The Hand of Oberon

by Roger Zelazny

Cover image

Series: Amber #4
Publisher: Avon
Copyright: 1976
Printing: June 1977
ISBN: 0-380-01664-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 188

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This is the fourth book of the Amber series and immediately follows the major revelation at the end of Sign of the Unicorn, so I wouldn't recommend reading it out of order. It does contain a complete recap of the previous three books (more on that in a moment), so you could start here if you had to, but you'd miss the structural work that Zelazny is doing in this series.

If Sign of the Unicorn was the politicking book of this series, The Hand of Oberon is the world-building book, and Zelazny delivers. We get not only the root cause of the problems that have been plaguing Amber (and some rather interesting symbolism), but also some neat magical creatures, quite a bit more of the background and origins of Amber, and its underlying magical basis. The process of meeting the rest of the family continues, including some reversals of the boxes into which a few of Corwin's relatives have been put. We also get quite a bit more of Dworkin, who continues to be my favorite character. And the plot's momentum is increasing; I can believe that this is going to resolve in one more book.

Zelazny also continues the process that he started in The Guns of Avalon of retroactive rewriting and completely changing the reader's understanding of the first book, Nine Princes in Amber, and while I'm still unhappy with the first book as a novel in its own right, I have to admit that this technique is effective. I don't think I've ever read a series in which the first book was this thoroughly rewritten in my memory (and I'm starting to understand why people who have read the whole series would find its flaws less noticable). And it's not retconning, at least as far as I can tell: the additions, explanations, and complications fit naturally and seem like they were designed from the start.

Zelazny does introduce yet another key character, which by this point just seems excessive, and I wish he'd stick to a smaller cast. The large cast, combined with very short books, makes it hard to develop much feel for any of the supporting characters. Most of them are still one or two related character traits projected into human form. But I do like the reversals and complexities of alliance and friendship. And I enjoyed working out the major reveal of The Hand of Oberon fairly early in this volume, long before the characters hinted at it.

I think a lot of the fun in this series comes from the unreliable narrator. Corwin isn't as bad as, say, Severian, in that he doesn't usually lie to the reader and he is observant, but from time to time he'll just not tell the reader something. After reading the series for a while, one can tell when he's refusing to say something, and then try to puzzle out what he's holding back. I think that was most pronounced (so far at least) in this book, but throughout the series Zelazny uses omissions and gaps almost as much as he uses straight revelation. This is occasionally frustrating, since he does the same thing with the world and the characters that he does with the plot. There are parts of all three that still feel like a wire-frame diagram rather than a complete setting. But if one can get into the game of it, it can also be rather fun.

Zelazny's writing here, while not something I'd seek out, is competent enough, and he has a knack with fast-moving dialogue. There are two places, though, where I think the writing of The Hand of Oberon fell noticably short, and they were enough to knock the book down a grade.

The first is the summary of the previous books. Despite having read them all recently, I was grateful for this, since due to the extensive retroactive rewriting of the earlier books, having the whole story put in chronological order with all subsequently revealed details was quite handy. The problem was that it was dropped into the middle of the story as an extended internal monologue, and by dropped I mean slapped on the page and then attached to the novel with a couple of staples and a wad of duct tape. It would have been a perfectly servicable optional preface if it had a clear "what has gone before" label so that the reader knew it was a summary and didn't provide new information. As a chunk of novel, it completely destroyed the flow of the story.

The second, and this has also been a problem in the earlier books, was the description of another hellride through Shadow. I don't know what Zelazny was attempting to accomplish with these sections — maybe a sort of stream-of-consciousness poetic description to convey the fast-changing landscape — but they don't work. They're awkward, poorly-punctuated lists of sense descriptions that end up being nearly as boring as reading the begats in the Bible. Here's a sample:

Moving along the trail at a gentle pace, clouds darkening the sky and Drum's whinny of memory or anticipation.... A turn to the left, and uphill.... The ground is brown, yellow, back to brown again.... The trees squat down, draw apart.... Grasses wave between them in the cool and rising breeze.... A quick fire in the sky.... A rumble shakes loose raindrops....

(All ellipses in the original.) He goes on like this for three pages without conveying anything more interesting. I think Zelazny, here at least, just isn't very good at detailed visual description instead of sparse impression. The series doesn't have many long descriptions, and most of them are similarly awkward (such as another scene in this same book that's presented as a single paragraph that lasts two full pages).

That aside, this is my favorite book of the series so far; I think it's continuing to improve. The world is interesting, the knotty and complicated alliances are holding my attention even if I wish the characterization were deeper and the cast not quite so large, and the plot is still moving right along. It looks like I may be able to recommend the series as a whole based on the later books, although I think one has to hold one's nose to get through the first few.

Followed by The Courts of Chaos.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-12-03

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21