Hard-Boiled Fantasy: Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

If you’re a reader who likes the work of John Scalzi because of his snarky narrators, or if you’re a fan of the gritty fantasy found in George R. R. Martin’s Westeros, then I have a recommendation for you… Years before these authors started their careers, Roger Zelazny was bringing his own unique approach to science fiction and fantasy. His tales appeared unsentimental…but if you looked closer, his heart was very much on his sleeve. His work is deeply resonant with myths, religions, and legends drawn from cultures from around the world. And while his prose often echoes the hardboiled staccato rhythms of a detective novel, it also had a poetry all its own. Among the finest work he ever produced is the first book of what became known as the Chronicles of Amber, Nine Princes in Amber.

I will never forget when I first started reading the Amber series, which should give some indication of the impact the work had on me. I found Nine Princes of Amber in the Base Exchange at the Coast Guard Academy, where I was attending school. I was immediately drawn in by the paperback’s cover illustration—the first time I had seen the incomparable work of Jeffrey Catherine Jones. The painting, of a mounted knight in black and silver, evoked a classic illustration style, rooted in the work of Maxfield Parrish and N. C. Wyeth. I was already familiar with Roger Zelazny, another reason I decided to give the book a try. I enjoyed it immensely, although I was disturbed by the lack of a definitive ending. This was before trilogies, or long series of books, were a regular part of the publishing landscape. Over the following years, I eagerly hunted down sequels: The Guns of Avalon, Sign of the Unicorn, and The Hand of Oberon.

I also remember when I encountered the last book of the first series, The Courts of Chaos. The Coast Guard cutter I served on was fueling in Homer, Alaska; during a walk, I saw a library, and went in. I immediately spotted the book on a shelf of recently published works, picked it up and started reading. I knew I couldn’t finish before the library closed, but decided to do my best. By the time the librarian told me she was closing, I was hooked. I begged her to loan me the book, promising to return it before we sailed. I appealed to her as a fellow book lover, but did not hold a library card, and she would not relent. So I swore “on my honor as an officer and a gentleman” that she would find the book in the night deposit slot the next day (I think the only time in my life I ever used that old pledge). She finally relented, and sometime in the wee hours of the morning, I finished, walked the book back and slipped it through the door. It took me a few days to catch up on my sleep, but it was well worth it.

This is not the first time the Amber series has been mentioned on Tor.com. There was a re-read of the entire series by Rajan Khanna back in 2013, which you can find here. For a less complimentary review, you can look here at an article by Tim Callahan, part of a series he did with Mordicai Knode revisiting books listed in Annex N of the original Dungeons and Dragons manual. And the series was mentioned as an influence by author Howard Andrew Jones in a recent article you can find here.

 

About the Author

Roger Zelazny (1937-1995), was a popular American science fiction and fantasy author often associated with the “American New Wave” of authors who entered the scene in 1960s. These authors were often less concerned with hard sciences, like physics and astronomy, and more interested in exploring the human condition using science fictional settings as backdrops. Zelazny worked for the Social Security Administration, but was able to leave this position in 1969 to pursue writing full time. He lived in the Baltimore area, where he was involved in local fandom, and eventually moved to Santa Fe, where he spent his final years.

Zelazny focused on the craft of writing, using different viewpoints and structures for his tales, often to great effect. His language could be quite evocative, and he wrote poetry in addition to prose. He wove themes involving myth and legend into both his science fiction and fantasy. This included not only European myths, but also those from a variety of different regions and cultures. His characters were often cynical and even unsympathetic, and he sometimes used a narrative voice that would not be out of place in a detective novel of the era. His works were also marked by close attention to detail in the fight scenes, for which Zelazny drew upon his lifelong studies in the martial arts.

Zelazny was already an established science fiction author before he began writing the work he is most widely known for; The Chronicles of Amber. I encountered his fiction frequently in the various “best of” anthologies that were common in that era. Two of his stories in particular stand out in my memory: A Rose for Ecclesiastes, set on Mars, and The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth, set on Venus. These are among the last science fiction stories written before probes confirmed that conditions on those planets were not even remotely Earth-like, marking Zelazny as not only a member of a new generation of science fiction authors, but also one of the last authors of the classic planetary romance era. His work appeared in a variety of magazines, including Amazing, Fantastic, and Fantasy and Science Fiction, and eventually Analog, Asimov’s and Omni as well. Two of his best-known novels that fall outside the Amber series are This Immortal and Lord of Light, with the second being one of my all-time personal favorites.

Zelazny received numerous awards in his career, including six Hugo Awards and three Nebula Awards. He was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010. Many contemporary writers mention Zelazny as a major influence, including notables like George R. R. Martin and Neil Gaiman.

 

Nine Princes in Amber

Before I start my recap, I’m going to issue a rare early spoiler alert. Usually, I give information on the setting of the story, and in my recap, focus on the early chapters of a book without revealing its ending. But Nine Princes in Amber is a first-person narrative, which begins with an amnesiac protagonist. You are introduced to the world of the story as the protagonist learns more about who he is and where he is from. And having that world slowly revealed is a big part of what I loved about this book. So, if you want to experience the book in all its glory, stop reading here, pick up a copy, and come back when you are done. And instead of talking about the setting of the story first, I will talk about the larger world of Amber after my story recap.

The story opens as our protagonist awakens in a hospital room with no memory and his legs in casts, a noir-ish beginning through which Zelazny evokes the detective stories of writers such as Raymond Chandler. The protagonist refuses sedation from a very insistent nurse. He breaks off his casts to find his legs feeling pretty good. He vaguely remembers an accident, but figures he must be a fast healer. A large, brusque orderly shows up, and the protagonist knocks him out and steals his clothes. He is, apparently, a man who knows how to fight. He finds a man in an office who tries to pull a pistol on him, but disarms him, and gets the name of the woman who committed him: his sister. He demands the cash in the office safe as a “settlement” for the private hospital’s “malpractice,” and heads out to pay his sister a visit.

His sister, Flora, is surprised to see him, as the hospital had been ordered to keep him sedated and confined. He plays a dangerous game, trying to draw information from her without revealing his amnesia. She calls him Corwin, and mentions his brother Eric, which evokes a strong reaction. She mentions other brothers as well, and he feels himself react each time, often without knowing why. And then she mentions Amber, a place Corwin does not remember, but knows is home. Here I must point out a feature of the book that has become more obvious in passing years. Corwin has sisters, but as you can guess from the title (Nine Princes…), the women all play supporting roles. While this focus on male characters was typical of the time when the book was written, it has not aged well (nor has the fact that the characters are constantly smoking).

Corwin sleeps, and when he awakens, Flora is gone. He searches her office for clues, and discovers a deck of strange tarot cards, with trumps depicting his family members. And then the phone rings. Corwin answers it and hears the voice of his brother Random, who is in trouble. Corwin says he will help, and Random arrives with ruffians on his heels. The ruffians are not human, with grey skin and an abundance of sharp teeth, but are quickly and violently dispatched. Corwin and Random decide to head to Amber, taking one of Flora’s cars. As they drive, Corwin notices reality mutating around them as Random gives him directions. Their inhuman attackers, and this surreal process of moving through the “Shadows,” are fantastic, but Zelazny’s blunt narration makes everything feel very real and grounded even as it becomes stranger and stranger. They are pursued and harassed, and finally captured by their brother Julian, but Corwin overcomes him and wins their freedom. They use Random’s Trumps to contact their sister Dierdre. Corwin admits he does not remember who he is, and Random and Dierdre suggest they make their way to Rebma, an undersea replica of Amber, where Corwin can walk the “Pattern,” regain his power to travel among the Shadow worlds, and restore his memory. They run into some scrapes along the way, but Corwin walks the Pattern, and finally remembers everything. Their father, King Oberon, is missing, and Corwin’s brother Eric plans to take the throne—a throne Corwin wants for his own.

The rest of the book moves in a headlong rush toward an epic confrontation in the capital city of Amber, which sits atop the mountain of Kolvir. Corwin cuts a deal with his brother Bleys, who also wants the throne. They decide to make common cause, and if both survive, they will then figure out who should rule. Gunpowder does not work in Amber, so this conflict will be decided with blades and bows. They gather allies, make deals, and build mighty armies and navies. But they are confronting a brother who is in the seat of power, leads massive forces, has other brothers supporting him, and even controls the weather. There are battles, epic in scope, that cost thousands of lives among the forces they raised. Finally, Corwin and Bleys, their troops decimated, are reduced to forcing their way up a long stairway, rough-hewn into the rocky slopes of Kolvir, in one of the most gripping battle scenes I have ever read. And since I already warned you about spoilers, I’ll reveal the ending (so stop reading here, if you don’t want to know…)

 

Corwin loses, is blinded, and thrown into a dungeon. He slowly regains his sight, and is visited by another prisoner, Dworkin—the wizard who created the family’s magical tarot decks. Dworkin can draw pictures that have the power of Trumps, and use that power to pass through walls, something that should only be possible in the Shadow worlds, not in Amber itself. Corwin tricks him into drawing a picture of a nearby lighthouse where the keeper is friendly to him. And like everything Dworkin draws, that picture acts like a Trump, allowing Corwin to step through it to the lighthouse. He regains his strength, and in the book’s final scene, sails out to pursue his destiny.

That ending, as I mentioned, was jarring when I first read it, and strikes me as jarring still, even though I knew what was coming. Zelazny drastically subverts the tropes of epic fantasy, here: Corwin is the protagonist who we identify with, but there are no heroes or villains in this tale of familial conflict. And there is no happy ending, with evil vanquished and good triumphant.

 

The Amber Universe

The Amber stories are set in a universe with a seemingly infinite number of parallel worlds (an article on this theme can be found here, in the online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction). They fit into a sub-genre called portal fantasies, where the characters travel to alternate worlds through some sort of doorway. In the Amber stories, however, the characters themselves (and their tarot decks) are the portals.

In Nine Princes of Amber, through the eyes of the amnesiac Corwin, Zelazny seamlessly introduces us to a whole host of worlds, and to a royal family characterized by extraordinary powers and split into factions by competition and conflict. He reveals the true world of Amber, and its underwater mirror image Rebma, with all other worlds being Shadows. The book is full of ambitious worldbuilding, and many other authors would be content for that world to serve as the setting for the rest of a series.

But Zelazny has other things in mind, and the series is all the richer for it. The scene at the end of Nine Princes of Amber, when Dworkin walks through a dungeon wall, hints that there is more to the world of Amber than might first be apparent. And as the series unfolds, we find another version of the Pattern in the ghostly city of Tir-na Nog’th, which floats in the air above Amber. Moreover, the royals of Amber find that conflict within their family is not the only problem they face—the Courts of Chaos, with a version of the Pattern called the Logrus, stand at the other end of reality, and its royal family has designs on overthrowing Amber, and ruling all of Shadow. Before the first five-book series is over, the very foundations of reality will be shaken.

The Chronicles of Amber became widely popular, with each new volume eagerly awaited by fans, and when the original series was completed, fans still wanted more. So Zelazny started another series of five additional books that follow Corwin’s son Merlin as he searches for his missing father. Thus, in both series, an absent father looms large in the narrative. Despite some similarities, however, the second series has a different feel than the first. While Corwin was a powerful and long-lived character, young Merlin’s tale describes his coming of age. Merlin has trained as a computer programmer in the Shadow world of Earth, and has ideas about merging computer technologies with the magic of the Trumps. And with Merlin’s mother being from the Courts of Chaos, his journey takes readers even further into different unexplored lands.

In addition to the novels, an visual guide to Castle Amber was published in 1988, and Zelazny also wrote a handful of short works set in the universe. After his death, a prequel series was commissioned, but publishing problems prevented its completion.

According to Tor.com’s periodic update of SF-related television and movie projects, The Chronicles of Amber has been optioned for television by Skybound Entertainment. In an update issued in July 2019, the company promised more information “soon.”

 

Final Thoughts

The books of the Amber series, especially the first five that feature Corwin, number among the best books I have ever read. Zelazny has a way of drawing you into the story and making even the most improbable situations feel visceral and real. And the stories are full of mystery—like Russian nesting dolls, with each reveal leading to yet another puzzle.

And now its time for everyone else to chime in: Have you read Nine Princes in Amber, or the other tales from the Amber series, and if so, what did you think?

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.

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