Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber: Subtle Architecture of Treason

This is our post for Witch Week 2021: Treason and Plot, organized by the inestimable Chris of Calmgrove and Lizzie of Lizzie Ross. Witch Week is a yearly event happening in the last week of October, in tribute to Diana Wynne Jones’s third Chrestomanci book focusing on all things fantastical. This year, however, instead of concentrating on Halloween and thereabouts, we’re taking a closer look at the history of the Guy Fawkes’ gunpowder plot, the British tradition of Bonfire Night, and various treasonous activities causing rot in states, real and imagined.

We chose Roger Zelazny’s The Chronicles of Amber as our topic for this year’s Witch Week for two reasons: first, Zelazny’s untimely death in 1996 caused a curious silence around his works, so that he’s no longer a well-known author and his novels have been slowly sliding into oblivion in recent years. He remains an author’s author, mentioned here and there by the new generations as a source of inspiration, but in our opinion he deserves wider recognition. Secondly, The Chronicles of Amber, a series of ten books that can safely be classified as fantasy, though discussions can be had whether it’s epic or urban, or something else altogether, is a wondrously complex latticework of betrayal, double dealing, plots within plots, lethal mysteries and hard-bitten protagonists somewhere between noir detectives and medieval knights.

Ola: Well, there’s a third reason. Both Piotrek and I love Amber, and needed little excuse to return to this fantastic world ;). Zelazny’s a great author in general, though uneven at times. But his best works are among the best the genre has to offer, and even his mediocre ones boast of unique imagination, propensity for audacious literary experimentation, and sensitivity to language that’s at once precious and highly uncommon. Incidentally, a novel perfect for a Halloween reading, and also containing a lot of treason, backstabbing, and plots to conquer the world, is his A Night in the Lonesome October.

Piotrek: Amber has always been in my top4 of genre literature, with LotR, Dune and Foundation. Among these, Zelazny’s masterpiece is sadly neglected. No pretty hardcover editions, no adaptations… even Foundation is getting one, and it is something rather difficult to adapt – we’ll see how they managed, there are some early voices it’s not a very faithful one. Amber would be just as hard, but what wouldn’t be hard is getting someone to illustrate it and then publishing a new two-volume edition…

[A short break to remind everyone WordPress’ block editor still sucks. Just wasted a minute trying to change the font colour. I know how to do it, but it never applied my changes to the entire paragraph. I hate these guys…]

So, I think we’ll start with a few spoiler-free paragraphs to introduce the series, and then proceed to all the treachery and stuff. Avoiding spoilers isn’t easy here, as the first novel starts with the main protagonist waking up with amnesia, and the readers learn everything together with him. From the title (Nine Princes in Amber) you know there’s an Amber, and there are princes, but you find yourself reading about a guy on Earth, in a hospital after some accident.

Ola: That’s very much in style for Zelazny; he liked challenging the reader by throwing them smack in the middle of the action, with no helpful maps, glossaries, list of characters, or any other type of Cliffs Notes guide. For Zelazny, reading was supposed to be an immersive experience, a dialogue between the author and his audience. Guessing, second-guessing, third-guessing and ultimately creating one’s own version of Zelazny’s world was all part of the deal, and part of the allure.

Zelazny’s protagonists are very much similar to one another, and apparently to Zelazny himself. They are, for the most part, adult men; usually in their twenties or thirties, they are self-sufficient, intelligent, ironic and sensitive loners with a complicated past, a firm moral code, and a highly eclectic – and surprisingly useful – range of skills. The Amber series is no exception: the main protagonist of the first five books seems almost archetypal in his behavior and worldview; an ideal type of masculinity from a certain period of Western culture. The protagonist of the subsequent books is definitely more postmodern; but whether this is a change for the better, it’s up for discussion. Zelazny certainly introduced this change intentionally; the difference between the two protagonists forms the emotional tension of the second arc.

Piotrek: The series, published between 1970 and 1991, consists of 10 short books divided into two cycles. The first one, written between 1970 and 1978, starts with the aforementioned Nine Princes in Amber and concludes with book no 5, The Courts of Chaos. The second cycle, started nearly a decade later, begins with book no 6, Trumps of Doom (1985), and features a different main protagonist, as well as a noticeable change of style.

I quite like the pulpy covers of my Polish editions, I remember waiting for each volume to be published… I only have audio and ebook copies in English, I’m waiting for a nice, illustrated hardback…

Ola: Well, I have The Great Book of Amber edition, all 10 books in one. Not ideal, but better than the single volumes, whatever Piotrek claims ;).

But let’s get down to business. As you can infer from the titles, Zelazny’s series leans heavily on mythology, or, more precisely, mythologies. We have Avalon and Oberon, Chaos and Order (here represented by Pattern), and imagery taken straight from Tarot, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Zelazny’s creation exists in the shadowy land of archetypes, Platonian and Jungian, in the no-man’s-land where various mythologies and subconscious representations of the world and ego meet and bleed into each other. Sounds heavy, but in fact the Amber series is one of Zelazny’s most accessible works. That’s because the outermost layer of this tale is a highly engaging whodunit story clad in the rich and colorful accoutrements of epic fantasy.

Piotrek: That’s the beauty of genre fiction some orthodox readers can’t appreciate. You can play with the archetypes like they’re real people. And I always believed it’s an interesting way of looking at them. Amber has this layer, and it’s wonderful, but the books can also be appreciated solely as a story about manly man’s adventure (volumes 1-5) or modern man’s adventure (6-10). Anyway, let’s get to all the treachery.

(Minor) spoiler alert! We need to reveal some things, but decided against going into the full spoiler mode. I’m pretty sure that most readers will be able to fully enjoy the books after reading our post.

In this part there’s no avoiding spoilers. So, if you haven’t read Amber yet – do it and come back to read the rest. Or read it now, but be aware we’ll reveal some of the saga’s mysteries. Mysteries the reader is supposed to discover at the same time that prince Corwin does, as the story told in the first person makes us as lost in all the intricate relationships, Amber’s complicated history and scheming, as the POV character is.

Amber, the original world from which all the other worlds of this multiverse emanate, had been ruled by Oberon, a competent if heavy-handed ruler, for centuries. Immortal and immensely powerful, he kept his family in order, a bunch of unruly, scheming princess and princesses he had with multiple wives and mistresses. When he disappears, a bloody game for power starts. There are battles here, but ultimately most is decided before, when overt – and covert – alliances and loyalties are negotiated, and broken. Readers might cheer Corwin, when he raises an army to challenge his brother Eric’s upcoming coronation in Amber, but in truth it all has been decided before, in silent, secret negotiations, between the nine main princes, their sisters and minor powers.

And this is only the realm of Amber, representative of Order; there are also Courts of Chaos in play, and there the scheming and betraying is even more intense.

Ola: And here we come to the crux of the first five Amber novels: while the main conflict is ostensibly placed within the malfunctioning family of near-immortals, between the princes who hate the others’ guts and would love to see the rest delightfully humiliated or, preferably, dead, the real stakes are somewhere else. Accompanying Corwin on his journey to self-knowledge we learn more about Amber and Courts of Chaos, about the Pattern and the anti-Pattern, and about the grand conflict between the two that spans reality and time. As we said, there are plots within plots here, betrayals piled upon treason and buttressed by convoluted schemes and the first impressions are often misleading. The pleasure of discovering them for yourself will be exquisite enough, I hope, for you to forgive us the vagueness of this post.

There is a high-stakes, cutthroat quality to the first five novels of the Amber cycle: Zelazny goes all out in creating imaginary worlds, complex plots, and compelling characters. The subsequent books feature a change in overall style, trading in the granular, captivating and highly evocative focus on human relations for more bombastic plots, McGuffins and crazy vistas, but most predominantly – they feature a change in the protagonist. While the transition ostensibly seems smooth, from the father to the son, the hard-boiled detective/medieval knight vibe that Corwin exuded (chain-smoking notwithstanding, but he’s an immortal, so he’s allowed) is in the second part of the cycle replaced with something else altogether. With Merlin, Corwin’s son, we enter the age of computers and internet, and a certain fascination with Gibson’s cyberpunk style. Merlin is a modern-day young adult, a hacker, and he thinks he knows he has it all figured out. Oh, the folly of youth.

This time around, the conflict starts small, with yearly assassination attempts which never seem too heartfelt, and with a missing father, the finding of whom forms the main quest of our hero. But the stakes grow quickly, once we realize that this time around, it’s not just Amber but also Courts of Chaos that are in disarray. The conflict between the Pattern, which forms the heart of Amber, and is Order incarnated, and Logrus, the anti-Pattern personifying Chaos, comes into full view here. A lot of what’s happening stems directly from it; and all the players realize, sooner or later, that in fact are only marionettes, inconsequential pawns in someone else’s play. Those who don’t obey are taken care of; resistance is futile. But is it?

Contrary to his contemporary, Herbert, Zelazny was a huge proponent of free will. Even in the most constrained, predetermined conditions there’s always a choice, and there’s always a way to assert one’s agency. A third path may indeed be possible, but not without help. In the latter novels, Zelazny builds his architecture of deception, treason and betrayal on the foundations set in the Corwin books. Nothing is accidental, and every decision has far-reaching consequences. But the menacing high crags of intrigue are not the only element of the landscape: there are also the opposing white towers of friendship, loyalty, and love. Plots can be discovered and averted before they bring their poisoned fruit, and the help of carefully chosen friends and family members (not all of the family, full of backstabbing, manipulating, treacherous bastards!) is essential in reaching one’s goal, even against the odds.

Piotrek: A feint within a feint within a feint, as Herbert wrote, but yes, with a little room for maneuver for a smooth operator, and Merlin is well suited for this role. When I first read the saga I preferred soldierly types like Corwin, but I always appreciated the second cycle as well. We get a better knowledge of how the battle between Chaos and Order is played, how most of the clever schemes we previously uncovered fit within this eternal struggle, and now our protagonist attempts to go beyond that. In a way, he faces dilemmas not entirely unlike these of the Atreides, but Amberites prefer action to overthinking things and in their universe they have a chance. Actually, in a wider sense Merlin’s actions might have been a natural consequence of the universe seeking balance between two forces of Chaos and Order – lets face it, a total win of any of them would be very dangerous. But there is not a lot of theoretical musings, and that is a choice that speaks loudly. The characters here are less aware of all the determinisms behind the curtains, but quite smart, and brave. The world that results from their actions is perhaps less durable than what Atreides attempt, but more humane.

Piotrek & Ola: Anyway, we tried here to show some of the theory behind the action, but we also want to emphasize that Amber series is, most of all, a sequence of short and intense novels full of action, entertainment, and mind-bending ideas. Highly recommended!

44 thoughts on “Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber: Subtle Architecture of Treason

  1. Personally, I can’t wait until the day when I ask a seasoned SFF young person about Zelazny and they go “who?”

    I don’t understand why they resonate so much with you two but since I recently read a review of Dune where the person didn’t love it as the best thing ever, I can understand when your fandom isn’t everyone’s fandom.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I‘d never have expected Atreides and Amber mentioned in one sentence. Thanks for your discussion! Let me add a source worth reading: https://www.nyrsf.com/2012/07/suspended-in-literature-patterns-and-allusions-in-the-chronicles-of-amber-by-christopher-s-kovacs-1.html

    I‘ve read only the first five books which I really liked. Looking back, I don’t know why I haven’t read on.

    Also, I‘d like to point out that even if one doesn’t want to go into Fantasy, there are always the great short stories from Zelazny. „A Rose for Ecclesiastes“ is a must-read.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Lord of Light is my favorite Zelazny SF novel, and among the all-time favorites. A Night in the Lonesome October is an ingenious mix of fantasy and horror and Victorian mystery, This Immortal is a great SF/fantasy mix, and Doorways in the Sand and Roadmarks are fabulous humorous novels mixing SF, fantasy, mythologies and loads of literary references. He wrote some great short stories too, agreed!

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Those are my favorites; I’m not too fond of The Dream Master (the novel) or Creatures of Light and Darkness, or Eye of Cat – although the last one is actually not bad. I’ve read most of what Zelazny wrote 😉

          Liked by 1 person

            1. piotrek

              I’m sadly behind on this front, but I have Volume 6 of his collected short stories, and I’m reading, like… one a year ;)? They are good, definitely, I’m just a lousy short fiction reader…

              Liked by 2 people

      1. LOL, you are a purist 😉
        I’m not a Merlin fan, and there is a notable dip in quality between the first five and the second, but they aren’t bad per se, IMO – they’re bad in comparison with the first five. I still think Zelazny wanted to write a book – or five – that would actually link the two series together in a more logical/binding way.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, now I’m intrigued! I was of course aware of this narrative cycle but my only sample of Zelazny’s works is limited to Damnation Alley, which is something completely different from this fantasy series… It sounds like a big commitment, considering the sorry state of my TBR, but it’s something I don’t want to lose track of, because your enthusiasm in describing it is quite infectious so… thank you very much for showcasing the series! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for reading, Maddalena! 😀 I do hope we enticed you to give Amber a try, the state of your TBR notwithstanding ;)! These are very short novels, it must be said – today, three of them would probably make one in terms of page count (but not in terms of plot or action! :D)

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad to see a fellow fan! 😀
      There is a Kindle edition of Amber, merging some books, but I’m not sure how it holds up. My Great Book of Amber edition (10 books in 1) is a bit on the flimsy side, with thin pages, but it’s probably the best you can get now.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah hm hm, I already have the fantasy masterworks version that combines books 1-5. I don’t have many Zelazny books left that sound interesting to me. I soured a bit on his approach to writing. I am still interested in Doorways in the Sand and those final Amber books, because actually his Amber series is my favourite Zelazny.

        Liked by 2 people

          1. I’ll be looking forward to it!
            …You probably noticed we didn’t really write a proper review here – somehow most of our most beloved classics are left without one on our blog – ironic, isn’t it? 😉

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Truly intriguing to hear you both speak with so much praise for this series. I too noticed there was no love or hardcover treatment for these. I am sufficiently curious now to want to try it out more than ever before. I like the comparisons with Dune that were done here and that makes it even more interesting how both series don’t necessarily overshadow themselves in terms of story, just in reception! Thanks for sharing. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I haven’t read all the post because, shame on me, I haven’t read this author yet! But I have tgis series on my TBR and maybe your post will be the push I was needing. Because now I am curious. A lot!! I just read half of it, but it is so compelling that I need to go and read the books!

    Like

  6. Ouroboros

    Thanks for focusing the spotlight on Zelazny and Amber. I read them way back when they came out on the Science Fiction book club [the books with the untrimmed leaves] and then re-read as an adult wheh I came across the Great Book of Amber. A real tour-de force. Great primer!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I always wondered why no ghost writer ever took up the challenge to continue the series like happened with other famous series like The Wheel of Time or, indeed, The Dune series (I always wondered if Anderson and Sanderson aren’t the same). I always liked to know what happened to Corwin and Ghost after they got what was apparently their only tract to survive the mega-complots.

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