#CBR4 Maneuver #45-54 – The Great Book of Amber
Target: Roger Zelazny’s The Great Book of Amber (Amber Chronicles #1-10)
Profile: Epic Fantasy, Modern Fantasy
Summary: Taken from the back cover, “Roger Zelazny’s chronicles of Amber have earned their place as all-time classics of imaginative literature. Now, here are all ten novels, together in one omnibus volume. Witness the titanic battle for supremacy waged on Earth, in the Courts of Chaos, and on a magical world of mystery, adventure and romance. ”
After Action Report:
Where have you been hiding you ask? No posts for two weeks? Nothing to report? Well here’s your answer. I was reading all 7000+ pages of Homestuck. Well, that was one week. The other week was spent devouring the 1200+ page omnibus of the Chronicles of Amber. It was actually the webcomic that prompted reading Amber top to bottom again. The two projects have a lot in common: an expansive multiverse, complex time travel shenanigans, protagonists tied to classic fortunetelling tropes. And they’re both more than a little confusing in the end.
The Chronicles of Amber span ten books in five book sets. The first five books deal with Corwin, exiled prince of Amber, and the second five tell the story of Merlin, Corwin’s son and scion of the combined houses of Amber and Chaos. I am going to segment the review a bit because the two stories are very different from one another. Corwin’s books feel like a classical fantasy, with some interesting modern elements added for shenanigans sake. Merlin’s is much more a coming of age story combined with some deep metaphysical conflicts.
Corwin’s story opens with an amnesiac protagonist on our earth who very quickly discovers that there’s more to him than meets the eye. As parts of his memory start returning, we are introduced to Corwin, an obvious superhuman, capable of surviving terrible physical trauma, and even severe brain damage. Corwin goes in search of his roots and discovers that he is a member of the royal family of Amber, the ur-reality, and as such, has the power to cross dimensions, use magic and even shape reality to his will. A conflict with some of his siblings left him stranded on our Earth and now he wants, and needs to go home if only to survive.
To clarify some things, Amber is the hub of Order in the multiverse. The further away you get from Amber and the dimensions adjacent, the more chaotic the universes get. Members of the Royal Family of Amber can walk in ‘Shadow,’ the vast field of dimensions that stretch out from Amber, to get to any universe they might desire. The book describes most of these little realities to be temporary or transient, until a Prince or Princess of Amber takes up residence there. Our Earth is a favorite of a number of the Amber Royals, which is why it has persisted. There’s a lot more to the mechanics, but they’re not as critical to the story.
Amber is thematically somewhere between the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. Think of the legends of King Arthur’s court and add a little art and you’ll get a pretty good idea of the scenery. So as Corwin makes his way back home, the worlds he passes through start to look much more like that ideal. Along the way, Corwin and his brother Random come under attack from another member of the family, setting the stage for a big conflict between brothers, which will be the primary focus of the rest of the opening quintet.
Corwin’s story is characteristic of classic quest fantasy. The protagonists move from one mission to another, confronting those who get in their way and inevitably finding a bigger bad in the shadows pulling the strings. The innovation comes in the form of the world building that Zelazny has put into the greater universe of Amber. When a tactic doesn’t work, Corwin can duck into Shadow for a while and build up armies, find technology or magical resources or just recuperate.
Eventually, the true threat is revealed in the form of the Houses of Chaos, the metaphysical opposite of Amber that exists at the far dimensional pole of the multiverse. Their actions have endangered the Order of Amber and with it the entire multiverse. The quest to fix the problem is suitably epic and well structured. AND, refreshingly isn’t solved by convenient plot shenanigans. It’s a bit of a spoiler, but it’s so cool that I don’t care. When everything goes to hell in a handcart, Corwin gives up on Amber and makes a new Order hub for the multiverse, which solves the problem in the short term, but has really big a whole mess of long term side effects.
Which is where Merlin’s story picks up. Kind of. One of the things I didn’t mention was that time doesn’t run in lockstep between the worlds. Combine that with the fact that the Amber Royals are effectively immortal and there could be centuries of relative time between books. Regardless, we now are following Merlin, half-blood shapeshifting wizard with a penchant for computers. Merlin is Corwin’s son by a seductress of Chaos, and he was raised in the Courts of Chaos before he moved to our Earth to go to grad school. Merlin can do everything his dad could, plus he can transform in to a wide selection of monsters, and he can pull small object from nearby dimensions. All very cool things.
His story gets kicked off with an assassination attempt that predictably fails, but sets Merlin off on a mission to try to figure out who’s been trying to kill him. On the way he discovers that a small bevy of his relatives on his father’s side have been offed or attacked as well. The story gets a bit complicated from there, with a whole bunch of competing forces vying for control of Amber, the new Pattern that Corwin made at the end of his books and Merlin’s own significant power.
The plot starts to get very muddled here. There is an over-reaching plot to Merlin’s quintet, but it doesn’t really become visible until the very end of Book Eight, Sign of Chaos. Merlin’s story in general suffers from some poor planning and a lack of control over the flow of the story. The books were clearly meant to be more serial than the first five novels, but Zelazny doesn’t seem to be fully in control of where the plot is going. Combine that with an ever-expanding cast of characters, (despite the copious assassinations) and the last two books turn into a slog through the Amber setting. There are still some really interesting things here, like Ghostwheel, a sentient magical computer who can walk through Shadow, so it’s not a total loss.
I’m really doing the series a disservice here by reviewing it in one big block, but I’ve always approached the series as the omnibus and have, on occasion, not noticed when I moved from one book to the next. Some of the individual stories are very strong, like Guns of Avalon, the second book in the sequence, which wraps up the first major story arc and introduces the next one quite well and really does the best job of utilizing the setting. In contrast, Sign of Chaos is such a nightmare of competing forces and backstabbing that the book verges on unreadable. Still, the series as a whole is well worth reading, and makes an excellent capstone to my Cannonball this year. The world building is amazing and serves and a constant inspiration to me as a gamemaster and writer. It’s well worth a read, even if you end up disliking the story.