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Posted February 22, 2007
Now for some obvious advice: don’t start a ten book series by reading book 8!
I was well aware of this when I was a kid and I happened to pick up the eighth book in Roger Zelazny’s Amber series. But I didn’t have money to buy lots of books back then, and my local library didn’t stock much science fiction or fantasy, my main interests at the time.
So this solitary Amber book on the library shelf looked nifty and I dove right in. I admire my younger self for the sheer insanity of such a move, but I still wouldn’t recommend it.
I was bewildered by almost everything about the book, Sign of Chaos. I don’t remember which book I read next – I don’t think it was the ninth book. But when I had finally read the entire 10 book run, I quickly realized that the first five, which form a complete story arc, were much better than the second set of five, which formed a separate follow-up story. I also realized that the very first book, Nine Princes in Amber, was probably the best of all ten.
Granted, some of the charm of the first book was already ruined by my out of sequence reading order. Nine Princes in Amber is a very carefully constructed book – it brings the reader into a unique fantasy world a step at a time, especially in the first half. It can get a little tedious if you already know all the secrets.
Specifically, the main character, Corwin, starts the story with no memory of his own identity or why he is locked up in a hospital and kept sedated. The story of the amnesiac is a handy way to get your reader up to speed, but it makes re-reading a bit less worthwhile.
One of the things we discover quickly in Nine Princes in Amber: Corwin is clearly a bastard. And his family is worse.
It’s inevitable in the set-up. The realm he is from, Amber, is the only true world, and everything else is called Shadow, since all these other worlds are precisely that, variations on the true source. It’s like the whole multiple universes thing, except that Corwin and his family can “walk through Shadow” by sheer will-power.
So our world is a Shadow too, as are all the worlds where Corwin and his brothers get their cannon fodder from. Corwin has a few pangs of conscience, but they don’t last long in the face of his ambitions. The nine princes of the title are vying for the throne since their father has gone missing, and Corwin is determined to be crowned king.
The series does go to a very different place by the end of the fifth book, but the first book is a concentrated dose of anti-hero. Shadow people, those poor slobs like you and me, get slaughtered by the hundred thousand, and the princes of Amber continue with their power grabs.
Nine Princes in Amber is written in a prose style that no one uses anymore, and that hardly anyone else could do right at the time — Zelazny uses a mix of anachronism and high-flown rhetoric.
The oddness of the mix is made much more obvious by the fact that I listened to the audiobook — read by Zelazny himself! And he was not a professional actor (or voice actor? is that what people who read audiobooks are?), so his delivery is dry, due to amateur delivery as well as his own personal emphasis on the laconic. When I was listening to the audiobook, I was really struck by the debt Amber owes to noir. The old school detective novels, like Chandler and so on, were an interesting mix of gritty genre violence and highly-concentrated rhetoric. That seems very familiar here.
Amber is definitely a light fantasy adventure. That’s pretty much where Zelazny’s career went — short, fast books that were definitively well-written but didn’t add up to the genre-busting classics that people might have expected from him. His early stories, written in the 1960s, are still masterpieces. Nine Princes in Amber, written in 1970, seems to have started him down a different career path.
All the same, the first five books of the Amber series represent, as a whole, an accomplishment the equal of anything other writers were doing at the time, like more seriously regarded fare such as Dune. The building of the various bits of fantasy apparatus is impeccable, and Zelazny has remarkable control of his tone — this would all fall apart from the pen of a lesser writer.
I promised last month to talk about two classic Robin McKinley novels – I’m planning to get to those next time. This look back at Amber is part of the same intermittent series: to revisit some of the books that had a big influence on me as a young reader. The process has been full of surprises so far!
Ever started reading a series out of order? Ever read Zelazny? Email James about it or leave a comment below.