Friday, April 7, 2017

Book Review: Nine Princes in Amber

Roger Zelazny
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

Nine Princes in Amber is the first of ten books in Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series. I knew I was going to have to read the sixth book in the series (Trumps of Doom), because it won the Locus award for best fantasy novel. But I love Zelazny, so I rationalized that I needed to read the whole series to properly appreciate Trumps of Doom in context.

When I first read Zelazny’s books, I had no idea that there was a science fiction subgenre called New Wave, and that he belonged to it; I just knew that I loved what he was doing. Wikipedia describes New Wave sci-fi this way:
“The New Wave is a movement in science fiction produced in the 1960s and 1970s and characterized by a high degree of experimentation, both in form and in content, a "literary" or artistic sensibility, and a focus on "soft" as opposed to hard science. New Wave writers often saw themselves as part of the modernist tradition and sometimes mocked the traditions of pulp science fiction, which some of them regarded as stodgy, adolescent and poorly written.”
Zelazny is, without a doubt, one of the best of the New Wave writers. In Nine Princes in Amber, as with the rest of his work, his writing is both literary and artistic; his settings and characters are unique, creative, weird, beautiful, funny, and sometimes ominous and unnerving. There is a certain amount of surrealism in his imagery, which makes it occasionally seem to come totally out of left field, or like the expression of his unconscious.

But, in keeping with his New Wave sensibilities, he never lets anything get too detached from reality. At some point, when things seem to be getting too dreamy, he will stick in a sarcastic, modern, self-referential remark that lets you know that he is perfectly aware that he’s writing from the real world, in the twentieth century. He will be coasting along describing a fantastical scene with transparent people living in a glass city, or a landscape of purple skies and blowing blue grasses, or an attack by a fleet of manticores, and in the middle of it he’ll have his main character drop a term like “chutzpah” or a snappy comment about Freudian mommy complexes that whips you back to reality. It’s completely refreshing.

Nine Princes in Amber starts out with a Bourne-Identity-like amnesia device. The main character wakes up in a hospital room, clearly recovering from a serious accident but with no memory of who he is and an instinctive feeling that something is wrong. He senses that somebody is conspiring to keep him drugged and in the hospital. So he breaks out and follows a series of whisper-thin clues to the mansion of one of the people who was keeping him locked up, which turns out to be his sister Flora. She is shocked that he was able to break out of the hospital, but she lets him stay with her.

At Flora’s house, he quickly puts together some key pieces of information about himself, including that his name is Corwin; that he is one of 23 original children of Oberon, the missing king of a land called Amber, a fantastical realm in another dimension; that he has superhuman strength, can regrow body parts, and has lived for hundreds of years; and that he and his surviving 16 siblings are all vying with each other for their father’s throne. His brothers and sisters have a twisted and changeable set of alliances and enemies—and some of them would kill him instantly if they knew where he was.

Poking around in Flora’s desk, Corwin also finds a pack of tarot cards, and remembers that these cards allow the brothers and sisters not only to communicate with each other, but also to transport themselves to different places. (This will come in very handy later on.)

The truly mind-twisting thing about the whole novel is that Amber is the only real location in the universe. All other places—including our own Earth—are “shadow” places “shaped” mentally by the princes and princesses of Amber for their own enjoyment or refuge. Corwin admittedly likes some of these shadow worlds very much, and has spent a lot of time in them, hanging out in the Middle Ages or World War II or the French Revolution with Napoleon and Einstein and other of our Earthly celebrities—but none of them are real.

To briefly summarize the rest of what happens: Corwin’s brother Random shows up at the door, pursued by a horde of terrifying wraiths from some other dimension, and Flora and Corwin protect him. Corwin admits his amnesia to Flora and Random, and convinces them to help him. The three of them use their innate dimensional-space-shaping abilities to travel through a series of surrealistic lands to Rebma, the underwater mirror world to Amber, where the queen of Rebma helps restore Corwin’s memory (and sweetens the experience by sleeping with him).

At this point, Corwin fully remembers his desire for his father’s crown. He rejoins his (currently) most trusted brother, Bleys. The two of them put together an army of oddly-shaped and furry, clawed humanoid fighters from other dimensions, and they all march on Amber to try to prevent their brother Eric from crowning himself king.

It doesn’t go well. Their army of 150,000 is whittled away to zero by Eric’s forces combined with the forces of other brothers Julian and Caine; Bleys falls off a mountainside into an abyss, presumably to his death; and Eric burns out Corwin’s eyes and throws him into jail. When his eyes are burnt out, Corwin curses Eric, which will turn out to have pretty nasty implications in the later books.

After four miserable years (during which his eyes re-grow), Corwin is eventually able to escape through magic and trickery. He flees far from Amber to regroup and fight another day.

And that other day, and the fight, are taken up in the second book: The Guns of Avalon.


  1. I had the boxed set as a kid! At least the first four -- I vaguely remember he wrote some more afterwards?

    Just gave it to my nephew to read last year, actually, now that I think about it.

  2. Excellent job, Lord John. Yes, there were a total of 10 books in the Amber series. And they're all coming to this blog! Or at least the first 6. Because the sixth one, "Trumps of Doom", won the Locus Award in 1986.