I’ve been reading Roger Zelazny’s Amber series over the last couple of weeks. Although ideally I’ve been trying to read my book list in chronological order, I’ve made an exception for this series because of the format that Calgary Public Library provides it in: a ten-novels-in-one volume compendium, The Big Book of Amber. And once my reading momentum is engaged, it’s very hard to put the volume down!
Zelazny was obviously a talented writer. I found myself pulled into his narrative from the first few pages, where the initial narrator, Corwin, has amnesia and is attempting to piece together his pre-car-accident life. As a reader, I couldn’t help but struggle right along with him, trying figure out who the heck he is. But the answer isn’t what you expect. I mean who expects to find out that the guy is an almost-immortal demi-god? Belonging to a family of magical beings, who are so old and jaded with life that they routinely try to bump each other off?
Amber is obviously a kingdom with completely different morality than we are ordinarily used to. It manages to have both a medieval [a lot of swordplay for example] and a magical aspect, despite interludes in our own world [which is btw one of many un-real Shadow worlds cast by Amber]. A bit of reading about Zelazny revealed that he was exploring ideas of morality or lack thereof while writing this series. The princes and princesses of Amber often seem to have been sexually attracted to one another—enough that their father Oberon had to make a rule against sister-brother marriages. The whole family seems to be descended from their magical ancestor Dworkin and a unicorn [a little bestiality for you]. And they plot each other’s assassinations with very little compunction [what’s a little murder amongst family?] not to mention that they are willing to spend hundreds of lives in ill-advised warring with one another. It is very reminiscent of another of Zelazny’s books, Lord of Light, in which the characters have “become” gods in the Hindu pantheon, reincarnating themselves as necessary and indulging themselves in very un-godlike behaviours. Obviously this was a theme that the author enjoyed exploring.
Despite all of these failings it’s hard not to like the narrators Corwin and in later novels, Merlin. They aren’t nice guys, they aren’t chivalrous in the least and each of them is looking out for number one. You can’t trust them any farther than you can throw them but in the world that Zelazny has created that is the only sensible way to be. Being a shit is only being practical and I felt like I couldn’t really hold their desire to survive against them. Besides, they are wonderfully cynical and amusing narrators, albeit unreliable.
Corwin improves as the first half of the series progresses. He seems to be developing a bit of a conscience and is beginning to care about the welfare of his army and the kingdom. There is even a little bit of loyalty towards friends and family. Merlin, his son, is wary—a recommended trait if you are going to living amongst scheming relatives in Amber. Maybe because Merlin is younger or much farther from the line of succession [for a while] he doesn’t seem to have the same desire to scheme and eliminate relatives. Or maybe it’s because he has enough relatives and friends plotting against him to keep him busy.
Reviews that I have read lament the sexism present in the series. Obviously the stories are told from a masculine perspective and neither narrator encounters a woman that he wouldn’t sleep with. [That’s another of the rather medieval aspects of these novels]. But at least many of the female characters are very strong women and make major impacts on the plot line—an improvement from the fiction of the 60s, when women were just decorative window dressing. The beginnings of feminism are being felt, with female characters who impact the main male protagonists, albeit often as rather domineering mothers [both Merlin and Luke/Rinaldo, his best frenemy suffer from this particular affliction].
I found the series engaging, until the last couple of instalments, which were laboured. Many contrivances had to be introduced in order to forward the plot line and I felt my enthusiasm flagging. Perhaps that was, in part, due to reading 10 in a row, resulting in an Amber overdose on my part. I remember reading online somewhere that many Amber fans mourn the fact that there will be no more sequels, Zelazny being firmly opposed to anyone else writing in his fictional world and having passed away before writing more himself. I must confess, if another book were miraculously found in his estate and published, I would probably read it. [I did, after all, read a number of Frank Herbert’s son’s offerings before deciding there were better ways to spend hours of my life]. The premises of the series are wonderful and the general flavour of the prose is definitely to my taste.
Zelazny is yet another author I had never sampled before this reading project. I’m glad to have made the acquaintance of Corwin and Merlin of Amber.