarks which I haven't seen anyone else reference as well as various short stories.
Rob Munnelly
40. RobMRobM
@36 - Don't forget This Immortal (also called "And Call Me Conrad) which tied Dune for a Hugo (!!) in the late 1960s. That's my favorite novel length Zelazny.
Joe Pace
41. Jonas S
"Jack of Shadows", which is specifically named in the Appendix, is a much faster moving story. Completely self-contained. Also it contains more typical fantasy magic.

It amplifies the unlikeability of the protagonist, though. Man, Jack really is a dick. Granted, most of his dickery is a response to other people dicking him around, but his only response seems to be the nuclear option...
Joe Pace
42. Nellisir
I'll echo what others have said: reading the first book of Amber is like reading the first few chapters of The Hobbit. It's just not complete. I'll be honest; it's been a long time since I've read Amber, but Zelazny is one of the few authors that I will read anything by. This Immortal is definitely the most fun, though. (the dog, man! The dog!)
Joe Pace
43. Paul!
I was shocked to find a negative review of something by Roger Zelazny. In retrospect, the Corwin-half of the Amber series was just as Tim Callahan described it. (Corwin's son takes up the second series.)
Tim should know that in this series, there are two "true" realms. Amber and Chaos are bookends, and between them is a bridge of "shadow" realms. Humans in Amber see themselves as the "true forms" and see the people in the shadow realms as "lesser copies." The superhuman Amberites feel they reserved their racial superiority. Corwin, however, has lived and loved in the shadow alternate earths, and sees their resources as useful in an attempt at taking over Amber. With the king of Amber missing, Corwin can get some mercenaries with assault rifles and take over the castle (Guns of Avalon).
I see the Amber series as science fiction. I read it all, but it is just okay. I am a sincere fan of Zelazny, but Roadmarks and Lord of Light are just okay. Isle of the Dead is one of my favorites. (Imagine meeting an alien race, "stealing" their god, becoming so rich you can buy a planet and have it terraformed to your design, and then engaging in espionage!) Dilvish the Damed was better than Madwand. (A horseman bent on revenge explains that while he was the petrified centerpiece of a fountain, he was in hell learning Aweful Things.)
Something important to emphasize about Zelazny comes from his own admission in an essay. His first story was rejected for being too wordy. He then decided to go the opposite extreme and excise out the emotional polution and description-bloat. This radically altered his pacing, and also evolved him into a grandmaster of science fiction. He developed the art of making the reader's imagination a participator in the story: “I wanted to leave it open to several interpretations—well, at least two. I wanted to sort of combine fantasy and sf…" We, the readers, fill in the blanks. Zelazny was into fencing, and his fight scenes benefitted from his terse combat arrangements. This is a radical departure from Tolkien, who could take three pages to describe two people meeting.
Joe Pace
44. Kenny Shelswell
I can still remember the magic of my first 1970s readings of Zelazny's "Amber" series (first five books). I beleive I found my way to "Guns of Avalon" first and from there worked back to "NPiA" and thence forward again.

Now The Amber series is not one to start at book 2 but I still was captivated from the very start and struggle to understand how others can't love it as much as my pre-teen self did.

Maybe one day when I grow up.
Derek Broughton
45. auspex
Well, I've just finished rereading all 10 of the novels, and I certainly don't love them as much as my teenage self did…

The Merlin books were meandering, contradictory, and sometimes just really poorly written. Still, the Corwin books are holding up fairly well.
Joe Pace
46. ARClark14
If you want to read some of Zelazny's work that resonates with D&D a little bit better, I reccomend Dilvish the Damned and The Changing Land. They read like a D&D game run by a brilliant DM.

Who happens to be an asshole. But you keep playing, because he's a genius.
Joe Pace
47. Renegion
I was introduced to the Amber series when my game group started up an Amber RPG. So I had more invested in learning the story, the characters and the world.

Now, I am not as well read as most of the commentors, but I did enjoy the books. I am to this day, intrigued by the characters, the metaphysics, the politics and the story of Amber. I have played more years of D&D than the Amber RPG, but my favorite characters are Amber characters. My favorite campaigns are Amber campaigns. And it would not be possible without the novels.
D. Bell
48. SchuylerH
Must have missed this first time round. I've read a lot of Zelazny since then and found that, of the novels, I liked This Immortal, The Dream Master (well, "He Who Shapes"), Lord of Light, Creatures of Light and Darkness, Damnation Alley, Isle of the Dead and Doorways in the Sand best. However, it's short fiction where Zelazny is strongest. "Unicorn Variation" may be interesting as a fantastical take on metagaming.
Cindy Smith
49. stellabymoor
I'm almost done with Nine Princes in Amber right now, and while there are some very interesting concepts here in theory, my God, is it ever obnoxious in execution. Corwin is a badass superhuman who manages to flawlessly navigate a dangerous game with treacherous players, despite having little to no memory even of who he is, just because. He manages to seduce the ruler of Rebma after being there for about 10 minutes. He's apparently everyone's favorite for literally no discernable reason. The female characters are set dressing. There's no real suspense because you know Corwin is always going to win, and there's no reason to care how he does it, because the answer always seems to come back to "by being awesome." This stuff reads like it was written by and for 14-year-old boys.

Maybe it's meant to be unabashedly trashy/pulpy, but that doesn't make it any more enjoyable to read.
Derek Broughton
50. auspex
I'd say he manages to navigate treachery not "just because", but because of who he is: a manipulative SOB who has a tendency to let others shoot their mouths off first when he has no idea what's going on—and this is independent of his memory.

He doesn't "seduce" the ruler of Rebma—if anything, Moire seduces him, but it's more a matter of taking something she wants, a kind of droit de seigneur, and thus a way of expressing to Corwin that he may be a Prince of Amber, but Moire is Queen in Rebma.

Still, to call the female characters "set dressing" is generous... I'm sure it was written for 14 year old boys (and I loved it when I was one), but I wish the author hadn't seemed so much like one.
Kola Krauze
51. KolaKrauze
Once again I come to this brilliant thread woefully late. I actually enjoyed Nine Princes in Amber far more than most of the rest of Gygax's Appendix N, though it's been a while since I read it. It's clearly a book that divides readers, and is perhaps merely a matter of what tickles one's fancy (and yes, it's definitely inspired by Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo). However I must strongly protest at the comments that suggest this is where Gygax's alignment system comes from. That honour belongs to Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions which, though very flawed, I strongly recommend to anyone interested in where Gary got his ideas from (again, far more than most of the works listed in Appendix N which, as at least one commentator above has already pointed out, mainly seems to be a list of books Gary liked rather than books that had a specific impact on fantasy role-playing). (And, before anyone protests, Moorcock stole the Law/Chaos conflict from Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions too.)
Derek Broughton
52. auspex
"That honour belongs to Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions which, though very flawed, I strongly recommend to anyone interested in where Gary got his ideas from..."
Flawed! Heretic! I loved (and still own) that book. Better than Nine Princes in Amber.

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