Sunday, April 25, 2010

Review: Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny

Book Info: Nine Princes in Amber, by Roger Zelazny, fantasy novel. First published in 1970.

Author Info: Roger Zelazny is widely considered a master of sff/fantasy. His output was voluminous. His work has garnered Hugos and Nebulas, and cited as influential by contemporary masters like George R R Martin and Neil Gaiman.

Plot Summary: The narrator, Corwin, wakes in a hospital bed after a car accident. He has what he believes to be amnesia and can remember very little about his past. Feeling himself in danger he slips out of the hospital and locates one of his sisters. Bit by bit, through dialogue and conversation, he discovers he is a lost prince of Amber, the center world at the core of all existence. All other worlds are merely shadows thrown by Amber, and those of the royal blood, such as Corwin, can walk the pattern between all shadow worlds.

Corwin establishes contact with another sibling, his brother Random. From him Corwin learns the car accident was no accident and he is in danger. Corwin's father, Oberon, has disappeared and the throne is now held by Corwin's brother Eric. Eric is ruthless and schemes to eliminate whatever siblings oppose his rule. it was Eric who set up the accident to dispatch Corwin.

Analysis: One of the themes of the novel is the idea of family and family rivalry. The Amber brood are as nasty a sibling set as any in a George R R Martin novel. Put them and the Lannisters in a family feud cage match and see what happens. Call it suvudu steel cage clan matches.

Do unto others before they do unto you seems the motto of the Amber princes and princesses. And the implications of that, and what it means to live in that way, is fleshed out by Zelazny through the course of the book. To extend a kindness to someone who may be plotting to kill you, and doing it to maintain your own humanity, is difficult to write, and even more difficult to believe. But the author manages it well and as a reader I found that I was hooked into the fate of the characters because of this.

Another aspect of the book that intrigued me was the implications of the parallel worlds. I don’t know enough about the sub genre to say with any authority that this book was experimental for its time, but it certainly feels that way. To handle the concept of a parallel world and to do so in such a way the reader doesn't feel like "you are making stuff up as you go along" takes a great deal of skill. The sense of wonder and curiosity of how the worlds work and their relationship to each other runs as a thread through the entire book, and I suspect the entire series.

Other thoughts: I loved this book. Reading it I had an experience I seem to get rarely when reading fantasy these days. A mounting excitement as my subconscious and conscious minds pieced out the various implications of the world building. Zelazny does a masterful job of maintaining control over the text. He knows when to hold em, and when to show em(to quote the immortal Kenny Rogers). He allows the readers partial glimpses into the world and the powers that are available to the characters. He never condescends to explain all the implications, nor does he use info dumps. Instead, he shows how the world works by the characters and their interactions.

And there is his style. At times it seems workmanlike, but that merely lulls the reader into familiarity until he blasts them with lines like: "Troubled by dreams of werewolves and Sabbats, I slept, and the full moon rose above the world." And this despcription of a ship in a storm: "We were hurled from side to side like dice in a giant's hand." And Corwin's musings on his relationship with his siblings: "No psychaitrist could cope with my family;" and "we were kin without kinship."

Similar Reads: Stardust, by Neil Gaiman. The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany. Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass(I like the think the title of the last one an homage to Zelazny, but I have no proof of this).

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