“It was a pain in the ass waiting around for someone to try to kill you.”
Corwin’s story may have finished with The Courts of Chaos, but in 1985, Roger Zelazny returned to the world of Amber for Trumps of Doom, the first in a new series of Amber novels, this time focusing on Corwin’s son Merlin. This series is a bit more polarizing than the previous series was. Why? Well, read on and find out…
What Happens: Trumps of Doom picks up with Merlin anticipating an attempt on his life. Why? Because it’s April 30th and someone has tried to kill him every April 30th for the past seven years, someone Merlin refers to simply as S. Merlin thinks back on some of the previous attempts, beginning with a careening truck and later an attack by three men, a mail bomb, a fire, and an attempt to fill his apartment with gas.
Merlin—who goes by “Merle”—grabs a bite to eat and runs into Lucas Raynard, a former classmate and coworker of his. Lucas extends a job offer to Merlin, but Merlin refuses, saying that he’s been in one place too long and that he needs to travel. Lucas mentions an ex-girlfriend of Merlin’s named Julia, and passes along a note from her. It says she knows who Merlin is and warns him of danger. It also says that she has something he will need and asks to see him.
The two men finish their meal, and Merlin remarks on a strange connection he feels to the enigmatic Lucas. After some equivocation, Merlin goes to see Julia. He finds her apartment broken into, and filled with a foul odor. He discovers Julia dead in her room, and is attacked by a dog creature. He also mentions (without explanation) something called Frakir, which is around his wrist.
Merlin fights and kills the dog creature before finding Trumps in Julia’s room. Only they’re not his, and he doesn’t recognize the people they represent. As police sirens become audible, he grabs the Trumps and leaves.
He tries to get in touch with Luke to question him about his last conversation with Julia, but can’t reach him. He then goes to speak with Julia’s last boyfriend, who tells Merlin that she had been studying the occult, for the purpose of gaining power in order to protect herself against Merlin. He also gives Merlin the name of one of her teachers, Victor Melman, a painter.
Merlin thinks back to when he and Julia were together and he, desperately in love, took her on a walk through Shadow—but regretting the decision, Merlin enchanted her so she would think it all a dream. And even when she asked questions later, Merlin ignored her. He now feels responsible, assuming that it was Julia’s time in Shadow (and her unanswered questions) that led her to study the occult, and which has now gotten her killed.
Merlin meets Victor Melman in his studio, and the painter seems to know who Merlin is. He invites Merlin to talk in his apartment and shows him a painting of the Tree of Life from the Kabbalah. The painting is similar to the Trumps (and seems to be made by the same person who made the Trumps in Julia’s room), and transports Merlin to a glade in a forest where a robed and hooded man is speaking an incantation and wielding a sacrificial knife over an altar.
Merlin finds himself controlled, moving against his will and unable to break free, but he counters the spell. Merlin chases the first hooded man off, but a second figure is revealed to be Victor Melman. He claims to have brought Merlin through to kill him at the behest of a master whose name he doesn’t know. This master is said to rule the Keep of the Four Worlds. The two men fight, and Merlin accidentally throws Melman out into the formless Chaos.
Merlin heads back to Melman’s place and finds a diary that mentions Amber. He also gets a phone call, meant for Melman, from a woman named Jasra asking if the deed is done. Merlin bluffs and claims to be wounded, telling the woman to come immediately. She does, and Merlin attempts to restrain her, but Jasra poisons him.
He falls to the ground, but uses the Trumps to transport himself away. He ventually recovers from the poison, thanks to his superior healing. He encounters a blue sphinx who challenges him to answer a riddle (or else be eaten). Merlin gives an answer, which is not the “correct” answer, but he claims that it fulfills the riddle and therefore it should be a tie. The sphinx proposes that Merlin ask his own riddle to break the tie, and the sphinx loses. Merlin learns that the answer to the sphinx’s question is “The Keep of the Four Worlds.”
Merlin walks through Shadow back to Victor Melman’s place in Shadow Earth, only to find the apartment has burned down. A kid helps fill in some information and even brings out a few bullets filled with pink powder that doesn’t seem to ignite. Merlin pockets a few and then tries to track down Luke.
He turns up at a Motel that Luke stayed at, finding a note stating that Luke headed to New Mexico—he would be there for close to a week and he wanted to talk to Merlin. The motel also passes along a ring that Luke left behind—pink gold with a blue stone. Merlin puts it on.
Merlin flies to New Mexico, and meets Luke in the restaurant of his hotel. Luke is wearing fatigues and mentions hiking in the Pecos. Merlin offers to buy dinner and Luke goes off to shower and change. While Merlin is waiting, a man named Dan Martinez approaches and starts asking questions about Luke. He claims to be a potential business investor. But before he leaves, he asks if Luke ever mentioned Amber or the Courts of Chaos.
Merlin tries to chase after him, but Luke appears and they sit down to eat. Luke remarks on the ring Merlin is wearing. Merlin tries to pull it off to give it back, but it seems stuck, and Luke offers to sell it to him. Merlin heads to the bathroom and uses Frakir to help get it loose. Then he gives it back to Luke, who wraps it in a handkerchief and puts it in his pocket.
They eat dinner and then Luke suggests a drive and asks Merlin about Ghostwheel. Merlin explains that it’s a theoretical project that could never exist in the real world, but he wants to know how Luke found out about it. Luke says that he found drawings and notes about it on his worktable. Merlin mentions Martinez, thinking that Ghostwheel might have been related to his business with Luke, but Luke claims not to know Martinez.
Merlin recalls that Martinez mentioned Amber, and Luke says he heard about Amber from some crazy painter he knows named Melman. Merlin tells him that Melman is dead. Luke fears that they’re being followed and pulls over. Someone begins shooting at them, and Luke shoots back, killing the man who Merlin recognizes as Dan Martinez.
Luke puts his fingers to his head, then tells Merlin to take the car and go. Merlin hesitates, asking what’s going on, and Luke points the gun at him, then fires at his feet saying, “Merlin, son of Corwin…if you don’t start running right now you’re a dead man!”
Merlin takes off, but loops back around to where they’d stopped. Martinez’s body is gone. Merlin returns to the hotel and breaks into Luke’s room. There’s not much there, but he pockets a round of ammunition. Then Merlin goes to see Bill Roth, Corwin’s lawyer friend on Shadow Earth.
It is explained that Merlin has visited Bill several times in the past, and filled him in on Corwin’s story. Bill has also previously consulted on some of Amber’s legal issues, in particular the Patternfall Treaty between Amber and Chaos. Bill, listening to Merlin’s story now, suggests that Luke might not be human. They have a discussion about magic and the Trumps and Shadowwalking, with Merlin explaining the basics to Bill. Merlin also demonstrates his Logrus powers, pulling a chilled beer out of Shadow. As Merlin is spending time with Bill, a local comes to meet them, George Hansen, only he isn’t acting like himself.
Merlin takes a moment to relate the stories about his father, Corwin. No one has apparently seen him in years and he’d been unreachable by Trump. One rumor claims that Dara has cursed him and that he was driven mad. Another says that he has entered the universe created by his Pattern and never returned. Or perhaps he simply died after leaving the Courts of Chaos. Though some claimed to have seen him at various times, it seems that Corwin’s true location is undetermined.
Merlin guesses that Luke’s story about investors was phony and that his primary interest was in Ghostwheel. Merlin reveals to Bill that Ghostwheel is real. In the middle of their conversation, Merlin gets a strange phone call, a man asking if Luke or Merlin is from Amber or the Courts of Chaos, and mentioning that one of them is in danger. Merlin refuses to answer questions unless they can meet in person. The voice promises to think about it but mentions that Merlin is probably in danger right now.
Later, Merlin finds a note in his bedroom saying that the mysterious person/voice will meet with him. The next day, George Hansen stops by to see Merlin, asking him a lot of questions, including what his mother’s name is. Merlin lies. He relates this to Bill as they are hiking later. Merlin receives a Trump call from Amber just as George Hansen appears again. He starts moving toward Merlin and Bill so Merlin pulls Bill through into Amber.
Bill and Random are introduced and then Random tells Merlin that Caine is dead—shot through the heart by a rifleman in a nearby shadow. Someone also took a shot at Bleys, too, in a different shadow but didn’t kill him. Random fears that the family has, or is about to, fall into old patterns—cabals and vendettas. He also mentions that there’s talk it might be Corwin gone mad or with amnesia.
Merlin fills Random in on his adventures and they talk about the ammo. They resolve to test it after dinner. At dinner are an assortment of Amberites—Gerard, Flora, Martin, Julian, and Fiona in addition to Random and Merlin. At different points during the evening, Gerard, Flora, Julian and Fiona each try to set up a meeting with Merlin. Afterwards Random, Martin and Merlin test out the rounds that Merlin brought from Shadow Earth and they fire in the palace. As does a third round, the one that Merlin took from Luke’s hotel room.
Random, of course, wants to know more about Luke and about the warehouse where the ammo was found. He decides to send Flora. Merlin heads back to his room and makes a Trump for the club where he’s supposed to meet the mysterious stranger that keeps contacting him. Fiona shows up and offers to watch Merlin through the Trump in case something goes wrong. He waits for a while but no one shows up. Then a woman shows up by the name of Meg Devlin and mentions she’s in a similar situation. They go back to her place (Merlin telling Fiona he’s okay) and they sleep together. Then she asks Merlin the names of his father and mother.
Turns out she was the one who wanted to meet with him and his answers (Corwin and Dara) indicate that he’s the one she was looking for—she warns Merlin that Luke was the one who tried to kill him on April 30th. Before she can explain more, though, her husband shows up and she ushers Merlin out of the place. He’s picked up by Fiona who Trumped through to the club and followed him. She asks him for a picture of Luke Raynard. When he shows her one, she reacts, though she claims not to know him. She won’t elaborate either.
Merlin next attends Caine’s funeral. Absent are Bleys and Fiona, the latter of whom disappeared after picking up Merlin. As the funeral procession moves, Bill Roth sees a dark, cloaked and hooded figure on Kolvir. He hurls a bomb but it explodes short of the procession and no one is harmed.
Later, Random asks about Ghostwheel and Merlin fills him in, explaining that it’s a computer built using other physics and with alternate power sources and with part of the Pattern incorporated into its design. It can search and catalogue through shadows. Merlin shows Random how he can summon a terminal. Merlin asks how many shadowstorms are currently in existence and it provides the answer in Merlin’s voice. Random sees that it could too easily be used as a weapon and orders Random to shut it down. Before Merlin can leave, Julian shows up with a dead dog creature like the one which was at Julia’s.
Merlin moves through Shadow toward where Ghostwheel is, but someone or something tries to warn him off. Merlin is attacked, but a strange woman helps him continue. Later an earthquake almost gets him but he’s saved by Luke. Luke guesses that they’re after Ghostwheel and it seems to be the entity attacking and warning Merlin off.
Luke wants to go see Ghostwheel but Merlin explains that its in an every shifting maze, in a place of dangerous atmosphere and temperature. Almost impossible to reach. They decide to try, though, until Ghostwheel throws a shadowstorm at them. In response, Merlin uses one of Trumps he has.
They end up at a blue crystal cave that Luke seems to know and it’s well stocked. He shows Merlin where everything is, then exits through the roof and prepares to seal Merlin in. Merlin asks why and Luke says that his real name is Rinaldo and that he killed Caine and tried to kill Bleys. The big revelation comes when Luke reveals that his father was Brand. That’s why Caine died first—he was the one to actually kill Brand after all (poor Caine—so little screen time).
Merlin asks why April 30th? And Rinaldo explains that that was the day he found out about his father’s death. And, like the mythological Merlin, this Merlin is sealed in the cave at the end of the novel.
Merlin: Well, the biggest difference between this book and the previous books is that the POV character is now Merlin, to whom Corwin was narrating the previous series. Merlin is, of course, a lot like his father (despite not spending a lot of time around him), but there are differences that Zelazny hits upon. Importantly, Merlin is not driven the way that Corwin was. Things happen to him which cause him to react, but he’s just living his life, and at the beginning of the book is getting ready to move on from his time on Shadow Earth.
Another difference is that Merlin is a sorcerer. While Corwin demonstrates some magical ability in his books (such as when he faces Strygalldwir, in Guns of Avalon), Merlin uses magic quite a bit, even if it isn’t always clear what he’s doing. He also can use the power of the Pattern (walking through Shadow, the Trumps) as well as that of the Logrus, the symbol of Chaos. So he can seek through Shadow for things (beer, for example) in addition to being able to travel through it.
He also owes allegiance to both Amber and the Courts. Corwin was all about Amber (if not his family), but when Random orders him to shut down Ghostwheel, for example, Merlin seems just about ready to disobey.
Frakir: As Zelazny often does, he just makes mention of Frakir and doesn’t bother to explain what it is. Some things are apparent in this book, though. It (or she, as Merlin refers to her) is a strangling cord. She warns Merlin of danger and she can operate seemingly independently. Sentient? Unknown. Magical? Definitely.
The Logrus: One of the benefits of having Merlin as the POV character is that he grew up in the Courts of Chaos. We therefore have a window into the people of Chaos and what they’re capable of. It seems logical that there would be an opposite to the Pattern, an ever-shifting symbol that could be used by people of Chaos. The method Merlin uses to employ it always stuck me as visually odd—he has to match the movements of his arms to those of the lines of the Logrus. That Merlin can draw on the power of both the Logrus and the Pattern isn’t that unexpected since we can guess that both Dworkin and Oberon were trained in its use and they later took the Pattern. It would be interesting, though, if any of the Amberites (who ostensibly still have Chaos blood in them) could learn to use the Logrus.
Luke/Rinaldo: The big bombshell comes at the end: Luke is Brand’s son and is trying to get revenge against those who killed his father. It seems clear that Bill Roth was on to something in guessing that Luke was more like Merlin than he’d thought. But does Luke really want all of Amber destroyed? Who is his mother? We’ll have to wait for the next book to find out.
So that’s Trumps of Doom. What did you think of Merlin’s first adventure? How do you think he differs from Corwin? Coming up next time, Blood of Amber.
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.