The third book in the Amber series, Sign of the Unicorn, is really when the series begins to heat up for me. It’s hard for me to pick favorites, but it’s either this one or the next, and really they continue one on from the other. The first book establishes Corwin and is largely his story, and Guns of Avalon establishes the overarching plotline of the first series, but Sign of the Unicorn accelerates full speed into the plot and ups the stakes considerably.
What Happens: Sign of the Unicorn picks up with Corwin in Amber a short time after the battle depicted at the end of the previous book. He carries one of the creatures that appeared in Nine Princes chasing Random through Shadow—Corwin is looking for answers as to who these people are, seeing as Random never explained and Corwin didn’t have the time to ask about them.
Random gets in a few questions first and Corwin tells him that he was sent a message purportedly from their brother Caine to meet in the Grove of the Unicorn. When Corwin arrived, he saw the creature slit Caine’s throat—Corwin killed the creature and discovered that Caine also received a false note asking him to the grove. The motive seems clear—someone wants to implicate Corwin in Caine’s murder.
Random proceeds to tell his story, going back to a time when Oberon seemed to want him out of Amber. While in Texorami, Random receives a distress call from Brand through a regular playing card, accomplished as if by Trump. Brand appeared to be in a tower in a shifting, chaotic Shadow, with floating rocks surrounding it and a guardian at its base.
Random went after him in his glider, working the stuff of Shadow like the Amberites do. He made it to the tower where he faced the guardian, but was unable to defeat it. Not wanting to die, he hightailed it out of there, using a flying rock to shift through Shadow. However, he noticed that creatures from inside the tower were pursuing him through Shadow, which only Amberites are supposed to be able to do. He fought off a few incursions, then made for our Shadow Earth and, remembering that Flora was there, called her for sanctuary. Instead, he got Corwin and the events of Nine Princes happened. Random didn’t bring up the creatures (the same creature that Corwin is now carrying) at first because he wondered if they were Corwin’s.
Corwin decides to attune himself to the Jewel of Judgment; following Dworkin’s notes, Corwin walks the Pattern with the Jewel and projects himself into the Jewel itself. Corwin sees some kind of three-dimensional representation of the Pattern while inside the Jewel. When he is finished he tests its power by summoning a storm.
Corwin has Random fetch Flora and he questions her some more about her part in his “sojourn” on Shadow Earth. She admits that Eric had her keep an eye on him there, but only after she ran into him at a party when he didn’t have his memory. Corwin shows her the body of the creature and she says she’s willing to support his version of events regarding Caine’s death—which she would probably do anyway to avoid his wrath. Flora also mentions that most of Corwin’s brothers sought him in Shadow, though some of them seemed to be doing it to hold something over on Eric.
Corwin lets the others know about Caine’s death and goes with Gerard to get the body. On the way there, Gerard, a skilled unarmed combatant, forces Corwin spar with him. Corwin is knocked out temporarily and comes to with Gerard holding him over the side of the mountain. Gerard tells Corwin that if he is found to be responsible for Caine’s death, he will kill him. And if Gerard dies, it will point to Corwin’s guilt. Corwin points out this this allows someone else to implicate him by killing Gerard. Gerard complains about Corwin always complicating things.
As they approach the Grove of the Unicorn, they see the actual unicorn. Apparently Oberon also saw the unicorn some time ago, which led him to adopt it as his royal symbol.
Corwin spends the night drinking in his tomb (built when he was presumed dead) with Ganelon. Ganelon brings up something interesting—could the Trumps be tapped like a phone? Corwin has to admit that he doesn’t know, as his knowledge of the Trumps is mostly restricted their normal use.
Corwin calls a meeting of all of the currently present brothers and sisters. They seem to split into two groups, one consisting of Julian, Benedict, and Gerard, the other Corwin, Random, Deirdre and Fiona. Random retells his story to the group, and Corwin suggests that they all try to contact Brand. Joining their efforts through Corwin’s Trump, they reach Brand, who is apparently still in the same cell. Gerard and Random go through to help free him, fighting off the same creatures that had attacked before. They get Brand free and bring him back, but not before someone (one of the Amberites) stabs Brand in the side with a dagger. Gerard takes Brand away to a room to protect him. Alone.
The other siblings then discuss who it is who might have done it. Fiona is convinced it was Julian. Corwin isn’t convinced since Julian and Caine were close. Fiona also warns Corwin about the Jewel of Judgment. She studied with Dworkin more than the others (save Brand) and mentions that all their powers drain the user. In the matter of the Trumps, it is a small drain. But with the Jewel of Judgment, it’s far more serious. She’s convinced that it was the Jewel, not his wounds, that killed Eric. She mentions that when people seem like statues, that’s when things are near the end.
Corwin returns to his room to find an assassin who stabs him, but he is saved by the Jewel’s time-slowing effect. Corwin blacks out and when he comes to, he’s in his bed back on Shadow Earth. Weak and bleeding, he manages to make it outside, and hides the Jewel in a compost heap, realizing the effect it’s having on him. He makes it to the street where an old friend, Bill Roth, finds him and takes him to the hospital.
There, he is patched up and more questions are answered. He finds out that his car accident, that landed him in Greenwood, occurred while he was escaping from a mental asylum and that he had been placed there by a Dr. Hillary B. Rand and a brother, Brandon Corey. Since time passes more quickly in Shadow Earth, Corwin takes the time to heal while fewer hours pass in Amber. He is eventually contacted by Random, saying that Brand is awake and wishes to speak with him. He comes through on Random’s Trump and goes to visit their newly-returned brother, hiding the fact that he was stabbed.
Brand is circumspect, but eventually tells a story about how he joined in a cabal with Fiona, and Bleys to seize the throne, but were opposed by a triumvirate of Eric, Julian, and Caine. He explains that it was Bleys and Fiona’s idea to ally with the Courts of Chaos and that he balked and went to find Corwin for assistance. He tried to restore Corwin’s memories with shock therapy at the asylum, but then was captured and imprisoned in the tower.
Corwin does what most Amberites would do in his situation. He travels to the city of Tir-na Nog’th, a ghostly reflection of Amber in the sky above Kolvir, a place of dreams and reflections. He takes his sword, Grayswandir, which has special properties in that place. He sees things that might have been, that never were: Lorraine, still alive, brought to Amber with him in some other universe; Deirdre with a man whom he recognizes (and we get a hint that Corwin’s feelings for her are not just brotherly); Dara, sitting on the throne of Amber with Benedict at her side. Benedict has a strange, metallic arm to replace the one he lost. He speaks to Dara who tells him that Corwin has been dead for ages. She explains that she is the great-granddaughter of Benedict and the hellmaid Lintra. Benedict then fights Corwin. Usually the images in the city are insubstantial, but Benedict’s arm is as real to Corwin as his sword is to the ghosts. They fight as the city begins to disappear around them (at sunrise). In the end, Corwin cuts the arm from Benedict and Random brings him back safely on his Trump before Corwin can fall into the ocean. The arm comes with him.
Random packs it up and they make to return to Amber, but it appears as if they’re moving through Shadow. Only that shouldn’t be possible in Amber. They again see the Unicorn and it leads them through strange deconstructions of reality. When they pass through them, they find themselves at the place where the Pattern should be, and there it is. Not their Pattern, but the true Pattern.
“That is the real Amber down there, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, it is.”
Filling in the Gaps: Zelazny uses this novel to fill in a lot of gaps in the overall story. From the creatures that show up pursuing Random to the timeline of events when Corwin was sent to the hospital and fleshing out some of Corwin’s time on Shadow Earth. It seems a bit horrible of Random to have forgotten about Brand for so long, but then these people live on a different scale and it seems like things in Shadow are, well, less in focus.
Amberites: This one introduces even more of our favorite family, particularly Fiona and Brand, the redheads, part of a cabal with Bleys—and both apparently more skilled in the use of Trumps, having spent more time studying with Dworkin than most of the others. Brand’s description of a plot by his cabal lays out a whole lot of drama and seems to justify the paranoia from the earlier part of the book.
We also hear about Martin, Random’s son by Queen Moire’s daughter (of Rebma), though not much information is given about him.
We get the idea that Corwin is sweet on his sister, Deirdre.
And sadly, Caine, who we only got a glimpse of before, is dead. RIP Caine.
Amber Cosmology: Zelazny gives us more details about the Jewel of Judgment—it’s more than just a weather control device. And it has a cost, drawingon the bearer’s life force. It also contains a three-dimensional version of the Pattern inside of it. It seems that everything that gives Amberites their power is based around the Pattern: the Trumps work based on the Pattern; the Jewel contains the Pattern; the Pattern allows them to walk through Shadow; the image of the Pattern destroyed the Black Road; Grayswandir, Corwin’s sword, contains the Pattern; and there’s the Pattern that they find at the end of the book...
The Courts of Chaos: We get a bit of a glimpse about the Courts of Chaos as well, in a very interesting way. Corwin talks about how Amberites previously could be thought to create the Shadows they travel through and to, that they didn’t exist separately unless formed from the psyches of a son or daughter of Amber.
“Now I know that it is not so, now as I stand, waiting, without the Courts of Chaos, telling you what it was like, I know that it is not so.”
Exactly what Corwin says here is telling. He mentions that he’s speaking to someone specific, at the Courts of Chaos. And that they exist independently of any of the Amberites. And the denizens of the Courts are attacking Amber by means of the Black Road.
Assorted: Tir-na Nog’th is introduced, a ghostly echo of Amber in the sky, as Rebma is Amber’s reflection in the sea. If Amber is the representation of the city on Earth, I always thought there should be a fiery version of Amber as well.
And Corwin retrieves a strange mechanical arm from that place, attached to another version of Benedict.
But who is he talking to? And why is he there? Come back next time for The Hand of Oberon. And please sound off in the comments with your thoughts.
Rajan Khanna is a writer, narrator and blogger who would sometimes like to walk through Shadow. Of course if Amber existed, he would also like to see it some day. You can follow him on his website, and he tweets @rajanyk.