Monday, September 28, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: Nine Princes in Amber

I'll admit upfront that I've never been a big fan of Roger Zelazny's "Chronicles of Amber." I've read the series -- at least the part of it published in the 1970s -- and found it intellectually interesting, but something about its characters and plots just didn't click with me. That's certainly no crime; lots of very good books aren't to my taste. The only reason it bugs me in this particular case is because Gary Gygax included the series in Appendix N as an influence on AD&D. Likewise, I enjoyed Jack of Shadows, also by Zelazny, which shares similar themes with the "Amber" books, thus making my own lack of enthusiasm all the more peculiar.

The series kicks off with 1970's Nine Princes in Amber, which is the one book of the original five I enjoyed without qualification. The book begins with a man named Carl Corey who finds himself in a secluded medical clinic, unable to remember who he is or how he got there. In time, he learns that he was the victim of an automobile accident and that he was sent to the clinic at the expense of his sister. This information convinces Carl to escape the clinic and seek out his sister, hoping it might shed further light on his situation.

When he finds his sister, she addresses him by another name -- Corwin -- and his reluctant to let him stay with her. She does, however, which enables Carl/Corwin to come across a strange set of Tarot-like cards, through which he sees people and images associated with his life, a life he still cannot remember. In addition, he's contacted by a brother, Random, who asks Carl/Corwin for his protection and in turn offers to take him back to a place called Amber. Since Carl/Corwin has no idea what is going on or why, he agrees and soon finds himself in a strange reality, where he and his family (including eight brothers, of which Random is only one) wield remarkable powers and are forever plotting against one another for control.

Nine Princes in Amber has a lot going for it, chiefly the mystery of Carl Corey's identity and its connection to what he perceives to be happening to him. It also includes some fascinating speculations regarding alternate realities and Chaos, themes that recur not just in Zelazny's other works, like the aforementioned Jack of Shadows, but in a lot of late 60s/early 70s fantasy. In retrospect, it's this that I think appealed to me most way back when and it's this that still appeals to me even now. The style of fantasy the "Amber" series represents is one that seems largely to have fallen into disfavor as the 1970s wore on and the influence Tolkien -- and his pastichists like Terry Brooks -- became ever greater. Although Gygax's published writings betray comparatively little influence by authors like Zelazny, he continued to express admiration for their writings and several of his unpublished projects, such as Shadowland, might have taken D&D in a more Zelaznian direction.

I personally see the influence of Zelazny over Tom Moldvay's classic Castle Amber, perhaps unsurprisingly. As a younger person, I was confused by the title of this module, which recalled Nine Princes in Amber, despite having nothing to do with the novel overtly. Yet, its contents, while explicitly tied to the Averoigne stories of Clark Ashton Smith, nevertheless seemed very "Amber"-like to me. The Amber family is filled with a variety of ambitious, Machiavellian personalities and their rightful head, Stephen, has been "murdered" by his family and whose salvation depends on items obtained in an alternate reality. Certainly the connection between Moldvay's work and Zelazny's is not strong, but it's there, I think, and I'm surprised more people don't seem to comment on it.

Regardless, the "Chronicles of Amber" (the first five books anyway; I can't comment on the later ones) are worth the read, if only to mine for ideas. They're definitely quirky in their sensibilities, but that's a positive thing in my estimation. D&D -- and fantasy gaming in general -- could use more quirkiness these days.


  1. I recall being confused in much the same way by X2's title; I couldn't quite reconcile the characters with what little I knew of Zelazny's books at the time--I certainly didn't realize the possibility of dual references at the age of 14.

    Now I'm imagining running the module with less a pseudo-French feel and more of a trippy early-70s vibe. It oughta work!

  2. I'll never forget gushing about LotR (which I had recently read for the first time) to a camp counselor one night around the fire in the summer of '80. He was tolerant of my enthusiasm and agreed that Tolkien was good, but made me promise to seek out the Amber books when I returned home. I did, probably months later, and loved them. Thanks, whoever you were!

    The 2nd Chronicles aren't bad, but they're not up to the standard Zelazny set himself with the first five books.

  3. Have you seen Charles Stross "Family Trade" series? It's a modern take on the trope...

  4. I *love* the first Amber series--one of my favorite series. I've read 'em many times. The second series is nowhere as good, I don't think.

  5. Amber was one of my first true loves in fiction. I've re-read it several times and highly recommend them.

    The second series started with promise, but extremely quickly became a series of interesting ideas poorly strung together by an increasingly uninteresting plot. I felt that Zelazney had written himself into a corner early on and kept forging ahead just to get the things finished.

    Another fantastic work by Zelazney is his novel Lord of Light. I might even recommend that one over the Amber series.

  6. Another fantastic work by Zelazney is his novel Lord of Light. I might even recommend that one over the Amber series.

    Oh, definitely! My name is Mahasamatman, but you can just call me Sam.

    I myself have a soft spot for Isle of the Dead. Maybe not his most profound work, but certainly a different take on the "I'm the oldest surviving man" trope in SF. I'll take Sandow over Heinlein's Lazarus Long any day.

    Sorry, rambling.

  7. I just read the first set of the Amber Chronicles and have gotten started into the second. I got on this kick through the Moldvay aspect: having recently re-acquired his Lords of Creation RPG, I was thinking about the influences for that game as well as for Castle Amber (one of my favorite modules a kid). To me, it seems that Zelazny is a clear influence on both.

    I think there's more to this than meets the eye and I'll probably keep digging. There was a comment on Jeff's Gameblog when Moldvay died from whom I assume was his source on Moldvay's death that got me thinking:

    There has been somethings written about what to do with Tom's writings. I recommend they be donated to the Kent State University Special Collections. He was a graduate and one of the founders of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Society formed in the mid 70s Our faculty adviser that Tom worked with was Carl Yoke. )He grew up in Cleveland with his best friend from home room Roger Zelazny)Carl made it a point to collect the manuscripts from science fiction writers but especially those from Kent State (e.g, Stephan Donaldson) I can think of a no more fitting place for his works.

    Carl Yoke has a book on Zelazny:

    I guess that I've got a particular interest in Moldvay for a few reasons - one of the primary being that I met him back when Lords of Creation first came out at a game shop in Akron, OH. My brother and I bought an autographed copy. At any rate, Lords of Creation seems to have even more inspiration from Zelazny's work than Castle Amber.

    I'm curious whether Moldvay and Zelazny had direct contact with each other. I suppose that Carl Yoke would be the person to ask. It also makes me wonder what actually happened to Moldvay's body of work.

  8. The first set of books were very solid, though I felt using them a direct setting was flawed (as the Amber RPG did), since all the clever mysteries are revealed to the players. Better to take the premise and twist it, I think, which many Amber GMs I know have done... but still, they're just twisting a corner, not the whole world map.

    I found the second series of books much harder to parse. I've read through them twice, only to be utterly flummoxed when I read summaries of the events in the books, as if I was reading some entirely different work.