Our last reread launched the second Amber series, this time focusing on Merlin, son of Corwin. Merlin found himself caught up in a series of strange occurrences leading him to be trapped in a cave like his namesake. In Blood of Amber, Merlin’s adventures continue.
Blood of Amber begins, helpfully, with a recap of Trumps of Doom, showing how Merlin came to be trapped in the blue crystal cave. His attempts at escaping have failed and all he’s learned is that the blue stone seems similar to the stone on Luke’s ring, and that he might have seen it elsewhere before.
Then two men enter the cavern. Merlin is expecting Luke, but these men are strangers. He uses the power of the Logrus to reach out and strangle them, then escapes. There, an unknown assailant attempts to use sorcery on him but he uses the Logrus to fight back. Merlin makes out that the person is Jasra; as she tries to Trump out, he uses Frakir to bind her head to a tree. But when Luke Trumps in, Merlin decides to flee and Trumps through to Flora.
Flora is in San Francisco, still on the Shadow Earth where Random sent her in the previous book. She recognized Jasra as a conniver who gained power in the Shadow world of Kashfa, which sometimes did trade with Amber. Merlin fills her in on what has happened, including that Rinaldo is Brand’s son.
Merlin phones up Meg Devlin (with whom he spent a passionate night in Trumps of Doom), but she doesn’t seem to know who he is and hangs up. Then he calls George Hansen (who came after him in Trumps) and gets his wife instead. Seems George is in the hospital and had a few days of amnesia. Merlin guesses that someone manipulated both of them, but who?
He’s talking to Flora, telling her that he’s going to report back to Random, when he gets what feels like a Trump contact, though the presence there is genderless. This entity claims they are not at cross-purposes yet, but might be. It wants to get a look at Merlin. Then, before the contact ends, it sends flowers down the “line” at Merlin. But Merlin also manages to pull something from the connection—a blue button with a four-limbed design that seems to match the bits of blue stone Merlin has from the cave. Merlin remembers the pendant that Julia wore and decides to go investigate her apartment some more.
Flora drives him there and Merlin makes them both invisible before they enter. The place seems to have been cleaned up and refurnished, but using his Logrus sight, Merlin finds a doorway behind a chest of drawers. A magical doorway. Flora urges him to speak to Random first, but he asks her to do so on his behalf.
Beyond the doorway, a fat Buddha-like creature with bat-ears warns him against going beyond the cave in which they now stand. The creature looks formidable, but lets slip that he’s torn from the primordial Chaos. Merlin is, of course, a Lord of Chaos, and so uses his Chaos-born shapeshifting to defeat the creature.
As he exits the cave, he finds himself looking down on some kind of castle or fortress that Merlin christens Gormenghast. And it’s under attack. Merlin spies a banner depicting a lion rending a unicorn. He soon meets a man named Dave who claims to be a deserter from the battle below, and calls the fortress The Keep of the Four Worlds. Dave explains that the keep belonged to none other than Jasra, who took it from a sorcerer named Sharru Garrul. Merlin also learns that Jasra is Luke’s mother, having met and spent some time with Brand. Rinaldo ran with a bad crowd, including Dalt, a man who hates Amberites and whose standard is a lion rending a unicorn. Rinaldo at first called Dalt in to help claim the Keep, but his current presence isn’t explained. Merlin’s explorations call down a sorcerous attack and to avoid it, he Trumps through to Random in Amber.
In Amber, Merlin dreams of Julia. Then he decides to get some fresh seafood by stopping by an Amber restaurant in a not so great area. But before he goes, Merlin fills Random in on the latest developments, and Random mentions that he saw Benedict kill Dalt, and that Dalt’s mother, Deela, was a religious fanatic in the Golden Circle region near Amber (also near Kashfa). She was causing trouble there until Bleys wiped out Deela and her people. Then Dalt attacked Amber and made it to Kolvir, where he was defeated.
Merlin thinks on this as he goes for his bite at Bloody Bill’s. There, an older man with a scarred face warns him of two rough chaps who seem to want to start something with Merlin because he’s not wearing a blade. Merlin uses the Logrus to grab himself a blade, then. The stranger leaves and ends up defeating the two thugs. Merlin’s waiter refers to him as Old John and mentions that he works for the Crown, having served Oberon in addition to Random. He paid in Kashfan coin, but he’s not Kashfan. For fans of 80s independent comics, this man is John Gaunt, aka Grimjack.
Merlin has his meal and a drink of Bayle’s Piss (a local wine) and then as he’s leaving he’s attacked by a group of men. Merlin manages to dispatch them and is saving one to question, but the man is killed by Vinta Bayle, Caine’s mistress (and the daughter of the man who makes Bayle’s Piss).
Vinta takes Merlin, who she seems to think is in danger, back to one of her family’s estates. As Merlin rests on her boat, he thinks back to a duel he had in the Courts of Chaos with his youngest brother, Jurt. Dara’s household seems to have been very full, with Despil and Jurt being Merlin’s half-brothers and Mandor his stepbrother. Merlin mentions that Dara seems to like her sons by her husband, Sawall, much better than Merlin, who may remind her of Corwin.
When he wakes, Merlin tries to look at Vinta with his Logrus sight and she can somehow sense it, though she denies being a sorcerer herself. Vinta indicates that she knows more than one might expect, including the fact that Luke/Rinaldo was training commandos in New Mexico with the special ammunition that Corwin had created that works in Amber. She also knows about Meg Devlin and the Logrus. They begin trading information. Vinta explains that the pieces of blue crystal have an affinity for the cave and each other. Holding a piece, one could find the cave. But they can also be used to track a person. And the effect lingers even after the stone is removed. Only traversing the Pattern or Logrus might be able to break the attunement.
Vinta is able to confirm that Luke did try to kill Merlin, probably on Jasra’s orders, on April 30th of every year, but then got to know him and stopped doing so. As they’re talking, someone tries to influence the blue stones and Vinta disappears to send someone out with the stones. When he’s alone, Merlin hears a voice which turns out to be Ghostwheel. He mentions that he doesn’t trust Vinta, that she doesn’t scan right. Then he asks if Merlin was telling the truth when he said he wouldn’t shut Ghostwheel down. Merlin confirms this. Then Ghostwheel asks if he can trust Luke. Merlin says “No” but isn’t sure that Ghostwheel catches him before the connection is terminated.
Merlin starts to think that he recognizes something about Vinta Bayle and it starts to become clear that she has an unusual, and possibly romantic, interest in him. Merlin decides to leave ASAP, but as he’s in the guest room, Luke contacts him by Trump, wounded, and Merlin pulls him through. It looks like he was stabbed, possibly through one lung. Merlin helps heal him and tries to contact Ghostwheel to no avail. Then he flips through Luke’s Trumps, finding one for Dalt. He also finds a woman and a man who look familiar. When Luke wakes up, Merlin presses him for information dropping that he has been to the Keep. In return for information about the Keep, Luke tells him that the woman is Sand and Merlin susses that the man is Delwin. After Luke falls asleep Merlin helpfully explains that Delwin and Sand are two more of Oberon’s children, considered illegitimate by most. They apparently swore to have nothing to do with Amber. Brand had tried to contact them to help him during his plot, but they refused.
Tempting Fate, Merlin contacts Dalt by Trump when Luke is asleep, and Dalt tries to come through with a drawn sword before Merlin cuts the contact. Luke explains that Dalt was the one who ran him through. He also confirms that he started the attempts on Merlin’s life but that he stopped and Jasra took over. He also explains that he needs Merlin’s help to rescue his mother. Vinta comes in and knows things about Luke as well. But she isn’t going to kill him.
Luke further explains that Jasra returned to the Keep at the Four Worlds (which actually is at the junction of four worlds) for its power but somehow ended up releasing Sharru Garrul, the sorcerer who used to run the place.
Merlin mentions that Vinta isn’t really Vinta, but rather someone or something who can possess various bodies. Luke mentions that she has the mannerisms of his college girlfriend, Gail, and knows things only she would know. Vinta, alone with Merlin, cautions him to take Luke to Amber, and she will go with him. She seems unable to reveal anything about who she is or what she’s doing protecting him. Merlin rashly decides to grab Luke and Trumps them both out to the crystal cave. There, Luke mentions that he had already assaulted the Keep of Four Worlds with Dalt but that Dalt somehow turned on him, leading to his injury. He also mentions that if Merlin helps him, he will turn over a piece of information vital to Amber’s security.
Merlin leaves Luke to convalesce, then heads off toward Amber. We get a little look into how magic is accomplished, at least through the power of the Logrus. Spells are assembled and hung, ready to be implemented with the completion of a few words. It also requires moving one’s tongue along with the Logrus, another weird image.
As Merlin sleeps for the night, an enemy approaches. Shortly afterward, Merlin flashes back to moments in his past. When Fiona first showed him Corwin’s Pattern and the fact that it seems he can walk it. Back in Chaos when he tried to make up with his brother, Jurt, and Jurt tried to kill him. Back on Shadow Earth during a conversation between Luke, Julia, Gail and himself. Back in Chaos, completing his lessons with his uncle Suhuy, learning how to manipulate raw Chaos like he did against Victor Melman in Trumps of Doom.
Back at his campfire, the unknown enemy warns Merlin that his magic and the Logrus won’t help him. It then reveals itself to be a large wolf with one eye. It lunges for Merlin who manages to stave off its jaws with his arm. Then he rolls it toward the campfire, burning the creature’s head and freeing his arm. It races away from him, heading toward a rectangle of light, a Trump opening. Merlin tries to catch it, but it escapes before he can reach the Trump.
Merlin muses on the multiple enemies and entities in his life—Sharru Garrul, Luke and the blue stones, the entity that possessed Vinta Bayle. The connections aren’t all there. He also figures out that the wolf was probably a shapeshifted human rather than a true wolf, but Merlin isn’t sure how it fits in.
He makes it back to Amber and on his way to the palace he meets Bill Roth out for a bite to eat. Merlin updates Bill who warns him about Luke, though he also agrees to the idea of potentially representing Luke in any kind of trial that may occur. He then goes home, eats and visits Corwin’s tomb, depositing the blue button into it.
Then Merlin goes to walk the Pattern, attempting to break the attunement of the blue stones. When he reaches the center, he commands it to take him to where he had seen Dalt before, through the Trump. He enters Dalt’s room and no one is there. He realizes he’s outside the Keep. With a combination of subterfuge, Frakir, and magic, Merlin manages to get across a bridge to the Keep. Then using his strength he topples the bridge.
Using more magic, he gets into the Keep where he sees two frozen forms—Sharu Garrul (with Rinaldo inscribed on his led) and Jasra. The blue-masked sorcerer appears and uses fire against Merlin. Merlin uses his own magic to fight back. He gets close to Jasra, then Trumps, with her, back to the palace in Amber. But not before using a spell to cover the wizard, Mask, with flowers and manure.
Back in the palace Merlin deposits Jasra and then takes a nap. He’s awakened by Droppa, the court jester, who says that it looked like Merlin was Trumping out in his sleep. Indeed a bite from the dream he was having seems to have translated into real life. Merlin starts seeing strange things—melting walls, and images, hearing Luke’s voice. He starts moving, unclear about what’s happening. Random appears with Droppa and Benedict. They can see the strange things as well. Luke can be heard in the air now, but disoriented, it seems. A Trump portal appears. Merlin calls for the information that will help Amber. Luke claims that Deela, the fanatic was held in Amber’s prisons and that Oberon raped her and Dalt was her son. That’s why he hates Amber. He proved his Amber blood by walking the Pattern in Tir-na Nog’th.
Merlin goes to the Trump opening to try to pull Luke through, but instead he’s pulled through. Into Wonderland (as in “Alice in”). There he seems to forget what’s happening along with Luke and at the end of the novel, they both appear to be trapped.
The Arc: I know some people in the Corwin posts talked about how it felt like Zelazny was making things up as he went along without a complete arc in mind. Whether or not you agree, it feels like that’s more the case with the Merlin books, and this one in particular seems to suffer from a sort of aimlessness. A lot of information is presented, but it doesn’t feel like a lot happens. And for every answer that Zelazny gives us, it seems he drops another question or two. Plus there are all the characters. We got Jasra and Luke last book, but this one adds Dalt and Delwin and Sand and Sharru Garrul.
I don’t think the book is bad, but I do think it’s my least favorite of all the Amber books. Lots of set-up, very little movement outside of the beginning and the end. Merlin also goes from trapped (in the cave) to trapped (in Wonderland), almost as if Zelazny parked him while he figured out what to do next.
Grimjack: Just wanted to repeat this. Love the character, love the cameo. You should check out the comics if you can.
Vinta Bayle: Exactly who or what was possessing Vinta Bayle has yet to be explained. But it’s clear that the entity possessed others in Trumps of Doom and indeed tried to kill Luke, supposedly to protect Merlin. The entity seems unable to explain who it is or how it operates. Or even why Merlin needs to be protected. It also seems to be able to tell where he is and quite cleanly take over people around him.
Also disturbing is the way that the real Vinta Bayle seems to brush off the possession. I would expect the fact that something else took over her body, possibly to do things with it she wouldn’t have wanted to, would be horrific. But she shrugs it off, even asking Merlin if they had slept together. Maybe Amber morality is far different from ours, but I think this is Zelazny taking a light approach to the situation again. And while I think he gives Vinta a bit more character than some of the women from the first series, it’s still reflective of his general approach to women in his fiction.
Cosmology: We learn a bit more about the Logrus in this one. It seems a pretty capable tool, allowing one to walk through Shadow and also search through Shadow, granting special sight, and the ability to work spells. We also learn that sorcerers from Chaos can wield pure Chaos for great destructive effect. Though it’s easy to let things run wild. We also learn that Corwin’s brothers and sisters can’t walk his new Pattern, but that Merlin can (which makes sense). Fiona seems to think that the new Pattern is causing instability to the balance between the poles of Order and Chaos, while Merlin believes it’s just the aftereffects of the redrawing of the Pattern. It’s not clear who’s right.
Oberon’s Offspring: Last book we learned that Luke/Rinaldo was Brand’s son. This makes a kind of sense—much of the first series was Corwin working against Brand, and Corwin’s son versus Brand’s son maintains a similar balance. But Zelazny adds a whole bunch of Amberites in this book, first with Dalt, who seems to be the product of rape. Now all we have in this novel is Luke’s word (presumably from Dalt), but I don’t love the idea of Oberon the rapist. Not after we had a chance to see him as Ganelon.
Then there’s Delwin and Sand who are brought up and then forgotten again. I don’t have a problem with the idea of lots of Amberites, but it just feels like overkill in this one. But I suppose with Corwin gone who-knows-where and Caine dead, there’s room for a few more. I’d expect we’ll see more of them in the future...
So that’s Blood of Amber. Did you feel, as I did, that it was a little light on actual happenings? How did you feel it holds up?
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.