book-reviews

The Chronicles of Amber

by Roger Zelazny

Rating: ★★★

As with other examples, I save myself time and effort by reviewing a fantasy series in one swoop rather than address each installment. In this case, it is the "metaphysical soap-opera" of The Chronicles of Amber, specifically (as of yet) the five-book Corwin cycle which tracks the exploits of one of the young Princes of the realm as he returns from exile.

The series is, beyond anything else, gripping, the introductory Nine Princes in Amber starting with our main character being kept in a mental ward on Earth, and ending with his escape from a dungeon following a dashing assault on the centre of reality: the much-hyped City of Amber, revered but never given proper form in the series. Leading into this is a cunningly deployed introductory device of amnesia: the main character does not know what is going on any more than the reader does, and manages to advance the plot by keeping this secret, bluffing his way through conversations with family members until he is almost on the threshold of his home.

The solipsist themes in the series -- where members of the royal family are the only ones capable of stepping through the various realities surrounding Amber -- combine with the matter-of-fact narration addressing some of the grander events and the long lifespan and experience of the main characters to make for a somewhat surreal read. When in need of troops, Corwin simply steps through the shadows to find a world populated by raving fanatics who prophesise a war on heaven, and recruits and leads them with barely a paragraph devoted to the effort. With a world like this to work in, it is no surprise that the Amberite royalty -- perhaps the only 'real' people around -- are so often indifferent to their underlings' internal experiences. In fact, in one of the few events where someone not descended from the royal line was included in the plot for some duration, they would later turn out to be Corwin's missing father, in disguise (a disguise, incidentally, made so transparent to the reader that it beggars belief that no character questioned it).

The inner turmoil of the family in its twists and turns contorts the plot somewhat, requiring Zelazny to later editorialise some of the initial mysterious events so that they cohere with the grander schemes. This turmoil eventually results in conflict with outside forces, drawn from the nebulous Courts of Chaos, somehow the diametric opposite of Amber in the sphere of reality, a creation without pattern, seeking to penetrate Amber and to some degree unmake reality. This results in the final novel, The Courts of Chaos, which departs from the style of those proceeding it -- the tale is given over almost entirely to a desperate hellride, a race through realities from Amber to the Courts, on a mission to preserve reality itself. This story, my favourite of the lot, captures in its flavour far more of the style of folk myth than even the earlier references to Corwin as a basis of Arthurian legend, bringing an unabashed grandeur and humanity.

In short The Chronicles deliver intrigue, philosophy and some inspiring heroic scenes. The writing is more utilitarian than effusive -- you will not be steeped in rich flavour here -- but Zelazny certainly knows how to keep a story moving so that you want to read on. The Earth flavour and audacious daring of the main character makes the series as well or perhaps better-suited to readers of Cussler volumes as Tolkien fanatics -- so long as the idea of forging assault rifles to fire silver bullets in an assault on heaven can grab you. The series is perhaps particularly suitable for those who have read His Dark Materials and wanted more.