Adventure! Excitement! Angst!

“…later on I hit a dirt road and I tried it, and pretty soon I came to a place that wasn’t on the map. It was just a little settlement. There were log cabins there, and horses pulling carts, and it looked physically as if I’d driven back into the 19th century.”
Roger Zelazny, from the interview “Forever Amber”

“You can comission assassins. Lay ambushes. Pull close relatives out of your sleeve like concealed weapons.”
Mike Carey. “The House of Windowless Rooms”, 2000

“Imitation, in a broad sense, is how memes can replicate.”
Richard Dawkins, “The Selfish Gene”, 1976

When I was a teenager, I fell in love with the Amber books. Roger Zelazny’s descriptions of the reality-bending royal family of Amber—peppered with his military and automotive obsessions—make for a nearly perfect escapist saga. While these books aren’t literature by any means, they make for some great, fun reading.

To replace my battered, slim, paperback Amber books, I recently re-bought the Amber books, used, in book club hardcover editions. (One volume contains the first two books, Nine Princes in Amber and The Guns of Avalon, and the next is comprised of Sign of the Unicorn, The Hand of Oberon, and The Courts of Chaos.) There is a second Amber series, but I never read it when I was young.

The first book in this world of heroes and shadows was its best. We met Corwin and his brother Random fairly quickly, and soon learned they’re part of a large family of royal brothers and sisters. The story opened with intrigue, memory loss, and the tension heightened from there. Corwin’s bid for the throne was the most exciting story of the series—and the one with the most substance.

The scene of Corwin walking the Pattern, the maze that confers superhuman powers to travel through the realities, was wonderful in its designed, dark tedium. Zelazny might have been writing pulp escapism, but his command of suspense and double-entendre-laden language was masterful. Ruminations in the nature of reality go with the territory; the royal family’s dogma considers Amber to be the one, true reality, the other planes referred to as “shadows” by the spoiled, politically savvy royal family.

Corwin’s siblings were drawn with bold, broad strokes, only those needed for the story right now seemed like human beings of note—whatever now is current in the story—and even those moments of characterization faded quickly when the character exited the stage.

Minor characters to one side, this was the story of Corwin, and, to a degree, his brother Random and the mysterious figure of Dworkin the court magician. Who, of course, was only a minor figure, almost worthy of being disregarded by the reader as of no importance…

Corwin’s moments of philosophical thinking and base-of-the-iceberg foundation-oriented planning were welcome breaks in the often relentless pace of the story. The “Amber” books would doubtless be three times their length and heft were they written today, and they’d have been the poorer for it.


The above article was originally published, in slightly different form, in 2006.

Neil Fein is a freelance editor. On the side, he’s the guitarist in the band Baroque & Hungry, he rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when the mood strikes him.

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