Jul 25 2013 2:30pm

The Chronicles of Amber Reread: Nine Princes in Amber

Nine Princes in Amber ZelaznyWelcome to a look at Nine Princes in Amber, the first book in Roger Zelazny’s The Chronicles of Amber. Be aware that beyond the jump there are spoilers, lots of them. If you’re interested in reading the book, please do so first. This will be here when you’re done.

I’ve always admired Zelazny for the way he opens Nine Princes in Amber. We start off with an unnamed protagonist waking up in a hospital, with no memory of who he is and how he got there. We are carried along by the sheer charisma of the narrator’s voice and because of his lack of memory, we’re starting out on similar footing. As he figures things out, so do we, and this carries us through the majority of the novel.

The narrator, whom we discover is named Corwin, may be an amnesiac, but we quickly learn he’s also resourceful. Knowing very little in the beginning, he nevertheless spends the first chapters of the book bluffing his way through all of the encounters he finds himself in, learning a little more with each encounter.

All of this bluffing leads him to his sister, Evelyn (otherwise known as Flora), the first member of what he discovers is a very large family. Eric, one of his brothers (and there are quite a few), has been keeping him in the hospital, drugged.  Corwin sets out with another brother, Random, to make for the place called Amber and confront Eric.

Along the way, Corwin learns that Random can move through worlds. They start off on Earth—our Earth—but as they travel, Random adds and subtracts elements of the world around them until they are moving through lands much different from ours.

Eventually they meet resistance and then outright pursuit. After meeting up with Deirdre, another of his sisters (there are a few of those as well), Corwin comes clean about his amnesia. His siblings are suspicious—they are not a trusting family—but they tell Corwin that if he traverses something called the Pattern, he might be able to regain his memory. The true Pattern lies in the castle in Amber, but there is a reflection of it in the watery city of Rebma.

Together Corwin, Random and Deirdre fight their way to the city where they are given sanctuary and where Corwin takes a moment to hook up with the queen. Then he is allowed to walk the Pattern.

The Pattern is just that, a large pattern inscribed onto the floor, like a line maze or labyrinth—mostly curves, with a few straight lines toward the center. Only a member of the royal family of Amber can walk it and it is what gives them the ability to move through Shadow and travel across worlds. Because Amber is the one, true city and it casts infinite Shadows in all directions, worlds that are reflections of various fidelity.

Corwin walks the Pattern and regains his memory. He remembers being a prince in Amber and fighting with his brother Eric over the succession after their father, King Oberon, disappeared. Eric won and cast Corwin into our Earth during the Black Plague. Corwin survived the plague, though his memory didn’t. The rest of his time was spent on our Earth up until the accident that landed him in the hospital.

Once at the end of the Pattern, Corwin transports himself (another property of the device) straight to the castle in Amber. There he fights his brother, Eric, and wounds him, but Eric escapes and calls for help. Corwin is forced to call for help himself, using the Trumps—tarot cards with all of the family members upon them. By touching the cards and looking at them, communication is possible between members of the family as well as transport. Corwin seeks aid from his brother, Bleys, who brings him over to the Shadow he’s in. Bleys is building an army to assault Amber and take the throne from Eric. Corwin and Bleys decide to join forces and worry about the throne later.

Corwin sets about building his own army, finding a Shadow where the inhabitants are strong and regard him as a god. We learn that a son or daughter of Amber can seek anything in Shadow and find it.

After much time assembling their forces, Corwin and Bleys assault Amber, resisted by their other brothers who are allied with Eric (or with Amber, depending). Eric weilds a powerful artifact called the Jewel of Judgment which allows him control over the weather, wiping out Corwin and Bleys’ forces. During the battle, Bleys falls off a mountain, perhaps saved, perhaps not, by a set of Trumps that Corwin throws to him.

Corwin is eventually captured and forced to watch the coronation of Eric (who up until now had been regent). After bearing witness to this, Corwin’s eyes are burned out by hot pokers and he is thrown into the dungeons. But Corwin has uttered a curse upon Eric, another power that a son of Amber has.

In the dungeons he leads a miserable existence, blind, kept half-starving. Only some kindness from former friends serves as any respite, along with smuggled-in packages of wine and cigarettes.

But Amberites are strong and superhuman, and after years of imprisonment, Corwin’s eyes start to grow back. He starts to hatch a plan for escape, but before he can do so, he is discovered by Dworkin Barimen, a strange old hunchback who is the keeper of the Pattern and who designed the Trumps. He is clearly mad, kept locked up by Corwin’s father, but he can use the power of his drawings, like the Trumps, to travel. Corwin gets him to draw a nearby lighthouse and then, when Dworkin is gone, he uses it like a Trump and transports himself from the prison.

He spends some time with the lighthouse keeper, recuperating and resting before leaving. On his exit, he sees a dark road leading into Amber—the result of his curse—a doorway for dangerous creatures. As the novel ends, he sends a message to his brother, Eric, saying that he is coming for the throne.

Commentary: One of the amazing things about this novel is that it’s mostly set-up for what comes later. It’s certainly engaging and exciting, but it has very little to do with the storyline that becomes the focus of the next four books. What it does do is introduce us to Corwin, show us his family and their allegiances, and explains Amber, the Pattern, and the Trumps. All of these elements will be tweaked a bit in later books, but they’re established here for later use.

Also established are Corwin’s changed ways. We get to see a lot of the negative qualities of the Amberites—their pride, their cruelty—but we also see how Corwin has changed from his time on our Shadow Earth. He dissuades Random from killing the tanker driver on their ride through Shadow and he spares Julian when he can easily kill him. These incidences are partially explained by guile, but we start to get a picture of an Amberite marked with compassion.

The most troubling aspect to the novel, for me at least, is Zelazny’s treatment of women. A commenter on my previous post expressed puzzlement over the sexist label this, and the other novels, receive. The thing is that Zelazny doesn’t really give us any real women characters. It isn’t until the next book that we get our first attempt.

Consider, Corwin has four sisters, yet the novel is called “Nine Princes.” Of the sisters that we see, Flora is an opportunistic follower and Deirdre serves as a damsel in distress. None of them are given any role in the defense of Amber—the fighting is left to the men. Of the non-Amberite women, Moire serves as a conquest for Corwin and little more, despite her being the queen of her people. Even Corwin disregards his sisters, saying, “And what of my sisters? Forget it. Bitches all, they.” He may hate many of his brothers, but he also affords them more respect.

Please share your thoughts and commentary on the book in the comments. And check back for a post on the next book in the series, The Guns of Avalon.

Rajan Khanna is a graduate of the 2008 Clarion West Writers Workshop and his fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Way of the Wizard, GUD, and Shimmer. He narrates stories for Podcastle and Starship Sofa. He blogs about beer, wine, and spirits.

Steven Halter
1. stevenhalter
This is a fantastic book. The slow intro through amnesia and a shdow walk are wonderfule. The:
We drove over to Kenni Roi's and got us a bucket full of Kentucki Fried Lizzard Partes and another bucket of weak, salty-tasting beer.
is one of my favorite lines ever. The pattern walk, Corwin's battle up the mountain. His defeat and imprisonment. Fabulous all.
Margot Virzana
2. LuvURphleb
It has been ten years since I've read these books. Wow.
I still love the opening-
How corwin just busts out of the private hospital. I also like how he goes to visit flora-
Because she was registered as paying for his stay- and finds the trump cards, introducing us to his gigantic family. And the coronation! Eric has corwin put the crown on him but instead corwin puts the crown on his own head and proclaims himself as king. It's hilarious.
Paul Weimer
3. PrinceJvstin
The economy of this novel and its pacing make it a good read even today, even with some anachronisms (his characters smoking all over the place.

Create and destroy 98% of a big army in a few short pages!
Brook Freeman
4. longstrider
Some of my favorite books, or at least favorite created worlds.

Are you going to talk about Corwin as narrator (and the circumstances underwhich he is narrating this tale) or save that for the end of book 5 when that is revealed? He is such an unreliable narrator both for his initial memory issues, later other reasons and his biasis given how the story is being told. It ands interesting complexities, particularly to his characterization of his family and motivations related to people like Dara.
Alicia Dodson
5. LynMars
Between Amberite nature, his chronic amnesia, and as we learn later, who he's telling the story to, Corwin is one of the most unreliable narrators ever. I love his wit and sarcasm. The language and his attitudes are a bit dated to be sure, but the ability to shift between mid-20th century vernacular and courtly prose is so smooth it's really impressive.

Zelazny's ability to describe the Shadow walks has always impressed me, and the use of Trumps as ways to introduce, describe, and communicate with the other major characters was always a neat touch. There are some definite things I picked up from him in my own writing.

I would say Zelazny's approach to the female characters in this book is certainly weakest. Other, stronger female characters show up later. Some of it is definitely Corwin's own perceptions and dismissal; seeing some of the same women later through another, younger character's eyes decades later there's quite the shift in how some of them are treated. So some of it I feel is narrator bias. There is definitely some author bias as well, but I don't feel it's nearly as severe as Corwin's own mindset; I've gotten this vibe in other books and stories of Zelazny's as well. It doesn't help that many (by no means all) of his protagonists fall into a certain "type" I think, and in the mindset of the mid-late 20th century "machismo," even if their story isn't taking place in that timeframe, the writing strongly reflects it.
6. Juhan
I'm so glad this re-read is back!
Alan Brown
7. AlanBrown
This is one of those books that I remember clearly and viscerally what I felt as I read it--the summary above was giving me flashbacks. My copy had that Jeff Jones cover of a knight on horseback, one of the best cover illustrations ever. The wise-guy narration was perfect (at his best, Scalzi comes close, but Zelazny was the master of that kind of voice). It made the opening of the book feel so rooted in the real world. So when you crossed into the fantasy world, you got the feeling that, yes, this world could exist, only a few twists away from our own.
It had an epic feel to it, and the amnesia of the hero was very effective in revealing this complex world to him at the same time as us. And the battle of the steps was just superb, beautifully imagined, and evocatively written. A larger than life moment that reminded me of that old Horatius at the Bridge poem. And Zelazny had a way of making prose feel poetic. It will be fun to revisit this, and hear other people's opinions and recollections!
8. BrianH
Ha! I just found the Chronicles of Amber Volume 1 at my mom's a few weeks ago. I loved these books and was thinking of reading them again!
Soon Lee
9. SoonLee
Re: The Pattern.

In my mind, the pattern looks like a thumbprint, with its curves & whorls forming a path that leads to the centre.
10. Eugene R.
The opening of Nine Princes is one of my favorite in media res examples and just impossible to resist reading further, what with the amnesia mystery and the snappy, hardboiled narrative ("I shut the door behind me, advanced, and said: 'Good morning. You're in trouble.'").

AlanBrown (@7): One of the things that made me feel a bit like Corwin at the start of the book was exactly that gorgeous Jeff Jones artwork on the cover ... which had nothing to do with the plot of the book. Really made me feel disoriented, much as I liked the artistry of the piece.
s lussenburg
11. Grubnessul
I remember this book fondly, reading it somewhere early in high school. I missed a lot of the things that were going on at that time. Should pick it up again some day.
Sydo Zandstra
12. Fiddler
I am also one of those that just has to reread Amber at regular times. I remember picking up the Dutch translation of Sign of the Unicorn and The Hand of Oberon (combined in one book) in the 1980'ies, and going after the other ones right away.

And there are so many wonderful gems in Corwin's thoughts and dialogue. This one (although not from this book) made me laugh out loud when I read it first:

This isn't exactly the Olympic Games.

Glad to see a reread here on TOR!
13. brocken
This book was one of the worst books I've ever read.
I can believe there is someone out there who tolerates it, but to actually like it. The mind boggles!
14. ctkierst
@13 I'd say you're in the minority on that. ISFDB lists it as
1971 Locus Poll Award - Best SF Novel (Place: 15)
1971 Mythopoeic Award - Mythopoeic Fantasy Award (Nomination)
1987 Locus Poll Award - All-Time Best Fantasy Novel (Place: 7)
1998 Locus Poll Award - All-Time Best Fantasy Novel before 1990 (Place: 9)
15. PJ1236544
I'm sorry to say I hated this book. I tend to love books with likeable characters, and there were just none here. I stopped reading the series after finishing this one. Does it get better? Are there ever characters you can care about?
16. Clarentine
Zelazny's work here and in the other Amber novels (and many of his other works) really taught me about economy of writing. As Jvstin points out above, he had a real talent for condensing a major event, like that climb up the staircase during Corwin's and Bleys's assault on Amber, into just a few pages - and then he goes on with (total paraphrase, here; I don't have the book in front of me) "Let's be blunt: they killed nearly all of us. At me, they released blunted arrows." I remember sitting there staring at that passage the first time through, astonished by the lack of dramatics. _Nine Princes_ is where I stepped away from high fantasy and began to understand subtlety.
jon meltzer
17. jmeltzer
Poor Corwin. He doesn't have a clue about what's really going on until book 4 (that is, if he ever does ...). And some of his siblings are a lot smarter than he is.
Steven Halter
18. stevenhalter
Clarentine@16:Yes, the condensation of major details into a few deft lines is something Zelazny does really, really well. Many of his books are composed of what would probably be multivolume doorstoppers in modern publishing. But yet, in Zelazny's hands I get all of that experience and don't feel any lack.
19. Dr. Thanatos
Liked this book! The mixing of humor, pathos, archetypes: one could easily do academic work on it.

Favorite lines: The Kentucky Fryed Lizard Partes; "Of all my relations, I like sex most and Eric least."

Yes, Corwin isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer; that's part of the charm of seeing things through his perspective as he (slowly) figures out what is going on.

And yes, as the books progress it gets even better with complex plots, mythology, external references, and Zelazny's unique writing style.

Think of these books as the entry drugs that lead to the hard stuff, like Lord of Light or Creatures of Light and Darkness...
Constance Sublette
20. Zorra
That very thing -- the sisters -- lack of female agency though they have powers and stakes too -- at some point got me to give away all the Amber books. I've had no interest in re-reading them again.

However, 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 is about Zelazny the writer: he drawx you in, in every which way, and pulls you along with his gift of story-telling: you want to know what happens next. And those little hints such as Dumas and Williams plot elements? Just make you think this is a writer who knows what he is doing.
Alan Brown
21. AlanBrown
Surprised to see that there are folks that don't like Zelazny, but I suppose a voice as distinctive as the one he used is bound to be off-putting to some.
I am not surprised that the lack of agency in the female characters grates on many. I didn't notice it when reading the book upon its release, but in retrospect, that viewpoint was common back in those days. (To put it in perspective, when I read Nine Princes in Amber, I was going to an all male college, my wife was going to an all woman college, and we met at a dance they called a 'mixer.' A practice I think is all but extinct. The world has changed a lot in the last four decades.)
Derek Broughton
22. auspex
@AlanBrown: I don't see anybody saying they don't like Zelazny — I see a couple of people saying they didn't like this book: and one of those in such a trolling manner as to be dismissable.

@PJ1236544: I can understand not feeling any of the characters are likeable, but I always liked Corwin. Sure he's a Prince of Amber, and that means he's a vengeful god (or at least demigod), but he is a better person than his siblings, and still improving. It's the hope that he will end up as a "good" person that keeps me reading.

Corwin is very similar to Wolff in Farmer's World of Tiers (which I believe was published first). Wolff also has amnesia, is a god (definitely in his case - he is the Maker of Universes), and is fighting his family for control. He's also a prick who's become a better person for a long stay in our universe. I don't really know where either Farmer or Zelazny got the optimism to imagine that a stay in our world would be likely to improve anybody, but I'd like to hope it's true :)
Constance Sublette
23. Zorra
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).
Rob Munnelly
24. RobMRobM
Awesome stuff. Zelazny was my favorite during my prime sci fi reading years in the 70s and 80s. My favorite scene - the encounter with Benedict - still to come in Book 2.
Derek Broughton
25. auspex
@Zorra: And that's a good thing! Glory Road was always my favorite Heinlein.
Christopher Kovacs
26. Christopher_Kovacs
When you've finished re-reading the first five books, you may be interested in reading "Suspended in Literature: Patterns and Allusions in The Chronicles of Amber." This essay focuses on the first five books and explains some of the allusions and influences I've identified during my effort to annotate the Amber books. But it contains spoilers so don't read it until after you've re-read the books. The essay was published in the July 2012 NYRSF and is available for free on their website:
27. Corky1102
It's been a good many years since I read the Chronicles and I thoroughly enjoyed them. Will have to see if I can locate copies so that I can do my own re-read. Thanks for reminding me about books I loved - I'm sitting here with a silly grin on my face just remembering them all.
Steven Halter
28. stevenhalter
Christopher Kovacs@26:That's a very good essay. I recommend it to others on the thread.
Michael Ashleigh Finn
29. mickeyfinn
Stumbling across this was a pleasant surprise...I've been playing Amber MUSHes (think text-based MMORPGs, sort of like a live novel where the rooms are all made up and you play with new characters and characters from the book. Great training ground for writers) for almost 25 years, and keep running into people who have never heard of the books, outside of those games.
The thing to remember about the first 5 books are they are written from a character's viewpoint, and that character has issues galore. So glaring faults in how he sees the universe and other people are the character speaking. (In fact, when glaring contradictions pop up later in the series, Zelazny...who started on the original as a stand alone novel...blames it on Corwin getting things wrong.) The last five books, flawed as they are, have a different take on certain characters (like Flora) because it's a different narrator. This series often gets trotted out as a prime example at cons at how a 1st person narrative affects the story.
Michał Kubalski
32. nosiwoda
I always saw Corwin (and the rest of the Family, but Corwin the most) as a kind of an elf (or rather: Elf). Supreme being, tall, skinny but strong, agile, somehow unearthly. That's why I don't approve of the most of characters' images in "Roger Zelazny's Visual Guide to Castle Amber" - Corwin is a lot like Timothy Dalton and I just don't buy it.
Derek Broughton
33. auspex
"Tall, skinny"? Different strokes for different folks. I always pictured them as being built more like a track star - taller than average for sure, but with overdeveloped upper body musculature.
Christopher Kovacs
34. Christopher_Kovacs
When this article about Nine Princes in Amber was originally posted on three years ago (see this link), I'd mentioned in the comments that Zelazny had included an incestual relationship and that he'd admitted as much in interviews. @Juhan R asked me to prove it but I didn't have the source interview at hand then. But I did remember his request, and so I'm posting it hear so that he might see it.

I used this quote in the Zelazny biography ("...And Call Me Roger": The Literary Life of Roger Zelazny") which was published within the six-volume Zelazny story and poetry 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.

And as mentioned on the earlier discussion page, the incest refers to Corwin and Deirdre, a relationship forbidden by Oberon. It's unclear whether it was ever consummated.
35. Expendable Mudge
I got this as a gift from my much-older sister after I bemoaned the boringness of Another Fantasy Trilogy I Daren't Name. She, who owned a bookstore in those days, sold this to me as "like That Writer met Hammett and they wrote 'The Thin Man' together."

Yeah, that's the way it hit me. Fantasy hard-boiled style, with sex and humor.
36. nowefg
A genuine classic in fantasy literature.

On the "sexist" thing: to write a novel about fictional princes is not to NOT write a novel about fictional princesses. That's first. The title of the first book is "Nine Princes in Amber."

Readers, male or female, may identify with Corwin, or Blaise, or any other male or female character, on any number of points, but we're not Corwin, or Eric, or Fiona. They are characters in a fictional tale.

As a literary device, the one thing that Zelazny's characterizations of Corwin's sisters is, is the essential foil for Corwin and his brothers. The Princes wouldn't be who we find them to be without their sisters. Their supreme arrogance is evidenced in their attitude toward their sisters; it's an essential plot device that enables the unfolding of Corwin's, inner life.

For example, take Corwin's often quoted line about his sisters being "bitches all," without that plain-spoken bias, the early Corwin can't represent the ethos of a Prince of Amber at all. And he has to, in order for the depth of his true inner character, which begins to show in his respect for female characters, like Random's wife, to have any meaning in the story. He has to start someplace in order to go anywhere in the narrative.

Of course, Corwin finds that he isn't, or isn't only, a "fictional" idealogue after all; he discovers, and is troubled by, his own warmth and "humanity." He didn't always know that was in him. People keep pointing that out throughout the books; that he's different, changed. Most don't trust that; Princes of Amber, whose sisters are "bitches all," don't change, yet Corwin obviously has.

Finding that compassion arising in himself, Corwin owns it and lives it; true human development.

The novels are so much about Corwin's discoveries about who he really is, inside, as opposed to the persona of who a Prince of Amber is expected to be. To describe the Chronicles of Amber as sexist, or Corwin as a mysogynist, is to invite the suggestion that maybe you ought to re-read the books, and pay closer attention this time.
Derek Broughton
37. auspex
Er... Just, no. It's sexist. Only one of the female characters is even remotely competent. Otherwise they exist to get in the way or to be rescued. Sexist.

Yes, Corwin grows, but Zelazny was sexist.
Anthony Mattocks
I like when they had to pick up the car after it got stuck in the mud. I also love the description of the war horse Mogensten and how the dogs gave chase and tear up the car as it is in motion.

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