Saturday, January 30, 2010

Amber 05: The Courts of Chaos (Zelazny)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 1978
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes

The closing book in Zelazny's first "Amber" series.

At the end of "The Hand of Oberon," Corwin and his brother Benedict had recovered the Jewel of Judgement from their power-hungry brother Brand--and King Oberon (long thought missing and possibly dead) showed himself.

Now Oberon intends to repair the damage Brand did to the Pattern--and the attempt will kill him, whether he succeeds or not.

He also intends Corwin to be his successor. But with the death of his hated brother Eric, briefly King of Amber, Corwin has realized that he is unfit to rule, and that he only wanted the Throne because Eric had it.

Oberon gives him a mission: Ride. Leave Amber and ride as far and as quickly as he can. Oberon will transport the Jewel to him when his work with the Pattern is done. Then Corwin is to take the Jewel to the Courts of Chaos, to join the rest of the family in a preemptive attack.

Brand is still out there, somewhere--and he still wants the Jewel, to remake things in his own image.

Good finish! I thought for several reasons that this book was going to drag (I seem to remember the ending taking forever), but it doesn't. In the end, our kind-of dark prince realizes that he loves his family, the realm has a new King, and Corwin finds out that he has a son, Merlin.

It's a good bittersweet ending, leaving me wanting more. That's how you do it.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Amber 04: The Hand of Oberon (Zelazny)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 1976
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes

At the end of "Sign of the Unicorn," Corwin, Random and Ganelon found themselves looking upon the Primal Pattern. Now, a new puzzle piece has been added to the mystery: there's a dark blot running from the center of the Pattern outward, like a cloudy spoke on a wheel. The blot runs to the south, in the same direction as the black road Corwin found cutting through Shadow.

Another piece: They find a Trump in the Pattern's center, pierced by a dagger. Who is the man in the picture? Random realizes that it's his own son, Martin. But who drew his picture on the card? Was he killed by the stabbing? It's apparent that his blood caused the damage to the pattern and gave the enemies of Amber the black road upon which to travel.

They return to Amber; Random sets out to find his son. Corwin finds his way to the study of Dworkin, who created the Pattern--and Amber--and drew the Trumps. Dworkin recognizes Brand's style in the Trump drawing.

Why did Brand damage the Pattern? Doing so threatens not only Amber itself but all of Shadow--every other world (including ours) could come to an end. The only way to repair the damage is to use the Jewel of Judgement to re-draw the damaged parts of the Pattern--and Brand is after it as well, for it can also be used to destroy the Pattern.

Can Corwin find the Jewel before Brand does?

Corwin adds a few final pieces to the mystery of the car wreck that laid him up in the hospital. At first, he'd thought that his brother Eric was responsible. Then Brand told him that their brother Bleys had shot out his tire and caused the crash. Now Corwin learns that Brand was the shooter, and all the "rescue" stuff was just Brand trying to find out what Corwin knew, to determine his danger to his plans. Efter centuries of hating Eric enough to try killing him...Corwin realizes that his brother had acted for Corwin's good despite his own hatred.

Very complicated family. Zelazny was a master of making his characters complicated and coflicted, strong and wounded, and believeable.

I just thought of something: Out of all the books (single or series) I've read, Zelazny's "Amber" books are some of the only ones that haven't developed problems after repeated reading. Back in 1995, when I first started reading Lackey's ever-expanding "Valdemar" series, I devoured them, going through the entire set of what I had several times a year. Then apparently the "honeymoon" ended and I went to Valdemar less and less, finding more reading pleasure in greater variety. I even stopped reading the "Amber" books nearly as often. But where "Amber" remains a pleasure to read, the last several times through "Valdemar" grew more and more tedious. I've yet to finish the most-recent read-through (six books left), and I'm not inclined to do so just now.

Besides, I've got another quintet of "Amber" books and some short stories to enjoy before I bother thinking about that's next.

Amber 03: Sign of the Unicorn--full review (Zelazny)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 1975
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes

It's been a week since the battle at the end of "The Guns of Avalon." Corwin is nominally in charge, but he refuses to take the throne of Amber. His hated brother Eric died--and with him went Corwin's ambitions for ruling Amber. Besides, there are more important matters.

Caine--one of the remaining princes--is dead, his throat cut; Corwin returns to the palace with the body of his own prime suspect, a shadowy man like those who were chasing Random at the beginning of the series.

He gets the story from Random: he had been off losing himself in a Shadow that catered to his own interests. Gambling, women, smoky Jazz clubs to play drums in, great thermals for flying a night during a card game, one of the cards seemed to speak. It was Brand, chained in a tower a great distance away from Amber, and he begged Random for deliverance from his prison.

Random set out to try a rescue only to be thwarted, so he did the prudent thing and bailed out of there, chased by a bunch of shady men who did the impossible: they followed him through Shadow. He managed to reduce their numbers in several fights, but the six who survived followed him right to Flora's house in upstate New York, where the amnesiac Corwin was staying.

Corwin gathers the remaining family members and announces his plan to rescue Brand from that tower. It works, but someone stabs Brand--and then Corwin himself is knifed in his own bedroom.

Things only get more complicated from there; Corwin learns that Brand, Bleys and Fiona had formed a cabal with the intent of taking the throne of Amber away from their father, King Oberon. Eric, Julian and Caine formed their own cabal in opposition. Corwin is told that Bleys shot out his tire, causing the wreck that put him in the hospital where he awoke in the first book.

The chess game of Amber politics continues! Now there's a murder mystery, two attempted murders, a conspiracy against King Oberon (who's still missing), and Corwin's own back-story, all puzzles to be solved. He gets some new pieces to work with, but every time he seems to get some of them in their proper places, something happens to shift the entire thing again.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Amber 02: The Guns of Avalon (Zelazny)--Full review

Rating: 5
Year: 1972
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes

Prince Corwin makes his way to Avalon, intent on taking the throne of Amber away from his brother Eric. On the way, he finds himself in a land called Lorraine, where he helps to defeat some bad things that live in a blackened circle of land. Afterward, the people of Lorraine fear him, for in their folklore the evil Lord Corwin ruled the land without mercy. He doesn't bother trying to explain that this was not him--and it doesn't matter anyway, since he's still got to go to Avalon.

He and an old friend named Ganelon travel for several days, Corwin manipulating Shadow to bring them closer to the land they once knew and loved: for the "true" Avalon is long since fallen. They reach one of Avalon's reflections--much the same, but not theirs, for this Avalon's tales remember him unkindly, too.

They reach an Avalon mopping up after its own victory in battle with the forces of darkness. Avalon's "Protector" turns out to be one of Corwin's brothers, Prince Benedict.

Can Corwin complete his business in Avalon without Benedict learning of his plans?

Ahhhh, more good reading. Once again, Zelazny gets us into the action quickly. He keeps his narrative and dialogue simple, using only what's needed. Corwin tells us what he saw and felt at the time, and it feels plausible. More than any other fantasy series, "Amber" is the one in which I wish I could live, where all I need do is walk, changing my surroundings, until I reached my own Amber.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Amber 01: Nine Princes in Amber (Zelazny, Roger)--full review

Rating: 5/5
Year: 1970
Genre: Fantasy
Read again? Yes!

Awwww, yeah. It's good to begin a new year with good reading. I've been reading and re-reading Roger Zelazny's "Amber" series since maybe 1983. From then until the mid-90s, I was reading the whole set at least twice a year, especially when Zelazny started adding to the original five with another set of five. The original quintet is told from the point of view of Prince Corwin of Amber. The second set is told by his son Merlin.

Corwin awakens in a small private hospital somewhere in New York state. He remembers a car crash, but his own identity is a mystery. There's a "hard-boiled detective" quality to this part of the book. Is his name Corey? Carl? Who caused the wreck? Who's keeping him there?

Sister? Evelyn Flaumel? Nothing to do but go for a visit. She's got a very expensive house in upstate New York. They talk. She gives him his own name--Corwin. She mentions "Eric." All he knows is that he hates the man.

The mystery unfolds a bit at a time, as they should. Building, building...a name...a place...a scrap of memory...they talk some more.

No faces, no clue who these men are. He knows he can't trust anyone. Every interaction is a chess match played many moves ahead, with life and death at stake. He doesn't tell Evelyn about his amnesia.

She mentions Amber. He knows it's a place, but can't see it in his mind.
Florimel; he knows that's her real name.

The next morning, she's gone. He explores the library, ultimately finding a small case of cards. They're designed like Tarot cards--wands, pentacles, cups and swords, and the Greater Trumps are people he knows.
Corwin himself.
Nine brothers.

Florimel--Flora, for short.
Four sisters.

But what's with the medieval garb? Why does Corwin know how to use a sword?

Brisk the pace, quick the action, and short the novel. By page 141 Corwin has his answers, has regained his memories and has joined brother Bleys in raising an army and navy to take the throne of Amber from their usurping brother Eric. We've got 34 pages to go.

We're into the action quickly, as opposed to the near-leisurely pace of a 400-page Mercedes Lackey novel. By page 141 in one of her books, the protagonist is just facing the Big Crisis that ends the first act, with decades of pages thereafter 'til resolution. Then you've got two more 400-page books after that.

Zelazny takes us much farther with an economy that I really wish Lackey and other wordy writers would (or could) learn. His style is conversational and flows without distractions. But as we'll see in the next nine books, he builds a believable, complicated, sophisticated world, joining mythology, psychology, philosophy, and references to Shakespeare.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Amber: Re-reading the Classics

On the heels of Carl Sagan's "The Demon-Haunted World," I've started in on Roger Zelazny's "Amber" series.

In the meantime, here are some Amber-related scribbles from previous posts:

Amber series overview--the Corwin books

Amber 01: Nine Princes in Amber; Corwin wakes up with amnesia

Amber 02: The Guns of Avalon; Corwin embarks on a journey of revenge...and to take the Throne of Amber from his brother Eric!

Amber 03: Sign of the Unicorn, where Corwin has the Throne...but does he even want it now?

Comparing...: Magic--Transportation, a look at the magic systems of Amber, Robert Asprin's "MYTH" series, and Lackey's "Valdemar."