The Great Book of Amber by Roger Zelazny

7/10 A superb exercise in world-building.

I’ll readily confess that I’ve dipped in and out of Roger Zelazny’s Great Book of Amber for many months, partly because other books intruded, partly because of the natural break half way through the tome, and partly because no work since George RR Martin’s ongoing Song of Fire and Ice has generated such conflicting emotion within me.

Zelazny’s most famous work is a ten book series, which is divided into two five book story arcs. The first was released in the Seventies, and follows a Prince of Amber, Corwin, as he enters the machinations of his extensive family in a quest for the crown. The second, released through the late Eighties and Nineties, is the tale of Merlin (or ‘Merle’) who is Corwin’s son, and caught between Amber and the Courts of Chaos. They are quite different works and it is tricky to review the whole book without considering the two separately.

The Corwin arc (1970-1978) comprises of the first five books which can be thought of as one continuous tale as they run, via occasionally irritating cliff hangers, into one another. The hero, Corwin, awakes in a psychiatric hospital in the US from where he escapes and begins to piece together his past which he has forgotten. This simple literary tool works well, as we gradually learn of the extensive milieu Zelazny has created in manageable chunks. Corwin learns he is one of nine Princes of Amber, the royal family of a magical realm of order, in the shadow of which all other worlds exist. Our own earth exists in such a ‘shadow’ and true Amberites, once they have walked a mystical Pattern in Amber, can traverse the shadows. There are various rules to this passage, and time travels at different rates in the various shadows.

Corwin learns that some of his brothers and sisters have conspired to try and bump him off, and he sets about returning to Amber with some who remain loyal to him, to try and claim the crown. This forms a good chunk of the first five books, as Corwin meets a number of his siblings, many of whom plot and connive in a suitably Borgias manner. The characters are well drawn, the dialogue good and the plot interesting. I struggled at times with Zelazny’s rather lazy style, with stretches of monologue explaining what we knew already again and again, and the book was a bugger for ‘telling’ and not ‘showing’ which irked somewhat. The shadow travel was fun at first, but at times we have three or four pages of broken text describing passage through a myriad collection of shadows which I tended to skip.

The fifth book finishes well, and I was happy to pause there and reflect: great world-building, good plot, intriguing characters, plenty of twists, style a little clunky and wearing, but overall I really enjoyed it.

The Merlin arc impressed me less. It picks up the story a number of years later with Corwin’s son on a shadow earth. Merlin has half Amberite blood, his other parentage being Amber’s diametric opposite realm, The Courts of Chaos. As part of his upbringing he has trained as a sorcerer, but has chosen to complete his schooling in the universities of shadow earth. For most of this time there has been an annual attempt on his life, and it is this which draws him back to Amber and into a bizarre and convoluted plot involving both Amber and the Courts. Unlike the well paced plot of books 1-5, it is all over the place. Characters from the first books pop in, and out, with the feel of a soap opera. The twists are confusing, and the characters’ personalities alter inexplicably (picture, ‘I’ve tried to kill you for the last three books, but now Mom says to back off a bit, so, umm, sorry, lets be buddies.’). Merlin is a likeable character, but as his power increases we never feel he is in any real danger—and the tension dissipates.

It is still a fascinating work, but the themes from books 1-5 are screwed around with a little too much—the Pattern turns out to be sentient, as does its opposite number, the Logrus, and these entities, presumably on the cosmic level of Galactus, chat to Merlin and his comrades like irritated schoolteachers. Then when we hit a scene in Wonderland it goes truly bonkers, almost out of control with the sub-plots. By the final pages you are left with a feeling that there should be something else, that the threads are resolved lazily, and that it should have been better.

Zelazny sadly died without revisiting the series in full, and there are aspects of the books that would have been clarified in future works. There were several short stories, unfinished upon his death, which begin to tie up some loose ends, but as I’m reviewing the book and not the Amber multiverse, I’ve restricted my review to the sizeable ten book collection.

So is it worth a read? Yes. Undoubtedly it’s a superb exercise in world-building, and there are excellent characters and touches (the Trumps, shadows, the Pattern). Admittedly it got like a soap opera in the end, but it was still fun and always interesting even if it did fizzle out somewhat.

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