In Sign of Chaos, the midpoint of the second series, Merlin’s story finally begins to gather some steam and Merlin makes some headway in the various mysteries and adventures in which he finds himself involved. We also get to meet a few more of his relatives, a couple of Chaos creatures, and...the Jabberwock?
When we left Merlin in Blood of Amber, he had been sucked into Wonderland where his friend and enemy (frenemy?) Luke is waiting. As they sit at the Mad Hatter’s tea party, they both seem to have forgotten where they came from or any of their pressing issues.
Merlin doesn’t seem to mind at first, but reality starts leaking in; he begins questioning how he arrived there and realizes something is amiss. A frumious Bandersnatch attacks, but Merlin instinctively uses a spell, killing the creature. The use of magic, and the Logrus in particular, seems to restore something of Merlin’s mind, so he uses it again. And just in time, because the Jabberwock approaches.
The Jabberwock temporarily hesitates at the appearance of a new threat—a Fire Angel, a powerful creature out of Chaos. Merlin knocks out Luke and quickly drags him to the rabbit hole; the Fire Angel pursues with the Jabberwock right behind it.
Merlin realizes on the way that Luke is basically having a bad trip. As someone with power over shadow, Luke’s hallucination creates its own reality. Merlin summons some supplies using the Logrus (B12, Thorazine, tryptophan, etc) to help Luke come down while the Fire Angel is occupied with the Jabberwock. Merlin hopes the latter wins since the former, being a Chaos creature, must have been sent to kill him.
But the Jabberwock soon beats a retreat, leaving Merlin to face the Fire Angel. Luckily, he grabbed the Vorpal Sword back in Wonderland and he uses it, snicker-snack, to take care of the Fire Angel. Then he tells Luke what happened to him. Merlin guesses that when Luke attacked the Keep of Four Worlds, the sorcerer Mask drugged him. But Merlin knows he can’t do anything until Luke comes down, so he leaves, walking through Shadow.
When he finds a suitably peaceful place, he Trump messages his stepbrother, Mandor, and asks him to come through. Unlike his half-brothers, Merlin always got along with Mandor, the son of his mother’s husband. Merlin shares the events of his whole story. Mandor asks Merlin to let him know next time he encounters the strange entity who has been possessing people around Merlin. He then invites Merlin to come stay at his country place in Chaos and lie low for a few years. Merlin refuses.
Merlin presses Mandor for information on the Fire Angel and Mandor mentions that the current King of the Courts, Swayvill, is dying. As a result, a struggle for succession is underway in Chaos—duels, assassinations, accidents, etc. Mandor explains that Sawall, his father and Dara’s husband, officially adopted Merlin after he left. Merlin argues that that still leaves him far down on the list of succession (below Mandor even) but Mandor counters that this atmosphere is conducive to personal vendettas—namely Jurt’s. Merlin’s younger brother is most likely the one who sent the Fire Angel after Merlin as well as the crop-eared, one-eyed wolf that attacked in the previous book.
Fiona Trump messages Merlin and invites both he and Mandor through to Corwin’s Pattern. She explains that she quickly left Amber in the previous book because she recognized Luke as Brand’s son, and guessed that she and Bleys would be likely targets after Caine.
She then accuses Merlin of lying about not being able to step on Corwin’s Pattern. She wants him to walk it again, but Merlin refuses. She shows him a large black tornado nearby that she thinks is related to the Pattern—and possibly a threat to them. She wants Merlin to walk to the center of Corwin’s Pattern and Trump her through where they can both visit that Pattern’s Primal Pattern.
Merlin is still hesitant, but Mandor takes matters into his own hands and feeds Chaos into the thing. It grows in size, clearly a Chaos phenomenon, but then it adjusts back to its original size. Later, it shrinks until it disappears. It seems that someone from Chaos must be behind it. Merlin Trumps back to Amber, leaving Fiona and Mandor together to puzzle it out.
Back in Amber, Merlin moves Jasra—still essentially a coat rack—into his room. He studies the spell that holds her frozen and constructs a few new spells, as well. Later, Merlin goes looking for a meal and finds Vialle and Llewella eating together. Vialle mentions that Gerard and Julian are helping to fortify Amber and that Benedict is escorting Random to Kashfa (where Luke and Jasra are originally from). Apparently the recent general in charge was killed and Random is putting his own man on the throne, admitting Kashfa to the Golden Circle of Amber’s trading partners in return.
Then a delegation from Begma, another of Amber’s near-neighbors, arrives, a couple of days early. They’re there to protest Amber’s actions in Kashfa. Merlin gets drafted to help greet the delegation. Merlin meets the Prime Minister and his two daughters, Nayda and Coral, and Merlin almost seems to recognize Coral. Merlin and Coral talk and she seems excited to be in Amber. She also seems to know a little about Merlin. He opens up to her a bit and then they make plans to go out and see the city.
Coral and Merlin talk for a while and she seems really interested in Amber and Merlin and sorcery. She then wants to take the steps down Kolvir and Merlin goes with her. He stumbles and she immediately and easily helps him and he starts having suspicions. There is that entity who takes on different faces and seems to have an unusual interest in him (particularly protecting him). They walk down to the beach and then into some nearby caves. Coral asks Merlin to let her see the Pattern. Merlin says that he’s guessed who she is. Then he casts a spell meant to evict a possessing spirit from a body. Nothing seems to happen to Coral, but shrieks sound from further on in the caves.
Merlin rushes to investigate and finds two corpses, at least several days dead, and one living man—Jurt. The two corpses reanimate as zombies, but Merlin defeats them with a spell. Jurt says that Merlin betrayed someone he loves and only Merlin’s death will fix it. He also claims to be about to receive great power. But he starts Trumping out. Merlin guesses that Mask is behind Jurt’s activities and asks for proof. He receives a few roses through the Trump portal, seemingly confirming his suspicions.
Coral and Merlin return to the palace and Merlin decides to take her down to the Pattern. She asks Merlin a lot of questions about it and Merlin obliges her. Then she steps onto the Pattern. Merlin expects her to be destroyed, but she isn’t. She claims that Oberon was rumored to be her father and this is apparently proved by the fact that she can walk the Pattern. Merlin coaches her through and then tells her when she reaches the center that she can command the Pattern to send her anywhere she wills. She decides to let the Pattern decide. Before she leaves, though, Merlin tosses her his Trump so that she can contact him if necessary. Then she disappears to only the Pattern knows where. Merlin still dismisses the idea of a sentient Pattern, but he is mysteriously moved in the chamber to the other side of the Pattern before he leaves.
As Merlin returns to the palace proper he runs into Martin who’s gone all cyberpunk. Then Fiona Trump messages Merlin to say that she and Mandor encountered Ghostwheel and that he’s antisocial. She warns Merlin not to trust it. But before Merlin can respond, Luke Trumps through, ending the first connection. Luke says that he’s recovered, come down from his hallucination. He also says that he’s ending his vendetta for good.
Merlin mentions that Mask is working with Jurt and Luke says that bathing someone in the Fount of Power inside the Keep of Four Worlds would increase their power. With a special ritual, it could turn someone into a kind of Living Trump. Just like what happened to Brand. So Mask could turn Jurt into a new Brand. Luke proposes his help in attacking Mask and Jurt and the Keep. He also tries to convince Merlin that Jasra would help since she knows the Keep and the process. If Merlin was to free her and promise her the Keep at the end, she might even let things go. Merlin has to admit it’s an intriguing offer. He’ll think about it.
Afterwards, Nayda, Coral’s sister, finds Merlin and asks where her sister went. Merlin is intentionally vague. Then Nayda mentions that she’s read Merlin’s file and she offers him assistance with any difficulties he might have. After they part, Ghostwheel contacts Merlin. He’s still trying to find himself, he admits. He also tries to warn Merlin about Fiona and Mandor. Merlin asks Ghostwheel if he could transport troops to the Keep of Four Worlds and Ghostwheel says yes. So Merlin has transportation for the attack on the Keep.
Back in Merlin’s room, Bill Roth comes to visit him (there are lots of visits and contacts and conversations in this book). Merlin fills Bill in and then they attend the dinner with the Begman delegation. Nayda pesters Merlin more about her sister and Merlin similarly evades her. Nayda again repeats her offer about helping Merlin—she claims to have a secret but effective way to help eliminate his enemies. Merlin is suspicious of the price, but Nayda claims on a some goodwill towards Begma is necesary. Merlin doesn’t accept her offer, though. Then Bill fills him in on some political and legal machinations that are about to strain relationships with Begma.
Merlin is then summoned to see the queen and Vialle tells him that she needs his help. Dalt is in Arden forest and though he has troops with him, he’s sent a message saying that he will withdraw if he’s given Luke and Jasra. Vialle has no desire to give in to him, but she does want to find out more about what’s going on. Vialle asks to speak to Luke so Merlin Trumps him in. Luke tells her he’s finished with his revenge plan and Vialle gives him her ring to wear. Luke convinces Vialle to let him Trump down to the forest and Julian (who’s facing off against Dalt) and talk to Dalt one on one. As Luke Trumps through to Julian, Merlin tags along.
Luke meets with Dalt and they agree to fight a duel but not to the death. Luke convinces Merlin not to intervene. Luke and Dalt pound on each other, but in the end Dalt wins. Dalt carries off Luke and leaves with his men.
Merlin Trumps back to Vialle and she asks about Coral. Merlin tells her about the Pattern and Vialle asks him to speak to Nayda and allay her suspicions. She also happens to mention that Nayda was recently ill. Merlin does this and eventually he and Nayda start making out. Before things go too far, though, Merlin tells her about Coral walking the Pattern. He excuses himself to see about finding her but Nayda insists on coming along.
Back in his room Merlin starts composing a Trump for Coral. Merlin contacts her but she seems to be in blackness. Merlin reaches for her but the contact is suddenly broken. Then Merlin tries to contact Luke and doesn’t get through. Some of Nayda’s remarks clue Merlin in to the fact that she’s the entity that has been possessing bodies around him. They talk for a bit more, then Merlin Trumps through to Mandor and calls him through.
Mandor freezes Nayda and is able to determine that she is a ty’iga, a bodiless demon from the Chaos side of things. Mandor interrogates her (rather roughly) and asks her why she’s protecting Merlin but the demon can’t tell. Something is prohibiting her. She can’t say who set her to do so or why. Mandor tries to threaten destruction to get around the programming but she explains that the real Nayda died when she contracted her illness and the ty’iga is the only thing keeping her alive.
In the end, they work around it by getting her to tell Mandor when Merlin isn’t in the room. In the end, though, Mandor doesn’t tell Merlin anything except that he has reasons for not telling Merlin. He asks him to let it drop. Because Merlin trusts Mandor, he does.
Merlin is now determined to go to the Keep of the Four Worlds to face off against Mask and Jurt and Mandor insists on going, too. But they need Jasra now definitely. So Merlin sets about freeing her. He tells her how he needs her help but Jasra isn’t convinced. It takes a private conversation with Nayda to convince her.
While he’s waiting, Merlin visits his father’s room. When he enters, there are candles burning in the room. A vase on the dresser holds a fresh silver rose, Corwin’s symbol. A silver shirt and black trousers are also laid out in the room. And Grayswandir, Corwin’s sword, is also there. But Corwin doesn’t appear to be. It shakes Merlin but he returns to the others.
Jasra agrees to go to the Keep with them and Ghostwheel takes them there. Jasra can tell that the ritual to empower Jurt is almost over. She plans to take on Jurt while Merlin takes Mask with Mandor as backup for both of them. Of course Jurt appears soon after and engages them followed by Mask.
Merlin exchanges magic with Mask while Jasra attacks Jurt. He almost has her until Jasra uses her poisonous bite on him. Jurt still manages to Trump himself into the Fount and seems to recover quickly. Mask unfreezes Sharu Garrul to help him and Sharu takes on Jasra. Mask still tries to attack Merlin and he manages to stab the sorcerer in the kidney, downing him. Jurt, however appears to transport Mask away. However, Mask’s mask falls off revealing exactly who it is beneath. It’s Julia, Merlin’s girlfriend who was supposedly dead.
Overall Arc: Compared to the last book, this one had more going on. Yes, much of that seems to be Merlin flitting from conversation to conversation, often being interrupted before we get to the juicy parts, but there is at least movement. Merlin escapes from Wonderland, he visits Corwin’s Pattern, he takes Coral to Amber’s Pattern, he confronts the ty’iga, and in the end they invade the Keep and take on Mask and Jurt. Plot threads start to come together as we end up with proper villains for the piece, especially with the reveal that Mask is...
Julia: This was a big reveal for the series, but one which might leave people scratching their heads. Sure, Julia makes sense in some way. Merlin took her on an impromptu trip through Shadow and then told her she dreamed it, leading her to investigate magic, and to fear him. But...didn’t she die in the first book of the series? Wasn’t that what kicked this whole thing off? Then again, we thought Caine died back in the last series and that was revealed to be a shadow. We’ll have to wait until the next book in the series for details.
Amberites: Zelazny makes sure to keep our old favorites in the background of Merlin’s series. Aside from Random and Fiona they don’t get a whole lot to do, but it’s comforting in a way to see them doing what they do. In this book we get a nice little moment between Julian and Luke as Julian sizes up his nephew. We also get to see a little more of Llewella which, it seems, is a deliberate tactic on Zelazny’s part (see below).
We also get another brand new Amberite. The last books introduced Luke/Rinaldo, Dalt, Sand and Delwin. This book introduces Coral. She doesn’t do much except walk the Pattern, but Merlin is drawn to her. In a way, she’s like the Dara to his Corwin. Hopefully with fewer ulterior motives.
One thing’s for certain—Oberon sure did get around...
Female Characters: One of the criticisms I had of Corwin’s story was that the women got short shrift in the books. With the Merlin books, it’s almost as if Zelazny realized this and made an effort to give the women bigger roles. So far we’ve seen more from Flora and Fiona and in this book, Vialle and Llewella. In fact, it seems that with the exception of Luke and Mandor, Merlin spends most of his time interacting with the women of the family.
Vialle comes off the best for me (just as she did in the last series) but Coral almost matches her. She’s likeable, headstrong, and knows what she wants. When Merlin tries to dissuade her from using the Pattern the way she wants, she ignores him. If only she hadn’t disappeared for the rest of the book.
Politics: This book is filled with political information. We already knew about Kashfa from the previous books, but this books focuses more heavily on Begma, another near neighbor. The fact that Kashfa and Begma are in a dispute over territory is new, if not surprising. That Random is getting involved and pushing his weight around maybe is. Clearly he has reason to (to help protect Amber against Dalt and Luke and Jasra), but Zelazny spends a good deal of time seeding this through the narrative and making sure that Merlin is around to hear it. I guess we’ll have to wait until future books to figure out if it comes to fruition.
The Pattern, the Logrus, and Magic: There’s not a whole lot new here, but there are a few tantalizing little moments. For one, there’s that strange black tornado near Corwin’s Pattern. It seems to be a Chaos phenomenon, though, and possibly created by someone so far unidentified. There’s also the fact that Fiona is convinced that Corwin’s Pattern has its own Primal Pattern. That strikes me as a little backwards, though. If Corwin’s Pattern created a new universe, wouldn’t the one they visit be the Primal Pattern and the one in the new universe be the non-Primal version?
Then there’s the Pattern in Amber which Zelazny seems to be at least hinting might be sentient. It does send Coral somewhere when she wills it to send her where she should go. But Merlin chalks that up to her subconscious mind coming into play. Yet, as if to prove it can understand, Merlin is transported to the other side of the chamber. Strange...
Finally, there’s mention of the Fount at the center of the Keep of Four Worlds and that this is what helped transform Brand into a Living Trump I wasn’t sure how to feel about this at first—I originally just figured that Brand was better than anyone else at learning how to use the Pattern and Trumps and probably even magic and combined those into skills no one else had discovered yet. But, I’m willing to accept that the Fount imbued him with more power and strengthened those abilities even further. Of course Jasra seems to indicate that it might have been what unbalanced Brand. With Jurt, of course, it might be hard to tell.
Corwin: There have been moments in all of the Merlin books where Merlin wonders where his father is. There have been rumors, of course, but we’ve seen no real sign of Corwin until now. It sure looks like he might have been visiting his rooms back in Amber. But is it really him? I mean Grayswandir is there. One thing is clear, even if he doesn’t appear in the books his presence is clearly hanging over them.
So that’s Sign of Chaos. What did you think? Do you think, like me, that the series picks up a bit here? How do you think it stacks up? Let me know in the comments, then come back next time for Knight of Shadows...
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.