Rating: ★ ★ – – –
The Sign of the Unicorn is the third book in Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series. It doesn’t actually further the plot of the Chronicles much, except (a) to reveal that there is definitely a conspiracy within the family to kill our hero Corwin, and (b) to give us a little more information about the maze-like Pattern which seems to be the source of power for the royal family of Amber.
And while it does include Zelazny’s trademark unique and dazzling surrealistic imagery, it is the most disjointed of the books in this series so far, with the story line jumping from character to character and from land to land somewhat at random. A little too randomly even for this Zelazny fan, anyway. I need a bit more of a string to follow.
At the end of the previous book, The Guns of Avalon, Corwin’s brother Eric died waging a valiant battle to save Amber from an attack by the evil forces of the Courts of Chaos. As he died, he gave the magical Jewel of Judgment that he was wearing to Corwin, essentially deeming him the next King of Amber.
Unicorn picks up soon after Guns left off, with Corwin having had possession of the throne of Amber for just about a week. His reign hasn’t started out well. It turns out that during the events that took place back in book one, his brother Caine was murdered by spur-handed, heavy-jawed beast-men in the shadowlands outside of Amber, and someone has arranged the evidence to make it look like Corwin did it.
Corwin then remembers that his other brother Random was being chased by these same spur-handed beast-men when he arrived begging for help at their sister Flora’s door. So, to try to follow this lead to find Caine’s murderer, and thereby exonerate himself, Corwin makes Random tell him the complete story of how he came to be chased by the beast-men in the first place, which was:
Yet another brother, Brand, was trapped in a surreal land of stormy, shifting rocks, where dying creatures floated up into the sky. While trying to rescue Brand, Random fought a really cool clear-bodied snake beast and was eventually able to kill it, but then was pursued by its spur-handed beast-men masters.
The beast men pursued Random all the way through one of Zelazny’s trademark psychedelic scenery-shifting hellrides to a bus stop restroom in California. Along the way, he lost all his trumps, so he wasn’t able to use them to jump to another location or even to call for assistance. He finally made his way to Flora’s house in Westchester, where he was able to escape, thanks to Flora’s and Corwin’s help.
Corwin adds what Random has told him to the other things he knows about: the disappearance of their father, the king; the appearance of the black road; all the beast men and strange creatures traveling along it to attack Amber; and the revelation that Dara is some kind of evil queen from the Courts of Chaos. It all points to there being some kind of conspiracy by the Courts of Chaos to take the throne of Amber and/or destroy it.
To try to get a better handle on it all, Corwin decides to walk the Pattern again, this time to awaken the Jewel of Judgment, which supposedly has unbelievable untapped powers that nobody knows how to unlock. He does this and then decides to go see Flora, intending to browbeat her into revealing who asked her to be his overseer on Earth.
His now (suspiciously) faithful brother Gérard goes with him. On their journey, Corwin and Gérard get lost on the slopes of Mount Kolvin and see a unicorn, which Zelazny is somehow able to make seem awesome without being hokey. The unicorn leads them through distorted cubist scenery to the Grove of the Unicorns, which contains an alternate version of the Pattern. Gérard hypothesizes that this may be the real Pattern, and the one in Amber only a shadow.
After this discovery, Corwin goes back to Amber and starts to gather up his remaining brothers and sisters to try to hash out exactly what is going on. Together, they use the trumps to find Brand, who is locked in some kind of prison, but while they are rescuing Brand, one of them stabs Corwin. The scene is so scattered and disjointed that no one manages to see a thing, including Corwin himself.
At this point Brand wakes up and tells us and Corwin a bunch of important backstory, including that two separate cabals (Eric/Julian/Caine and Brand/Fiona/Bleys) both had plans to depose their father and take the throne. Both of the cabals have been thwarted, whether by each other or the attack of the Courts of Chaos.
Corwin is then attacked yet again while in Amber, but the Jewel of Judgment lets him escape to his house in upstate New York. After all this craziness, Corwin understandably decides to go to the ghostlike, floating, moonlit land of Tir Na Nog to heal his wounds.
Again, this book feels disorganized. It reads more like a free-associational, surreal piece of art, rather than a part of a larger linear plot. I’ll grant that this kind of writing can be fun to read, and certainly many of the individual scenes and conversations in Unicorn are creative and colorful and often funny. Especially when Zelazny juxtaposes modern technology like intravenous feeding with the fantasy sword-and-sorcery world of Amber. But, as a whole, the book isn’t all that rewarding if you are looking instead for more furthering of Corwin’s story line, or more answers about the forces arrayed against him.
I will say, however, that Unicorn is an extremely helpful book for those who weren’t paying complete attention to the twists and turns of the first two books, because it is filled with a huge amount of rehashing and backfilling of what has already happened up to now. It also includes a very detailed explanation of the line of succession to the throne of Amber, which Corwin relates to help Ganelon, but which is helpful for us, too.