Inspired by Christopher’s Smith’s Huffington Post article, I resolved to devote a greater part of my 2013 reading list to discovering the classics, or what he defined as “any book that is not a new book, one that merits re-reading, 5, 10, even 100 years or more after its publication”.
Granted, that definition still encompassed too many books to wrap my head around, so I decided to narrow my choices down to books featured in Locus’ 2012 “All Century Polls”. I’m a sucker for lists, and this one, with titles ranging from the early 1900s and beyond, seemed like a good place to start.
Lengthy introduction aside, here are my thoughts on the first fantasy Classic I’ve read this new year – Nine Princes in Amber (ranked 5th in Locus’ Polls for best 20th Century Fantasy Novel) and the subsequent 4 books of the Amber Chronicles (Corwin Cycle). In case you were wondering, Lord of The Rings topped that category.
The Amber Chronicles begin with its amnesiac protagonist Carl Corey escaping from a hospital in New York. He tracks down his long forgotten sister, discovers his real name is Corwin, and that he hails from a place called Amber. Amber is the true heart of the universe, and all worlds are but a shadow of Amber, Earth included. The first book, Nine Princes in Amber follows Corwin as he regains his memories and struggles to wrestle the Throne of Amber from his brother Eric.
In the rest of the series, Corwin continues to narrate his adventures, visiting shadow worlds near and far in his attempts to regain the throne and to rescue his beloved Amber from utter chaos.
Zelazny’s Amber universe still feels fresh, despite me reading it more than 40 years after publication. His concept of a magic-laden medieval world setting spawning other parallel universes (the shadow worlds) permitted him to cycle through various settings at ease, allowing for the juxtaposition of modern elements like guns and cigarettes in an otherwise medieval setting. This liberal use of science in old-world settings also makes the Amber Chronicles feel a little like an urban fantasy, although that very term was probably not invented till more recent times.
Another plus point for me was Zelazny’s multiple references to myth, history and literature throughout the series. A significant part of the tale takes place in Avalon, where characters like Uther, Lancelot and Ganelon are thrown up – names from Arthurian tales and the Carolingian cycle. I had a field day spotting references to Gulliver’s Travels, the fairy folk, Thomas the Rhymer, possibly La Belle Dame sans Merci… and realized to my delight how many more I had missed, after reading the article by Christopher S. Kovacs in the New York Review of Science Fiction.
Literary easter eggs aside, the much of my enjoyment also came from Zelazny’s use of Tarot as a plot device. Amnesiac Corwin first encounters the full array of his siblings in the form of Tarot cards, a scene that sent goose bumps down my spine and sets the tone for the mix of modern and mystical in the story to follow. Tarot imagery is used consistently throughout the series, and I had lots of fun identifying the card certain scenes alluded to. Cards like “The Hanged Man”, “The Tower” and “The Wheel of Fortune” appear in various scene setups; even the characters themselves remind me a little of the cards in the Major Arcana, even if Zelazny did not intend for them to reference any. Corwin’s youngest brother Random, always slighted by his siblings, and who “looks and acts, on occasion, like an asthmatic, teenage hood” conjures up references of “The Fool”, while Benedict, stoic master swordsman, reminds me of “Justice”. Flame-haired, cunning Fiona, with her grasp of the mystical, brings to mind “The High Priestess”, and Llewella, “looking moist and sad”, the odd sister out, makes me think invariably of “The Moon”.
There is a scene I love in Sign of The Unicorn which show Corwin and his siblings congregating in Amber’s library. Each new entrant ups the tension with their declaration of allegiance to or against Corwin in unspoken but entirely obvious ways. It is a scene that details the nuances of sibling power play perfectly, and is representative of how well the characters and their relationships are portrayed. Revelations about Corwin and his siblings unfold as the series progresses, even as they themselves change and grow. The gradual revealing of each character’s motivations also make for a dynamic, ever shifting storyline – especially in The Hand of Oberon, where the impression of the overall plot changes with every character telling his version of the story. It’s almost akin to drawing cards for poker, each new card revealing information that force one to reassess the situation – an enjoyable challenge really, and a big part of why I found this series such an engaging read.
There is a feeling of timelessness to Zelazny’s Amber. It could exist anywhere, anytime. The characters feel vivid, the relationships depicted – nuanced, and the possibility that these strange humanlike immortals could pop into our shadow Earth one day, not unbelievable. That to me, is what makes this series a classic –the way it allows for that magical “what if?” to linger in one’s mind, long after the tale is done.
Books in the Chronicles of Amber (Corwin Cycle)
- Nine Princes in Amber (1970)
- The Guns of Avalon (1972)
- Sign of the Unicorn (1975)
- The Hand of Oberon (1976)
- The Courts of Chaos (1978)