Nine Princes in Amber

by Roger Zelazny

Cover image

Series: Amber #1
Publisher: Avon
Copyright: 1970
Printing: June 1972
ISBN: 0-380-01430-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 175

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Corwin (not that he knows that's his name) wakes up with amnesia in a private hospital after some sort of accident. He's completely unsure what's going on, but he seems healthy enough to not be in a hospital and the staff are trying to drug him, so he steals a doctor's uniform, confronts the apparent administrator, and discovers he was apparently checked in by his sister. So he goes to see his sister, bluffing and pretending knowledge every step of the way. He, and the reader, slowly piece together some understanding of his very unusual family, one entangled with a land named Amber that's reached by an unusual road.

The Amber series as a whole (or at least the first five books of it), of which this is the first, is a classic. That's probably unfortunate, since I came to it with relatively high expectations, even knowing that it's one of those series that doesn't always survive an adult reading. I've always liked the technique of using amnesia to put the reader and the protagonist at the same level in understanding the world, as long as it's not overused and the world in question is worth the suspense. I also like Corwin's audacious bluffing; it's a good way to show the protagonist as competent.

Unfortunately, the more I learned about the world background, the less I liked either this book or the characters. Corwin's at his best at the start of the book, where his motives make sense: figure out who he is, figure out what all these family members are to him, get his memories back, and try to make sense of the internecine family war that he's walked into the middle of. The problem is that the answers to most of these questions are much less believable than the questions.

Amber is, itself, a great idea, although one that's since been used enough that it doesn't have quite the punch it did originally. Amber is a city in the true world, the only fully real world, and the rest are all Shadows of it. Corwin, and others, can walk the Shadows, move between worlds, in a nicely understated way that involves moving through variations and alternate realities. There are also a few other touches of world-building I liked: the reflection of Amber become real, the Pattern (although I had a very hard time not imagining a giant Game of Life), and the deck of Trumps and how their magic works.

Some spoilers for the second half of the book here, since it's impossible to talk about the basic flaw of this book without disclosing the apparent point of the plot.

Unfortunately, all of that is put to use in a struggle for the rulership of Amber. Everyone wants to rule in Amber because... well, just because. It seems to make absolutely no difference who actually does rule, everyone seemed relatively happy with leaving Corwin alone until he decides to try for this (without even quite knowing what he's doing), and nowhere in this book is there any indication of why anyone would want to rule Amber other than that it's shiny.

To that end, the protagonist proceeds to engage in mass murder. Yes, this is epic fantasy, and some degree of tolerance for high body counts and foot soldiers is to be expected. But Nine Princes in Amber takes this to a degree that I'd think was parody if there were any sign of self-awareness in the story at all. Tens of thousands are killed off-camera and on, often with a contemptuous flip of a word. Most of them seem to have been gathered up by a few off-hand lies by Corwin and his brother, and despite being clearly sentient, their opinions of this are dismissed with more complete indifference than I've ever seen in a novel of this sort.

I realize this is part of the atmosphere, and there are plenty of hints that we're not dealing with a family that's going to be particularly bound to human morality. But, still, the reader hopefully has some contact with human morality, and given the complete and utter lack of any understandable motivation for the war whatsoever, one is left with little to do other than ponder the meaningless butchery of hundreds of thousands of people.

This is really unpleasant stuff, largely because in the text it isn't unpleasant at all. It's presented with about as much emotional engagement as one would mention one's remaining lives in a video game. My suspension of disbelief foundered and died on that, long before we get to the single combat scenes that read like the novelization of a hack and slash game.

Now, after reading the second book after reading this one, I can say that this is explained better in later books. I also talked to some friends who like the series and heard some of the explanations and reasons why Corwin reacts the way that he does. It's related to the world-building that Zelazny is doing and the direction from which he's looking at morality. But none of this is shown very well in this first book, which is therefore startlingly bad given its reputation. (I haven't even mentioned the pointlessly gruesome torture bits.) It's like the climax of an epic fantasy war with all of the motivations, reasons, justifications, and point stripped out, and knowing that those motivations and justifications will show up in later volumes doesn't exactly help.

Zelazny has, as in all of his books, a gift for the occasional turn of phrase, and while the mix of archaic and modern language occasionally grated, it makes for some beautiful passages. There are a few nicely memorable set pieces (the bits with the Trumps were particularly cool) and a few great ideas. But so far this isn't worth reading. Hopefully it will improve quickly.

Followed by The Guns of Avalon.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-09-28

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21