Book Review: The Nine Princes in Amber, Roger Zelazny

18 Feb

Wow.  I picked out this book just because I had always sort of heard about Amber without knowing what it was about, and this was completely different than I expected.

Normally, fantasy series tend to be very long, very descriptive, and very complex.  In fact, outside the use of magic, I would say that these three attributes are the calling cards of fantasy in general.  So when I imagine a fantasy book I imagine some big 300 page monster that will go down to the teeniest details about everything.  It’s not how I prefer my reading all the time, to be honest with you, but when I sign up for such a thing, it’s just one of my expectations.

Nine Princes is not that.  In fact, it just zooms by at such a quick pace that there’s a few places that I’d like to have a little more description just to catch my breath.    If I didn’t know that this was before fantasy as a rule suffered from bloat I would think that this book was a reaction for that.  All in all, I really appreciate this bare-bones approach, because  the quick pacing allows for greater immersion in the work in many ways.

How does Zelazny avoid bloat?  Well, the concept is simple but interesting (Amber is the true world in which all worlds are based from, and Corwin, our protagonist, is from there.)  The conflict is direct–the nine princes are battling for the throne, well not ALL nine princes but I’ll get to that later.  Magic takes a backseat to action, so there’s no lengthy sequences as to how magic works, and magic is never the deciding factor as to victory.  There’s no scheming, thus avoiding chapter long descriptions of basically fantasy business meetings.  In fact, everything takes backseat to the action, if somebody’s not doing something Zelazny’s not interested, making this book seem like a magical pulp novel.     Warning–spoilers follow.

So being built from pulp, instead of talking about world development, we’re talking about sequences, most of which are very strong.  The opening escape from the hospital sequence is terrific, Corwin wakes up in a hospital with amnesia determined to escape.  He fights his way out, using no magic.  This is a terrific introduction to his character–blunt, unafraid of violence, tough, and basically making it all up as he goes along.

As for the amnesia angle–it’s ok.  Obviously Zelazny does this so characters have to explain things to Corwin, thus explaining things to the reader.  There really isn’t that much of a mystery, but I don’t think Zelazny is going for mystery anyway, he uses it as away to have less exposition, and to be able to chop it up in between action sequences.  Just as the amnesia thing gets a little annoying, he fixes it and we don’t have to hear about it again.

The Flora sequence for the most part works as well, though it does fall a little bit apart with scrutiny.  There’s a big discussion about Zelazny being a little anti-woman in his books.  I can see both sides of the argument.  Since Amber takes so much from pulp novels, I kind of think women have the roles here that they would in a Sam Spade book, either love-interests or support for greater characters.  When Corwin shows up, she offers sanctuary but immediately tries to rat him out to Eric (the main antagonist).  She’s unable to though, and makes it clear that she’ll support whatever side is winning.    This in and of itself doesn’t really make her less of a character–most of Corwin’s family shifts sides according to what people can do for them, in fact selfishness is their calling card.  However, later, they clearly express the reason that Flora couldn’t get to Amber was because she was stupid.

Also, considering that Flora was on Earth to watch Corwin all this time, wouldn’t Eric have left a way for her to contact him?  Why would she be so easily duped by him pretending to have his memory back when he’s had amnesia for something like 500 years already.  Also, why did Eric fashion an “accident” to put Corwin away when he was already wandering around Earth oblivious in the first place?  Honestly, being sent to the hospital awoke Corwin’s desire to find his identity, couldn’t he just leave well enough alone?

Anyway, Random (a great shifty trickster type character) shows up, Corwin quickly throws his lot with Random, and off they go to Amber.   The trip to Amber involves changing the world one piece at a time until you get to the real place–again, simple and directly explained without having to bother with the whole magic stuff.  That’s one thing I really appreciate about Zelazny–he knows that as a reader, I can accept in a fantasy novel that some things are just magic, I don’t need to read made up science for how it works, I want it to have some sort of order to it, but that’s all.  Zelazny shows clearly that there are rules and limitations to magic without having to do a “this is how magic works” lecture in the middle of his book.

On the way to Amber we meet another brother, Julian, who is the hunter, and a rather sketchy one at that, riding a skeleton horse and his pack of wolf-hounds.  They get around him rather easily, then run into Deidre, another sister.

Deidre has no personality, and is basically just serves as a plot device.  She lets them know that Amber is firmly run by Eric, and Corwin lets Deidre and Random know that he has no memory.  They decide to go to the underwater world of Rebna, where Corwin can walk the pattern and get his memory back.    They get chased by Eric’s goons, but get to Rebna safely.

The Rebna sequence is probably the best in the book, despite some iffy choices.  So Rebna is the reflection of Amber underwater, and has everything that Amber does.  We meet Llewellyn who is completely forgettable, and Moire, the only woman who has personality and power in this book (not to mention the only person with power that’s not in the family.)

Some things that go for Moire is she’s a pretty good ruler.  She allows Corwin et. al. in the city only when she’s sure they aren’t going to entangle her in family matters, her punishment for Random (who knocked up a royal then ran away) by making him marry a blind woman to raise her social status is kind of thoughtful in a weird way, she knows he won’t stay with her, so she’s not expecting miracles.

However, Moire also sleeps with Corwin without a second thought.  I could accept this if they had a previous romance or something, but she makes it clear that this is the first time she’s ever met him.  I don’t know if she’s overpowered by his amnesiac charm or what, but it’s clearly a terrible decision for someone who wants to keep out of family squabbles.  Also the fact that she’s a strong queen but helpless before Corwin’s overpowering masculinity…sheesh.

Corwin walks the pattern and gets his memory back.  (Oh the pattern, it’s like a line on the floor they have to follow that has energy and stuff, don’t think too much about it.)  One thing I would like to see is Corwin’s life on earth–we get little snippets of it here and there, his time in WWII, being in France during the revolution, the black plague…but only tiny bits.  I found that stuff very fascinating, and it provides a reason for his character getting softer–being on Earth has humanized him.

He zaps over to the Amber castle, grabs a pack of cards, and gets in a fencing match with Eric.  Corwin loses (!) and zaps away to his brother Bleys.

The Bleys sequence is the one I don’t care so much for.  Corwin and Bleys join up to fight Eric.  Both want the throne, but they figure that if both are alive and they win at the end they could duel for it.  This arrangement doesn’t bother me, what does bother me is that Bleys has no personality either, and unlike other characters we’ve seen so far, he has plenty of opportunity to show something other than general loyalty.  The other problem with this part is that they raise armies, and in a misguided attempt to add tension, we constantly hear of a thousand soldiers being lost to firestorms, three thousand falling off the sides of boats during a storm–are we expected to add all these up and keep running tabs as to how many are left?  By the way, we count all the way down to the last soldier.

That being said, we do get a little bit of sympathy from Corwin, as well as a bit of moral squeamishness about using all these soldiers (who Corwin and Bleys present themselves to as Gods to get their allegience).  Though Corwin is never morally bothered enough to just not have a war and think of some other way.  Also, Corwin loses the war.  He ends up being thrown into a dungeon and blinded after Eric claims the crown.

The dungeon scenes are also effective–blinded, Corwin basically gives up.  Brought out once a year to parade before the court, other than a loyal servant who gives him cigarettes and wine now and then, Corwin is by himself.  Many years pass in fact, until Corwin’s eyes heal, and Dworkin shows up.    Yes, there’s a big Deus ex Machina here with both those elements, but Zelazny prepared us for them in a way.  First, Corwin is shown to having super-healing skills from the very first scene, where he’s clearly mended much sooner than a regular person is.  Throughout the book we get background hints of this super-healing, so his eyes coming last makes sense.  Dworkin, the designer of the pattern and the cards (I haven’t mentioned the cards yet–they are images of the whole family, which function as a sort of intergalactic cell phone, though you can travel through them too) and really the man who gave the family its power in the first place.    For one thing he’s completely bonkers, wandering around the prison cells because he’s “inprisoned” too (though not in a cell like Corwin.)  Two, it makes sense that Dworkin would be uninterested in Corwin when he was blind–Dworkin fancies himself an artist and wants people to see and admire his work.  Until Corwin can see, Dworkin doesn’t pay any attention to him.

Anyway, Corwin convinces Dworkin to draw a lighthouse on the wall, and uses it to transport away from the prison.  There he gathers strength under the eye of  the lighthouse-keeper, Jopin, an old salt.  He helps around at the lighthouse, fixing things up and being handy.  Before he leaves, Jopin (who knows who Corwin really is despite a cover) tells Corwin to look out the lighthouse telescope, where Corwin sees a path of evil coming into Amber.  Corwin knows that he’s responsible for this path of evil, having thrown down a curse when he was being blinded.   He feels a little guilty about this and wonders how he will fix it, but he also has a plan to bring gunpowder to Amber as a next step in his quest for the throne.  And here we end.

As I said, I really found this book to be pretty good considering that ALL the plot that I just described takes place in 120 pages.  The plotting is superb, the fight scenes are done really well, we never get mired in exposition, and there’s tension in nearly every scene.  There’s two weaknesses though, the dialogue is pretty bad sometimes, Zelazny feels the need to shift between modern speak and an archaic middle ages tone that sounds like an actor going in and out of a bad accent.  The other weakness is that some of the characters could use more personality–outside of Random and Corwin, the rest of them are completely personality-free, even Eric who seems to function as an antagonist, but nothing more.  Despite that, I recommend this book to anybody looking for a good light read that has a little more meat to it.

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