Welcome to the fifth installment of the Chronicles of Amber reread, covering The Courts of Chaos, the final book in the first series and climax of all of the novels to date.
What happens: The Courts of Chaos picks up shortly after the revelation at the end of The Hand of Oberon. Ganelon revealed himself to be Oberon in disguise, and with the Jewel returned, he assumes his former role as King of Amber. Corwin has been told to wait and he’s stewing over how Oberon’s taken control, keeping his plans to himself and tossing out orders. Random seems to believe that Oberon knows what he’s doing, but Corwin isn’t sure.
They are disturbed by a commotion and find themselves unable to enter the throne room. Martin, Benedict and Dara are inside the throne room—eerily like the scene Corwin witnessed in Tir-na Nog’th in Sign of the Unicorn. And even though Grayswandir is at Corwin’s side, it also appears in the throne room, pointed at Dara. Through some unknown way, the tableau unfolds the way it did in the sky city, with Benedict fighting Corwin’s blade until Grayswandir cuts off Benedict’s arm. Then the force holding them back dissipates and they can enter.
As Dara helps tend to Benedict’s stump, Martin tells Corwin and Random that he Trumped Dara in because she wanted to see Amber, and then Trumped Benedict in because Benedict wanted to meet Dara. He has Trumps for three people—Dara, himself, and the man that Corwin met at the Courts of Chaos, the one who let him go. Dara tells him that it’s his son, Merlin.
Dara tells them that her side, the Courts of Chaos, felt certain that Brand would betray them once he got what he wanted, so they arranged to have a replacement ready to sit on Amber’s throne—Merlin, son of Corwin, descendant of Benedict and also part of the royal family of Chaos. Only Dara has grown disillusioned with the plans of Chaos, fearing that they will take things too far. She wants neither side to win. Martin is allied with her as well as...Oberon. She shows Corwin his signet ring.
Apparently she met Oberon while he was being held by the Courts, captured on a wild goose chase Brand sent him on. Helping him made her an outcast, though Merlin remains at the Courts. Corwin tries to contact him, but can barely get through. Dara says that Oberon wants the Amber forces led by Benedict to attack the Courts’ forces immediately. Of course the others don’t trust this order coming from Dara. They Trump message Fiona who says that Oberon is at the Primal Pattern discussing things with Dworkin. She thinks that he’s going to repair the Pattern and also that the effort will kill him.
Fiona Trumps back to Corwin with confirmation from Oberon, and Corwin has her bring him through. Corwin greets Oberon and Dworkin, then grabs the Jewel from Oberon’s neck, running and intending to walk the Pattern. He figures Oberon will do a better job on the throne. But Oberon or Dworkin (or both) use the power of the Jewel to paralyze Corwin before he can step on the Pattern. Oberon reclaims the Jewel then talks to Corwin.
Oberon claims Corwin has changed and Corwin admits that he liked Ganelon (Oberon says he might have seen the real him). Oberon encountered the real Ganelon ages ago and killed him, assuming his identity. Then he strengthened Lorraine, and ensured that it would lie in Corwin’s path. A test, to see if he was worthy of succession. But now Oberon has decided—it is to be Corwin, with Dara as his queen and Merlin as heir. Corwin, however, tells Oberon that he no longer wants the throne.
Oberon sends Corwin back to the room with Dara and the others (not using a Trump, mind you) and confirms Dara’s orders. Oberon’s commands don’t come with explanations, but the Amberites rush off to tend to them. Before Corwin heads off, Dara tells him that not everything between them was her duty. She says she likes him and Corwin says he likes her, too. They “like” each other.
Corwin rides off and Oberon makes contact with him, cutting his arm and drawing some of his blood to turn into a red bird. He tells Corwin to ride through Shadow to the Courts of Chaos, and that the bird will bring him the Jewel of Judgment when Oberon is finished.
Corwin begins to work the stuff of Shadow near Kolvir, something he’s never done before, and he suspects he’s never been able to before for psychological reasons. He hellrides, passing through a mad dash of worlds. On his way he feels a shudder through all creation as whatever Oberon is doing starts to take effect. Corwin stops for a moment and the bird created of his blood brings him the Jewel of Judgment.
Corwin continues on in the direction of Chaos and ends up in a place where rocks float in the air (where have we seen a place like that before?). Corwin can’t move too far in any one direction without his horse spooking. Floating on one of the rocks is Brand (who seems to be very hard to kill). Corwin has no time to face him, though, and gets out by leading his horse in circles, covering her eyes, and moving through Shadow that way.
On the way, Corwin realizes that he can draw on the Jewel of Judgment to aid his traveling and he does this, eventually stopping at his destination. Where Brand awaits him. Brand tells Corwin that he can see through Shadow and he has seen Oberon fail. The Pattern hasn’t been restored and reality is unraveling around them. He tells Corwin to give him the Jewel and he can create a new Pattern, saving reality and himself. It would, of course, be a new Pattern. And Brand, of course, would want to be its ruler.
He also warns that if Corwin undertakes the task himself, it will summon the forces of Chaos and only Brand can deal with them, having experience with that before. Corwin refuses. Brand offers to share the new world with him, offers him anything he wants. Corwin tells Brand to fuck off. Brand disappears, but warns Corwin that the next time they meet, he will take the Jewel.
Corwin takes shelter in a cave, has a quick sleep, and is visited by a stranger. This stranger talks about the strangeness of the storm and says how such a storm is supposed to presage the end of the world and that a man called Corwin will come before it and say he travels to the ends of the Earth.
Corwin realizes, though, that he lost his horse, Star. When he goes to find her, he ends up in a cavern where Leprechaun-like creatures are having their revels. They invite Corwin to drink with them and he accepts, falling deeper and deeper into a sleep-like state. He comes to just in time to see them coming at him with weapons. He draws on the power of the Jewel and, remembering Brand’s trick in the last book, freezes them. Then he grabs Star and makes his escape. As he leaves, the leader of the leprechauns asks him where he’s going and Corwin says, of course, “to the ends of the Earth.”
Corwin continues through the strange storm, unsure if it’s Chaos catching up to him because Oberon failed, or for some other reason. He stops for a moment and meets a woman named Lady who offers to while away the time with him, pleasurably, until the world ends. Corwin is tempted, but his duty has more of a grip on him so he continues on.
Corwin continues until Star is hit by a crossbow bolt. Corwin pursues the attacker, Brand, who uses his powers as a living Trump to transport himself away from Corwin’s attacks. Brand continues to shoot quarrels at Corwin, but Corwin uses the power of the Jewel to summon a wind. Brand switches to a better position and almost has Corwin, but Oberon’s bird (the one who brought Corwin the Jewel) appears and attacks Brand, taking out one of his eyes. Then both Brand and bird fade away.
Corwin comes to a place that starts to look like the Courts of Chaos and cuts a branch from a tree to use as a staff. The tree, named Ygg, speaks, mentioning that Oberon planted it and it is there to mark a boundary between Order and Chaos. Corwin is then met by a bird called Hugi who says that he’s been waiting for Corwin since the beginning of Time. Corwin next meets The Head, presumably the top part of a giant mired in the mud, who is unwilling to free himself. He begs Corwin to let the whole world end. This is followed by a sermon from Hugi about not striving, and becoming one with the Absolute which Corwin mostly ignores. He sees some spectral dancers, come to celebrate one last revels before the end of the world, then he sends the bird away.
Next a jackal appears, who claims an interest in royal blood. He offers to show Corwin the way to Chaos, but instead leads him to his lair, strewn with bones. Corwin only just manages to fight it off and kill it. Corwin tries to find his way but he’s tired and thirsty and hungry, and he comes upon a wasteland that stretches for miles. And the storm is almost upon him. So he decides to create his own Pattern in case Oberon did fail. Before he does that, though, he kills Hugi and eats him.
Using the Jewel, Corwin creates his own Pattern, leaving his staff in the ground at the beginning. His mind is filled with memories of Paris in 1905. The storm reaches him while he’s inscribing the Pattern, but it doesn’t affect him. The effort it takes is incredible, but in the end Corwin succeeds. However, just as he finishes his new Pattern, Brand appears and takes the Jewel of Judgment from him and then teleports away, leaving Corwin drained and without the Jewel to draw on.
Corwin imagines Brand turning the tide of the battle at the Courts with the Jewel. Then he is distracted by his surroundings, realizing that he has created a new Primal Pattern. This helps to energize him and he sees that Ygg’s staff has now grown into a tree. Corwin realizes that he’s at the center of a Pattern and he commands it to take him to the Courts of Chaos.
Corwin arrives as the battle is in earnest. He looks for Brand, though, knowing that’s where his actions would be best placed. Still, he kills one Chaos soldier, then is faced by Sir Borel of Chaos who, wanting an even battle, takes off his mail since Corwin wears none. But Corwin isn’t above dirty tricks and he kills Borel easily.
Corwin sees his brothers and sisters, all fighting against the forces of Chaos, including a very much alive Bleys. Then Corwin catches sight of the red glow of the Jewel and races toward it. Others attempt to do the same, but a bolt of lightning takes them down. Corwin, of course, continues.
He comes upon Brand holding Deirdre, with Random and Fiona and some others facing off against him. Fiona is somehow restricting some of Brand’s control of the Jewel. Brand tries to use Deirdre as a bargaining piece but Random isn’t ready to capitulate. Then Oberon’s face appears in the sky in a final message to his children, “recorded” as it were before he tried to repair the Pattern. He speaks of Corwin bringing the Jewel and that it will be necessary to withstand the wave of Chaos that is coming. He also mentions that he will leave the matter of succession in the hands (or hooves?) of the Unicorn.
Since Brand now has the Jewel (and presumably the ability to save them), Fiona tries to make a deal with Brand. Random is less convinced. Corwin uses his attunement to the Jewel to try to make it hot, to try to burn Brand. Brand senses Corwin’s hand and threatens Deirdre again, eventually slashing her face, but she bites his hand and pulls away. Then a silver arrow sinks into Brand’s throat followed by another to his chest.
Brand falls back over the edge of the abyss, but manages to grab Deirdre. Corwin tries to race forward to save her, but they fall, together with the Jewel, into nothingness. Corwin almost throws himself after them, but Random knocks him out.
When Corwin comes to, he admits that Deirdre meant more to him than any other of his family and that he had often wished that she wasn’t his sister. Corwin looks out over the battlefield and sees Amber’s forces about to win. Corwin also meets the archer who took down Brand. It’s Caine. He found a shadow of himself and killed him in an effort to “go underground.” Caine thought that either Corwin or Brand (or both together) were behind everything so he framed Corwin for his murder. Caine was the person eavesdropping on the Trumps. Caine was also the person who stabbed Corwin.
Their conversation is interrupted by Oberon’s funeral procession along the Black Road. His casket is on a cart driven by Dworkin. Corwin mentions that he created a new Pattern which the others seem to think might have created a separate reality, or would destroy their current one. Corwin says his silent goodbyes to his father, wondering if the Ganelon he knew, the one who came to be a friend, was what Oberon was really like. He also admits that he’s not fit to be king.
Dara comes upon Corwin then, upset by his killing of Borel, someone who was dear to her. Corwin doesn’t have the strength to explain and she leaves, disgusted, returning her allegiances to Chaos. Fiona helps take care of Corwin, who is exhausted and numb. She also mentions that his son, Merlin, wants to see him. Merlin apparently didn’t take place in the battle. They greet each other and drink together and Corwin asks about his son. Merlin says he never wanted to be king in Amber and that all he wants to do is take the Pattern and walk in Shadow. Corwin isn’t sure Amber still exists but promises Merlin that he will walk a Pattern at the very least.
They are about to go to the Courts before the storm reaches them when the Unicorn appears from out of the Abyss. She wears the Jewel of Judgment. She brings it to Random, and kneels before him, offering him the Jewel from her horn. The Amberites all kneel before him and offer him their blades. Random asks Corwin to use the Jewel to shield them from the storm, but Corwin instead helps to attune Random to the Jewel. Corwin also takes the moment to reassure Random that he will be a good king. Corwin mentally takes Random into the Jewel with him and guides him along, but the effort drains him and he passes out again.
When he regains consciousness, he is lying near a campfire with Fiona and Merlin. Random stands nearby using the Jewel to try to affect the storm. Fiona returns to the Courts, but Corwin stays with Random, and Merlin chooses to stay as well. Corwin realizes that the whole affair is now done and that if he is to die, now is as good a time as any. He drinks and eats and Merlin asks him about how all of this started, and Corwin begins the at the beginning of Nine Princes in Amber—we now know to whom he’s been telling this story.
Random diverts the storm and with its passing goes the Black Road. Corwin sits outside the Courts and thinks of his family, making peace with most of them, some, like Eric, posthumously. Only for Brand does he reserve his enmity. Random is able to Trump back to Gerard in Amber to find that it still stands, though years have passed there. The others Trump back there, but Corwin remains, to enter the Courts with Merlin. Corwin ends by saying that after he’s done in the Courts and has seen Merlin walk the Pattern, that he will ride to his Pattern and see if it will lead him to another universe. He ends by saying, “Good-bye and hello, as always.”
And there ends the first Chronicles of Amber, Corwin’s story.
This is, of course, the last of the books and aims to wrap up most, if not all, of the threads of the entire series. We have the true final confrontation with Brand, the reveal of Caine (who helps explain Corwin’s stabbing and the later attempt on Brand’s life) and the resolution of the war with the Courts of Chaos. We end with the deaths of three Amberites (Oberon, Brand, and Deirdre) but the addition of Merlin at the end. Corwin continues to be unlucky in love with the departure of Dara, though.
One of the things I love about the ending is the way that Corwin makes peace with just about everyone. He even mentions that had Eric survived that they would maybe have become friends one day. Friends with the brother who had once been his most hated enemy. Corwin also makes peace with not wanting to be king and being fully supportive of little brother Random who eventually is.
But most intriguing of all is the second Pattern that Corwin creates. In the climax, Corwin isn’t the flashy hero. He loses the Jewel to Brand, and it’s Caine who kills Brand, but Corwin’s constant striving, both to create the second Pattern, and to get to Brand (and provide the ultimate assist in distracting him) is what really counts. Corwin is willing to sacrifice everything—for the greater good, for his duty to Amber, maybe just because of his love for his family. In the Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game, Corwin’s supreme stat was Endurance. It’s this quality that he demonstrates throughout the series—not only his ability to regenerate and survive, but his capability and willingness to continue to strive against seemingly overwhelming odds. Even when the world is about to end, and he has the option to go out the way he always wanted (trampled by an elephant making love) he resists in order to keep trying even when it seems like the whole universe is working against him.
But if that’s Corwin’s constant strength, his growth comes from his compassion. In Nine Princes in Amber he still has some of the Amber cruelty, though much of this has been softened by his time on Shadow Earth. But he is consumed with the need for revenge against Eric and his desire for the throne of Amber. When the series ends, those hollow desires have faded and he’s able to let them go. And with his duty discharged (for the most part) he’s able to focus on more personal desires, and very literally go and explore his own universe.
As mentioned throughout this series of posts, these books are some of my favorite of all time and each time reading them I get more and more out of them and yet each time I find that I feel this connection to the character of Corwin in a way that never seems to fade.
I hope that if you’ve been reading along you’ve enjoyed this first series. If you care to stick around, I’ll be tackling the second series in the next series of posts. That one focuses on Merlin...
And as always, I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments.
Rajan Khanna is a writer, narrator, and blogger and Zelazny enthusiast. He writes regular science fiction and fantasy columns for LitReactor. You can follow him on his website, and he tweets @rajanyk.