Sign of the Unicorn

by Roger Zelazny

Cover image

Series: Amber #3
Publisher: Avon
Copyright: 1974, 1975
Printing: November 1976
ISBN: 0-380-00831-9
Format: Mass market
Pages: 192

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Sign of the Unicorn is the third book in the Amber series and follows some time after the climactic events of The Guns of Avalon, with plenty of references to earlier events. This series is confusing enough reading it in order; I wouldn't read it out of order.

This is also more like it. This is the first Amber book that approached the level of quality I was expecting when I started reading the series. It mostly dispenses with the unintelligible motive that troubled me through the first two books (not by making it much more intelligible, mind, but at least it wasn't in my face) and replaces it with more interesting world-building, a bit of adventure, a bit of a mystery, and rather more characterization than we've seen so far. And it packs all this into a short book that moves right along; pacing is at least the one thing that this series doesn't struggle with.

We get a pile more of Corwin's family here, and unfortunately I'm still having the problem that they don't feel sufficiently like characters. They're at least differentiating somewhat, but apart from Corwin and Benedict, I have them hanging on one or at most two character traits, rather than seeing them as people and characters in their own right. These are very short books and there are a lot of characters; part of me keeps wondering if Zelazny really needed this large of a family, and if it would have been better if he'd dropped a few of them. But at least all the fairly one-sided chess pieces move around and interact in interesting ways, and the intrigue is complex and engaging enough that I cared about it.

Better, we get more of Corwin's background, including more of his emotional reactions to the world on which he spent so many years. This I liked, quite a bit. It's the best characterization that we've gotten to date, was very much showing rather than telling, and gives Corwin some structure and connection to something other than his ambitions. More of this sort of thing would make me very happy; I'm always a sucker for the story of someone who has written himself off as a self-centered, semi-abusive pragmatist and then discovers that there are other people who actually like him and he's made friends by accident. These scenes also fill in the rest of Nine Princes in Amber and retroactively turn it into a much better story. I would have preferred not to need retroactive improvement, but the improvement is still welcome.

Sign of the Unicorn also shows more of Zelazny's flair for world-building, already the strongest part of the series. The structure of the world he's putting together is feeling less random by the moment, and he adds a few more toys for the characters to play with that seem like they'll have a lot of potential. I like the way Zelazny handles the construction and background of the various magical objects the characters are playing with. Having Dworkin lurking in the background as a wildcard, and the possibility of everything being interconnected in ways the characters don't understand, adds a great deal compared to the characters understanding their own magical technology.

This book still has flaws, but I think this may be the point that the Amber series becomes the enjoyable story I was hoping for when I started it. Hopefully the trend will continue.

Followed by The Hand of Oberon and, to warn, Sign of the Unicorn ends on a fairly major revelation. It's not quite a cliff-hanger, but you'll want to have the next book on hand.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-11-04

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21