"It was starting to end, after what seemed like most of eternity to me…"
So, paradoxically, begins Nine Princes in Amber, the first volume of Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber – a series that eventually comprised ten volumes, published between 1970 and 1991. This Fantasy Masterworks compendium edition contains the first five novels: Nine Princes in Amber (1970), The Guns of Avalon (1972), Sign of the Unicorn (1975), The Hand of Oberon (1976) and The Courts of Chaos (1978). The second sequence of five volumes, whilst entertaining, is less epic in scope.
A man wakes, amnesiac, in a hospital bed, survivor of a car crash that he believes was no accident. He begins to piece together his identity: Corwin, son of King Oberon of Amber. Amber is the one true world that lies at the logical centre of an infinite array of possible Shadows. Oberon is missing, presumed dead: Corwin’s least-favourite brother Eric has usurped the throne: and now Corwin, exiled for centuries, is rapidly regaining his memory – and his ambition. The stage is set for Machiavellian plotting by assorted combination of Oberon’s surviving children, together with a cast of, literally, millions of ‘Shadow dwellers’, the unreal and thus expendable inhabitants of the Shadow worlds visited by the Amberites.
When Nine Princes was first published, Zelazny’s reputation rested on clever SFnal reworkings of various mythologies: the Hindu gods in Hugo-winning Lord of Light, the Egyptian bestiary in Creatures of Light and Darkness, and a post-apocalyptic Classical pantheon in This Immortal. Men like gods – with all-too-mortal failings – people his novels, which are typified by strong characterisation, exotic scenery, and a pacy blend of hard-boiled prose and soaringly poetic imagery.
Distorted echoes of Earth’s legends and literature people the various Shadow worlds through which Corwin and his siblings pass. When any possible destination is just a journey away, and every scion of Amber can manipulate the stuff of Shadow as they move through it, the only limit is the Amberite’s – or the writer’s – imagination. Keats’ Belle Dame Sans Merci lurks in her lakeside pavilion, waiting to distract Corwin from his hellride to the Courts of Chaos, cosmological antithesis of Amber. Odin’s raven Hugi (or a Shadow of him) drops by for breakfast, and Lancelot du Lac battles demons on the road to Avalon…
Thirty years ago, the fantasy genre was still heavily influenced by Tolkien. Zelazny’s iconoclastic creations proved that fantasy epics don’t have to be powered by magical spells and good intentions. Corwin can journey to any possible world: but that’s an innate ability, not an acquired skill, and all of Oberon’s children can do the same. Brand and sister Fiona are sorcerers of note, but most of the family prosper – or otherwise – through a combination of brute force and personal charm. Their attitude to sibling rivalry is suitably bloody-minded, too.
The Chronicles of Amber present an epistemological, rather than a moral, conflict. Order and Chaos may be equated to Good and Evil elsewhere, but, as Corwin discovers, life isn’t that simple. There’s evil, in a sense, to be conquered: but that’s in the form of a traitorous sibling cabal, rather than a Miltonian war between Amber and Chaos. If there’s a moral element to this story arc, it’s that Balance should prevail.
Zelazny being the writer he was, though, morality and epistemology share the limelight with choreographed fight scenes, the long struggle to maturity of near-immortals, and the memory of chestnut trees in Paris in 1908. The sheer joie de vivre is worth the trip, even if the setting’s no longer fresh.