Hands up anyone who has never read the Amber Chronicles, written by Roger
Joseph Zelazny (1937 – 1995). You lucky, lucky people, because they are
back in print. You are to be envied for the experience of reading them for
the first time. This is a classic story, well worth the investment in time
Why? What makes it such an excellent read? Well, where to start?
Firstly and most importantly : credibility. The underlying fantasy
mechanism starts out as being plain weird, but by the end the explanation
hangs together satisfyingly well. The basic premise is that literally
everywhere that can be imagined, exists and is merely a shadow reflection
of the true existence – the Kingdom of Amber. As a prince/ss of the
blood, travel is undertaken by imagining changes in the landscape. Adding
and subtracting until your ultimate goal is achieved. No disappointing
widgets are required. However, in order to ‘walk in Shadow’ you must
first walk the Pattern. The Pattern controls Amber, and therefore all of
Shadow that is not controlled by Chaos. Because of the Pattern’s
existence, Chaos is kept at bay.
There is a neat communication system by means of ‘Tarot’ Trumps.
The special packs of cards have pictures of all the main characters on
them. They can be used as a telephone system by concentrating on the
picture of the person you wish to talk to. If the person you are speaking
to is willing, you can even join them where they are.
Characterisation of most of the main characters is excellent. The tale
starts out as the old amnesiac story. But you soon realise that whilst
this is modern day America, something strange is going on, and you don’t
know where it is going to lead to. The hero Corwin starts out as a drugged
man in hospital, and by sharing a tortuous route with him we learn his
true heritage. During the journey he matures from a ‘spoilt very-old
brat’ into something which if not human is much more sympathetic in
The story is still fresh after thirty years – Zelazny’s ideas are
impressive, clever and sophisticated. Despite the fact that the story is
spread over five short (by today’s standards) books, the necessary
repetition is kept to an acceptable minimum, and most of the threads are
resolved by the end.
The five novels are :
Nine Princes in Amber (1970)
Introduces us to Corwin, one of nine long living humanoid princes who
are wrapped up in the political machinations concerning the running of the
Kingdom of Amber. Amber, the one and only true kingdom, of which
everywhere else, including the Earth, is a mere shadow. Oberon, the King
of Amber, and father of the princes has gone missing, hence the
Machiavellian struggles for power. The book takes Corwin from a hospital
in America to the depths of despair. And ultimately escape from
imprisonment by his brother Eric.
Guns of Avalon (1972)
Further attempts by Corwin to claim the throne from Eric by bringing
guns to Amber. More of the underlying principles of Shadow are explained,
and we first meet the Black Road and the creatures that travel on it.
Ganelon is also introduced.
Sign of the Unicorn (1975)
More about the underlying structure of Shadow and Chaos, as a bizarre
vision transcends all Corwin has ever suspected about the true nature of
Amber. A death reflects badly on Corwin. But who the villains really are
starts to become clearer.
Hand of Oberon (1976)
Doh! Obvious really, but the clues are easily missed. The Pattern is
damaged. The traitor must be uncovered. And the source of the black road
Courts of Chaos (1978)
The cosmic Pattern that sustains the world of Amber lies in shreds and
must be re-created. Reality is on the verge of disintegration. Corwin,
uncrowned prince of the perfect realm must face shape-shifting assassins,
an alluring woman, and the multi-dimensional terrors of Shadow in his
quest to save the kingdom.
A number of plot-lines, and the desire to read more about Amber are
satisfied to some extent by a second series of five books. But it must be
said that they are more contrived and ultimately less satisfying. Sadly
Corwin is noticeable by his absence. Zelazny also co-wrote, with Neil
Randall "The Visual Guide to Castle Amber", which although
mandatory for completists, adds nothing to the basic story lines.
Sadly Zelazny died before he could explore the Kingdom any further.
However, all is not lost. A lot of his other works merit attention.
Unfortunately most are out of print at the moment, but look out for them
in your favourite second-hand bookshop :