Contains Nine Princes in Amber, The Guns of Avalon, Sign of the Unicorn, The Hand of Oberon, The Courts of Chaos
I’ve given myself ample time to sit on this book (or collection of books?) and mull it over. Zelazny is one of the fantasy greats and this, my first exposure to him, is supposed to be a fine example of that greatness.
I didn’t dislike The Chronicles of Amber, overall. There were parts of it I liked a lot. But the reading experience was kind of haphazard and strange. It has the hallmarks of high fantasy: a foreign kingdom ruled by a quarreling family that has magical abilities — by the way, the kingdom, Amber, is the one true land, and every other place is merely its Shadow –, a hero’s quest, an actual unicorn, a dark power that requires defeating, etc. However, despite the majority of the chronicles taking place in Amber and having those familiar fantasy trappings, the narrator’s tone is rather jarringly colloquial. The story opens in our Earth, with our narrator Corwin having some form of amnesia. An attack by creatures obviously not earthen in nature, as well as a cryptic conversation with the woman meant to be his sister, quickly clues him into the fact that he is a part of something more than most people. Despite these scenes and scant others later, the Amber books are not modern urban fantasy, but Corwin retains the casual jargon of, well, us. It’s an interesting choice, since the fantasy convention is to have the characters talk all high-falutin’, and I have to admit it didn’t always work for me.
The main thrust of the story is that Corwin’s father, the king, has gone missing, leaving the throne empty for his sons to squabble over. Believing that it is his brother Eric who has cast him out and assumed the throne in the meantime, Corwin endeavors to get back to Amber and challenge Eric. Various alliances among the siblings (there are sisters too) form and dissolve, and while the initial campaign against Eric goes awry, the siblings have to take on more than they bargained for in securing the throne and the overall welfare of Amber. Due to the amnesia, Corwin is an unreliable narrator for much of the story, since he doesn’t have all of the facts and history behind his position. While there was a thrill every time I learned new details via Corwin doing so, it became evident that Zelazny’s main trick to a reveal is long passages of exposition, where Corwin would interrogate one or another of the siblings and find out the truth — or at least the truth in that moment. While these infodumps would gradually offer new information that completed the larger picture, many of them were very repetitive and re-iterated what we already knew, from a different angle. There are many sides to every story, but it ended up being that, aside from a few key details, the various re-tellings were not so dissimilar that every detail needed to be rehashed as much as it seemed like they were.
Similarly, one of the features of the high family’s sorcery is the ability to do what they call “hellrides,” which is how they travel to and from Amber and Amber’s Shadows (the other worlds around Amber.) The hellrides consist of literally riding (in a car, on a horse, it doesn’t matter as long as it is quick) and magicking the world around you so that your scenery is constantly changing and eventually you end up where you want to be. Every time Corwin needed to go on a hellride — and there were plenty — it seemed like these stream-of-consciousness descriptions of the various environmental patterns around him went on forever. The first time, or two times, it was cool. But I really didn’t need an elongated journey that, as a reader, amounted to disjointed beat poetry about nature, over and over again any time Corwin had to travel anywhere.
But, like I said earlier, I really didn’t dislike the Chronicles. I was reasonably entertained, and I was motivated to follow through to the conclusion. I’m wondering if some of the issues I have are related to reading “books 1-5” together as one volume. I am honestly not sure of what the publication scheme of these initially was, but the individual books are rather short, 100-200 pages in length. So I felt it made sense to read them together, but it’s certainly possible that some of the repetition would have been fairly normal if these had been published with any time between them and if extended exposition and hellrides were meant to be in every individual book to get the reader back in the Amber zone, so to speak.
Additionally, where I earlier commented on the strangeness of the tone, I also totally acknowledge that it probably completely works for many readers, and furthermore that it definitely sets Zelazny apart from other “swords and dragons” high fantasy authors. I don’t know if that is a quality that carries across to his other books, having never read them, but The Chronicles of Amber is unique in that regard.
In short, while I can’t unreservedly recommend these because I wasn’t 100% on board, I recognize the caveats to my criticism.