I had intended to write about a new science fiction novel this week, but that turned out to be a disappointment. So I’m eagerly diving into Nine Princes in Amber, the first book in Roger Zelazny‘s epic 10 volume fantasy series, The Chronicles of Amber. This rounds out my contribution to the great not-a-challenge of Vintage SciFi Month for this year.
Nine Princes in Amber is a powerful beginning to a great fantasy adventure series, and what struck me most on this reading were Zelazny’s brilliant methods of gradually drawing readers into the multiple worlds and shifting timelines of Amber. (There will be some spoilers of this well-known novel from 1970.)
Zelazny introduces his protagonist, who narrates the story but doesn’t yet know his own name, lying in what appears to be a hospital bed with his legs in casts and coming round from heavy sedation. By now the hero with amnesia trope has been done to death, but in Nine Princes in Amber it works especially well. The man realizes he doesn’t need the casts or sedation and has to fight his way out of the building where he’s being held more as a prisoner than patient. He gets the name of the woman who committed him there after a car accident and takes a taxi to her home.
There he learns his name is Corwin, and the woman is his sister Flora. We get a sense immediately of the tension between them from their verbal sparring. Corwin is concealing his amnesia, so answers with vague statements that make his sister suspicious of his motives. And she seems convinced that Corwin must have some master plan in mind.
When Flora goes out for a time, Corwin searches a desk in her library and finds a hidden pack of Tarot-like cards with vivid pictures of people he recognizes. He realizes they are his brothers and sisters, each dressed in clothing that looks fantastical to him. He is shocked to the core when he recognizes himself in one of the cards, and he knows instinctively that the powerful looking Eric is important to him. After looking through all the cards at his eight brothers and four sisters, he feels the strong and varying emotional responses each one evokes. He wracks his mind to pull up any hint of what all this means when he chances on the word, Amber.
“The word was charged with a mighty longing and a massive nostalgia. it had, wrapped up inside it, a sense of forsaken beauty, grand achievement, and a feeling of power that was terrible and almost ultimate….Somehow, I was part of it and it was a part of me. It was a place name, I knew then.”Nine Princes in Amber, Kindle edition. page 30. location 438)
His recall to this point is based in emotional memory, the surging feelings that words and images evoke in him. The factual details remain a blank, but more is unlocked when he gets a phone call from one of his brothers, the wily Random. He says he is on the run and pleads with Corwin to let him stay with him at Flora’s house. When he arrives, they have to fight off the not-quite human creatures who were pursuing Random. Corwin has to play the same verbal game with his brother that he did with Flora, with neither quite trusting the other. He learns that his brother Eric is ruling in Amber and is a constant danger.
When the Corwin and Random set out for a drive, they suddenly decide to try to get to Amber. And here begins the long journey that takes up much of this novel, one that displays Zelazny’s ability to sketch in a few strokes whole new worlds with new dangers to be confronted. Almost at once, the landscape they drive through begins to change. The sky turns green, then pink. They go over a bridge into a countryside with windmills everywhere. Soon they’re driving past a seashore, and they pass a gallows where a skeleton hangs, swaying in the wind. Corwin realizes that somehow Random is responsible for the changes in the landscape, but he has no idea how that could be possible.
The shape of the car starts to change, there is a desert in the rear-view mirror, a sandstorm hits, then they run into a traffic jam of cars. A giant smelter is picking up the cars and eating them. Random says that’s the first obstacle, and Corwin senses that Eric is responsible. After more obstacles they pass through a city of glass where the people are completely transparent. Then they’re driving through a marsh where Dinosaurs appear in the mud. After a time they come to a fantastical forest of towering trees tinged green and gold through which a perfumed breeze is blowing. This is the Forest of Arden, Random says, yet it also holds dangers. They hear a hunting horn and the baying of dogs as their brother Julian, dressed in armor, chases them on his giant war-horse.
They hear a hunting horn and the baying of dogs as their brother Julian, dressed in armor, chases them on his giant war-horse. After fighting him off and killing most of his vicious pack of dogs, they continue on and find their sister, Deirdre, bound hand and foot, apparently while being taken back to Amber at Eric’s order. They kill her captors to free her, and it is only then that Corwin finally confesses to his brother and sister that his memory is mostly gone. The solution, they agree, is for him to walk something called the Pattern, which exists only in Amber but also in a strange city that is its mirror image beneath the sea.
So they find the marker on a beach and descend a special staircase where Corwin finds he can breath normally even underwater. Once within the city called Rebma they find a vast hall that contains the Pattern.
“The floor was black and looked smooth as glass. And on the floor was the Pattern. … It shimmered like the cold fire that it was, quivered, made the whole room seem somehow unsubstantial. It was an elaborate tracery of bright power, composed mainly of curves, though there were a few straight lines near its middle.”Nine Princes in Amber, Kindle edition, page 84, location 1344
Walking the Pattern, every step releasing sparks and flames, Corwin re-experiences in rapid succession the Shadow world where he was left by Eric. It was sixteenth century London during a plague, and he went on to survive that, re-living experiences through time, the French revolution, world wars, even Auschwitz. It becomes clear to him that the Shadow lands beyond Amber can be altered, that each prince has the power to create his own worlds. But the full memory of his life in Amber returns, and he knows that he must defeat Eric and take the throne.
From there, Corwin must gather allies among some of his brothers and the armies and fleets of ships they bring with them and march toward an ultimate confrontation which turns out in an unexpected way. Nine Princes in Amber is full of fight scenes and large scale battles, all of which are handled with great clarity of action. The focus is always on Corwin and his brothers while all the rest become anonymous figures who fight and die in vast numbers. Those scenes reminded me of the Samurai films in which dozens of nameless fighters hurl themselves at the master swordsman, only to be dispatched in a moment. There is an air of unreality about these scenes, even though they are choreographed quite carefully and convincingly, almost as if the great numbers of troops have been fabricated out of princely imaginations, like the changing backgrounds of the Shadow lands.
Nine Princes in Amber was the first of five novels about Corwin that Zelazny wrote in the 1970s. A second series of five concern Merlin, his son, and were written in the 80s and early 90s. I’m eager to read the rest of the Corwin books, at least, since Zelazny raises so many intriguing questions about Amber, the Shadow lands and the powers of the princely line, and about the distant, and barely mentioned father figure Oberon, whose absence is not explained in this first book. Zelazny’s writing is at once economical and dazzling in descriptive power. It’s hard to put down a book of his when he’s at peak form, and he certainly is in Nine Princes of Amber.