I haven’t read too many books by Roger Zelazny, but the ones I read I did enjoy. And of them all, The Chronicles of Amber remained the most important to me. They might be the first example of the multiverse, somewhat similar to the many-world interpretation, that I’ve personally had experience with, in either science or fiction works, and has remained influential for me to this day. But my memories, of both the “Corwin cycle” and “Merlin cycle” (first 5 books and second 5 books), were quite fuzzy by now, with only the main events, main ideas, memorable scenes intact, and I was curious to read them again. And, for the first time, the way they were written – in English, – since my original teenage experience was with the (pretty solid) Russian translations of the books. Hopefully, I won’t get disappointed…
Nine Princes in Amber (1970) is a surprisingly simplistic start of the series. It establishes most of the rules, characters and lore, but I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that it’s done in a surprisingly simply, almost primitive, if still fun to read way. Events happen very matter of fact, twists in the story are presented with sometimes awkwardly “a-ha” way, characters feel a bit too-dimensional and predictable. There’s a lot of elements that feel predictable and stereotypical in a bad way, as if trying too hard to keep with the archetypes established in the usual adventure novel – if it was a manga, it would be the typical shonen. There are way too predictable stereotypes of manly bro-friendship and sad victim tales of female characters (and cunning villain female characters, of course). Which is something continued in The Guns of Avalon (1972). It feels quite different, more focused on fantasy elements than the detective/thriller across many worlds adventure, but is otherwise still just evolving the concept.
Sign of the Unicorn (1975) is where the series, and the writing, evolve significantly. With the more simplistic revenge-power hungry story of the first two books out of the way, real major events shaping the world start to emerge. And this is where the characters start to deviate from the stereotypes, where they evolve and the universe of the series evolves with them. Some of it, alongside the more significant pause between the previous book and this one and a short pause between this one and the next, feels like Zelazny finally seeing what he wants to do with the story and how. Which, also, leads to some things that feel a bit like later retcons, which never feel forced or badly written, but still, may come up not as gracefully as they could. The Hand of Oberon (1976) continues on that, but maybe sometimes pushes things too far. There is a constant “okay, no here is how it really happened” told by different characters, all trying to tell their side of the story, while putting a positive (for them) spin on it. Which would’ve felt absolutely fine, but it really gets a bit ridiculous with it’s constant desire to top the last twist or revelation. It’s still a very exciting read, but is also a point at which the series go a bit unhinged in the storytelling.
The Courts of Chaos (1978) is where things get rather different. It has a pretty different tone, different pacing, it’s more of an introspective, “understanding the world and your place in it” book and at times it feels a bit too predictable in how it tries to wrap things up (while very unpredictable in how it does it). It’s a very curious closer for the Corwin’s cycle, which, at times, feels a bit too preliminary. And as if the Zelazny was a bit tired of the series at that particular point.
Trumps of Doom (1985) start Merlin cycle very differently and it sets the tone for the rest of Amber stories. There is a bit of a detective thriller mystery, like the first Corwin book, but it’s no longer a tense “who am I, what is going on” investigation, but rather an thriller action about a very able Merlin, with a cast of characters he actually trusts, trying to unveil the strange situation he finds himself in, while occasional funny things happen. Where Corwin’s stories always felt more about intrigue, betrayals, analysis of self and others and cocky, but noble attitude, Trumps of Doom is about increasingly magic-focused hard to define in terms of rules abilities and events and a very casual, almost dismissive, approach to all the dangerous events that happen. Where a situation in Corwin’s cycle could lead to a funny remark or happening, here the situation itself can be a parody or just a big ironic joke. Which is a bit jarring at first, but isn’t a bad thing on its own.
Things start to get more wild in Blood of Amber (1986), but at the same time, the story is actually becoming more fun to follow. There are some interesting discoveries for the world of the series, more characters are introduced or are getting fleshed out, which includes Merlin himself. It’s still much more “bet you didn’t know this can happen in this world” and the way it ends is completely nuts (and awesome). But at the same time, by this moment it has found its own feel, very different from the Corwin books, but extremely enjoyable in its own right. Merlin actually has friends, his outlook on the world and other people isn’t as grounded in suspicion and pride and the mistakes he makes are made out of a certain naivete, talent and natural curiosity. It’s a very different, and very fitting, character for the storyline, full of power games, all of which seem to not actually be centered around Merlin himself, but which he’s still suckered into, usually for noble reasons. It’s something that Sign of Chaos (1987) continues in a way, none of the Corwin books did, as it finally feels like you’re reading a complete story.
Knight of Shadows (1989) is the book where things start falling apart. It starts as a direct continuation of a previous one but then rather quickly goes into a very weird direction, somewhat reminiscent of The Courts of Chaos in mood and abstract ideas. Except, this time it doesn’t stop with some revelations or thoughts on the world and life and everything, but instead just keeps on going introducing more and more unexplained powerful things that change your perception of the world, each one of them attempting to outdo the previous one. It gets out of control and never recovers with Prince of Chaos (1991), which derails the series even further providing less of a closure to the “Merlin cycle” and more of a huge “to be continued” (which was followed up by several short stories I will mention below). And you’re not sure if you want more anymore. With the stakes constantly getting even higher, with the underlying elements of the books world constantly being updated with new, ever more ridiculous facts, and with more and more powerful artifacts, beings and things constantly appearing out of nowhere, it gets hard to even care. Besides, it doesn’t just end on a (literal) deus ex machina, it ends without a proper resolution to anything, without a feeling of a story ended. You just turn the page and – oh hey, publishing credits already?!
But yes, there were several short stories as well, that planned to expand the series even further. The Salesman’s Tale, Blue Horse, Dancing Mountains, The Shroudling and the Guisel, Coming to a Cord and Hall of Mirrors, all of which, with the addition of the rare written later tiny prologue to Trumps of Doom (where Merlin passes the Logrus) were published in one collection of Roger Zelazny’s stories called Manna from Heaven. They speak of events that happen right after the ending of the last book and while I’d say that they didn’t belong to it, because they started building up a new series of books, that never happened… That kind of started happening with Knight of Shadows, anyway. These stories only expand or just explain in a bit more detail things that were already strongly hinted upon in the last two books, so these feel like rather important elements… On the other hand, they continue with building up even more over the top incredibly powerful, secret and somehow never revealed until now things and lose what made the series interesting in the first place – interesting defined characters in an interesting defined world.
There were also some prequel books written by some dude, which, as most people tell didn’t feel right were written not very well and went against quite a lot of what has been known in the series by now. But I haven’t read them (and don’t plan to), so I don’t have an opinion on them, I’m just not interested in them at all. As many of his friends tell, Roger Zelazny really cared about the world he created and he never wanted for anyone else to write books in it. But whatever his plans for expanding the world were, we will never know now.
I enjoyed revisiting Chronicles of Amber. Some of it seems rather silly or primitive by now. A lot of it still feels amazing and exciting. There’s so much potential for other media to adapt this world and these stories, that, somehow, wasn’t attempted apart from few mostly forgotten exceptions. And whatever my opinion on separate books might be, it’s still one hell of an imagination-fueling ride. Heh, a hellride.