Roger Zelazny: The Chronicles of Amber (1)

Review of the first 5-book story of the Amber series by Roger Zelazny.

  • The Chronicles of Amber: The First Series

    • by Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels have become classics of the fantasy genre. The series consists of two cycles of five novels each, plus some short stories. I first read the series back in the 80s, and last read them before the second cycle was complete. Recently I decided I was really in the mood to read them again, not only to complete the series for the first time, but to see how well they held up after all this time.

The answer is, “pretty well”. I was pleased to find that they’re a quick read, a fun read, and still contain some surprises of the “I should have seen that coming” variety.

It’s impossible to even begin to describe the series without giving away some of the first book: Our hero, Corwin, is a Prince of Amber. Amber is the first among all alternate realities, the other all being shadows cast off from the prime world. Amber has been ruled from time immemorial by Oberon. Oberon had over a dozen offspring, who have engaged in internecine competition for thousands of years, and Corwin is one of these. Amber is embodied by the Pattern, a magical design which can be walked and if one is a true child of Amber will confer on that person the ability to shift through all the various Shadows simply by travelling and willing it so. Such children also are immortal and immensely strong, with superhuman constitutions.

Corwin has been out of the game for many centuries, living on our own world as an amnesiac. Nine Princes in Amber opens with Corwin’s memory being jogged, and him going on a quest to recover it. Along the way he meets several of his relatives, some he likes and some he doesn’t. He finds that his father has gone missing, and his brother Eric – whom he likes least of all – plans to crown himself King of Amber, an ambition Corwin holds for himself.

Narrated by Corwin himself, the series features our hero confronting his past and his present, making mistakes and suffering the consequences thereof. Ultimately it’s about this extraordinary man evolving from a man of ambition and vengeance to one of duty and compassion. In this it resembles any number of “prince earning his throne” parables, but Zelazny never loses sight that it’s not really about the throne: It’s about Corwin and his relationship with his family. Corwin learns what he’s not, rather than what he is and by discharging his responsibilities to Amber he frees himself to live his own life.

The royal family of Amber are a capricious lot, often acting like little gods who use the mortals of shadow purely for their own ends. Backstabbing and calculating, their paranoia fuels the story’s writing style, in which Corwin is deeply analytical and even his emotions are carefully scrutinized by himself in the narrative. He regrets and loves and yearns, but his words are typically clinical and rarely heartfelt. In this regard Zelazny’s prose feels artificial. Corwin’s hatred of Eric and his mixed feelings about his father feel the most genuine.

Despite that, Corwin is a likeable protagonist and that makes the story, because you root for him. Though a flawed figure, you can see him growing as a person and coming around to where he’s trying to do the right thing when circumstances allow.

I’ve heard that Nine Princes was originally written as a standalone book, so it’s not too surprising that the story expands considerably as it goes on.

I think The Guns of Avalon is my favorite book in the series. In it, Corwin surveys the results of one of his acts in the first book, meets up with an old ally, Ganelon, with whom he has a checkered history, and meets another brother, who’s had an unfortunate encounter with some adversaries. It feels almost as fully-textured as Nine Princes, and is full of portentiousness. Corwin’s relationship with Ganelon is one of the best elements of the series, and is crucial – in more ways than one – to Corwin’s story arc. The book even ends on a dramatic note (although later books drop the ball when it comes to following through on it).

Unicorn and Oberon unravel the plot by the villains, and along the way reveal some more surprising characteristics of Amber and its universe. The most compelling thing is the depth of the machinations of the characters, which is especially impressive since I’m pretty sure Zelazny was making it up as he went along, so he had to retrofit events into what he’d already written in the first volume. Not everything works – one revelation about the Pattern seems rather superfluous, for instance – but it never detracts from it being a fun ride. Oberon finishes with a terrific and clever confrontation between the good guys and the bad guys, and ends with a surprising revelation (well, it surprised me, anyway).

The epic’s biggest drawback is that Courts is a slim volume in both page count and content. It’s really a denouement to the end of Oberon – which is the emotional climax of the whole series – and it includes a lengthy trip by Corwin, a lengthy war between two armies (one of whom we barely know), and a couple more revelations that feel like too much too late. There’s some decent material in the final volume, but unfortunately it means the story ends with less than a bang.

I feel I should make some observation about the influence of Amber on the fantasy genre, but in fact I know little about it. Some say that Charles Stross’ series starting with The Family Trade is influenced by Amber, but other than featuring parallel worlds I think it bears no resemblance at all. It’s really more akin to “modern person thrown into a medieval society” stories such as H. Beam Piper’s Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen, Leo Frankowski’s The Cross-Time Engineer, and – of course – Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. I’ve also heard Zelazny’s writing was a significant influence on Stephen Brust. But the Amber series doesn’t otherwise significantly resemble any other fantasy of the modern era that I’m familiar with.

The first Amber series is a big box ‘o fun, fast-moving and inventive. It’s not very deep, but it’s more than mere fluff. As escapist fantasy goes, it doesn’t get a lot better than this.

Kaffeeklatsch

Somehow three of my friends with whom I have a lot in common – Subrata, Bill and Cliff – have all ended up working at Apple in the same department.

And, perversely, they’re not in my department.

Recently we’ve started gathering for coffee every 2 or 3 weeks on Friday afternoon. It gets me out of the office – it’s about a 7-minute walk to their building – and I think gets them out of their offices as well. 🙂 We natter about programming and science fiction and gaming, all that good stuff. We got together today and it was fun as always.

Although I’m friendly with many of my immediate cow-orkers, I don’t gab with them about stuff as near and dear to my heart (or at least my pocketbook) as I do with these three.

Morning Ride

I went for a 13-mile ride this morning, and took my camera so I could snap some shots of my route in the fall:

Creek.jpg

Creek at high tide. I once stopped on the bridge I took this picture from, looked down and saw a ray swimming up the creek. I don’t know where it was going, but I hope it got there.

Trees.jpg

Lovely red tree amidst all the greenery.

Trail.jpg

This trail is more scenic than it looks in this picture. I often see dogs and cats patrolling the space around it. The area to the right beyond the fence used to be a commercial nursery, but they left earlier this year. I think they’re going to build housing on the site.

This Week’s Haul

I thought I’d write some entries about comics I buy each week, since I thought a few of my readers might be curious what I’m buying. This was a light week:

Fables is one of my favorite comics currently being published. It’s about a community of fairy tale characters whose homelands have been conquered, and who have been exiled to our world and are living in New York city and state. It features Snow White, Cinderella, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Pinocchio, the Big Bad Wolf, Beauty and the Beast, and many others. It’s being collected in trade paperback, starting with this volume, and is a series that both my girlfriend and my Dad are reading. This issue introduces a well-known fable into the story and is part of the ongoing relationship between Fabletown and the Adversary.

52 is a weekly series about the year following the event comic Infinite Crisis, during which Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman have disappeared. Some of its mysteries are just interesting enough to keep me reading, and the art varies from very good to weak, depending on this week’s artist. It’s fluff, not essential reading. This issue is about Black Adam and Intergang and all that stuff, and is about par for the course.

Scarlet Traces wraps up its 4-issue mini-series this week. I reviewed the first graphic novel over at Four Color Comics a while back, and the mini-series is a fun follow-up. The series is somewhat grim, but I enjoyed it thoroughly. Especially recommended for fans of the second League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series.

Umbra also wraps up its 3-issue run this week. It was a black and white mini-series about the discovery of the skeleton of a neanderthal woman in Scandanavia, who had been killed by a gun. It was kind of interesting, but I was disappointed in the explanation for the peculiar happenings. Maybe my tolerance for X-Files type covert ops just isn’t very high anymore.

Finally, the latest hardcover collection of 1960s Amazing Spider-Man is out. The early Spider-Man stories hold up very well, even 40 years later, and I’ve been enjoying them thoroughly. I probably won’t get to this one for a bit since I still have the most recent Iron Man Masterworks to read, too.

Well, this was a little longer than intended. Assuming I keep writing these, I’ll probably get to the point where I’ll assume y’all know the premise of each title (or don’t care) and I can just do a quick review of the specific issue.

Or, I’ll run out of gas on these entirely. 🙂

Tim Powers: On Stranger Tides

Review of the novel On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers.

I’m a big fan of Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates. On Stranger Tides is the book he wrote immediately following that one, and it has all the classic hallmarks of a Powers book: A protagonist who walks through hell to emerge a changed man on the other side; a fantastic setting made real through a depth and breadth of research; a tightly-constructed plot; deftly-handled magical elements; and the degree of brutality one expects when fairly normal people are thrown into such nasty life-and-death situations. For all that, it’s not a great book, but it is solidly entertaining.

The operative theme here is “pirates”, as our hero – John Chandagnac – is on a ship in the Caribbean that’s captured by pirates. These being the early days of the 18th century (that’s three hundred years ago, for those keeping score at home), he’s pressed into their service, “service” in this case being to help the famous pirate Blackbeard assist a mad professor, Benjamin Hurwood, and his even madder doctor, Leo Friend, travel to Florida in search of a focus of magic energy. Chandagnac is rechristened Jack Shandy by the pirates, and he learns about sea travel and survival among this clutch of fairly amoral men.

Powers’ characters always have unique backgrounds, but that doesn’t always make them fully-realized characters. Shandy was a puppeteer, and is travelling to Jamaica to try to wrest his father’s inheritance from his uncle, but he’s really a pretty flat character. Okay, he does have a certain sense of nobility and honor which is both sorely tested and which gets him into profound trouble, but isn’t that true for many heroes? He falls in love with Hurwood’s daughter, Beth, but Beth is almost a nonentity as a character. Their attraction to each other never feels very plausible, either, as they don’t really know each other, and it feels like just a too-blatant instance of love at first sight. So it’s hard to take too seriously Shandy’s ongoing quest to save Beth.

It’s the villains who really make the story: Hurwood is obsessed with trying to bring his wife back from the dead, and has a gruesome plan to accomplish this. Friend is a despicable figure who’s just looking to gain personal power. And Blackbeard, well, is a notorious pirate with a clever plan for effecting his retirement as the age of pirates is driving to a close. Blackbeard is the most fun of these, as he’s more self-confident and even humorous at times. All three are deeply threatening, though, and Beth is caught in the middle of all of their designs, so, by extension, Shandy is too.

Powers’ drawing of pirate culture is arresting, and it seems he did plenty of research on pirates of the age and of Blackbeard’s exploits (confirmed and rumored) in particular, although I imagine that aspect of the book would be more rewarding to someone who’s also a pirate aficionado (unlike myself). There are some cool references to better-known people and places, too.

The story’s biggest weaknesses are the bits that aren’t fully explained, or that don’t seem truly plausible. Aside from the what I’ve already mentioned: Hurwood suffers flashbacks to his youth, for no apparent reason. Magic is thrown around a little too lightly, with even some of the also-ran pirates being proficient in it for some reason. Sometimes Powers substitutes his characters being unable to fully control their magic in place of a proper framework within which the magic seems believable.

But there’s plenty of action and adventure, and that’s what carries the book. Despite it’s flaws, it’s better than a “nice try”, and is a solidly entertaining read.

Scalzi: Star Wars Not Entertainment

Not that he needs any referrals from me, but John Scalzi’s post “The Lie of Star Wars as Entertainment” is both funny and insightful.

(Scalzi, for the both of my readers who don’t know, is a prince of a man and also one of the world’s elite kitten-jugglers, er, I mean, one of the most popular bloggers on the Web.)

I think he goes a little over the top in criticizing the original trilogy (Star Wars, Empire and Jedi), though he does allow that people other than George Lucas worked to make it entertaining. But my understanding is that Lucas didn’t get on his myth-making kick until after the original Star Wars came out. (I thought the original trilogy was solidly entertaining until they rescued Han Solo in Jedi, at which point it took a bizarre left turn into la-la land.)

Another point to spin out of Scalzi’s post is…

…those of you who know me can see this coming, right?…

…you can level almost identical charges against Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was primarily concerned with stroking the asinine Trek mythology about a bright, shiny, happy future for humanity, and which shoved aside (with great force) all of the conflict and character drama which made the original Star Trek good entertainment. Like Star Wars Eps 1-3, NextGen is largely bland and tedious, because it’s fundamentally unconcerned with entertaining the viewer.

The Vision Thing

One thing a lot of people don’t know about me is that I badly nearsighted, and wear contact lenses. The reason a lot of people don’t know this is that I wear lenses nearly every day, and so they almost never see me in glasses.

My right eye takes a -5.25 lens, and my left eye is worse, at -8.50. One time I asked my eye doctor whether I was in danger of no longer being able to wear contacts and she said, “Oh, no, they go up to 20.” Ye gods! Fortunately, my prescription has remained stable for about 15 years, so I’m not in danger of getting anywhere near that.

The downside to having two eyes that are so different is that I can barely do anything without lenses, since even if I’m just reading it means I have to close one eye, since the eyes are so different that one of them will be blurry unless I hold the book so close that I can’t actually focus on the same spot. The upside is that I can pretty easily tell if I put a lens in the wrong eye, because it feels different. Of course, if my eyes were the same, then I wouldn’t need that sensation in the first place.

I get new glasses about once every five years, basically when the old ones wear out. My most recent glasses came from Costco, and they’re also the first glasses to not be brown horn-rims since I got my first pair, way back around 1982. And boy do brown horn-rims look so 1980s these days.

I originally got contacts after I broke several pairs of frames playing basketball (back in the halcyon days of youth when I could almost play basketball). These days I have one pair of soft lenses which I wear every day and clean every night (and replace once a year), and I also buy soft dailies (from 1-800-CONTACTS) which I take when I travel, so I don’t need to carry the cleaning stuff. This is a pretty good balance between cost and convenience, I think.

I have thought of getting laser eye surgery, but I’m such a wuss when it comes to my eyes that I don’t really want someone zapping them with a laser. If my eyes were damaged, I’d truly be up shit creek, since almost everything I do and enjoy involves vision. (I’d rather go deaf than blind. I might even rather lose my hands than go blind.) A cow-orker recently said that she thinks a lot of people go into software engineering just so they can afford laser eye surgery. Heh.

The next stop on my ongoing vision odyssey will be farsightedness, I guess. But my eye doctor says there’s no sign of it kicking in yet. I figure if I make it to 45 without my ability to focus going, then I’ll be doing pretty good.

Neil Gaiman: Anansi Boys

Review of the novel Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman.

I made a big push to read Anansi Boys hoping to finish it before seeing Neil Gaiman at Kepler’s last week. I didn’t quite make it, but I finished it the next night and enjoyed it plenty well.

Anansi Boys sort of spins out of his previous fantasy novel, American Gods, as it’s based the trickster-storyteller-spider god Anansi, who is a supporting character in that earlier book. Fat Charlie – our hero – is the son of Anansi, but he feels that his father has worked to humiliate him his whole life, and so he emigrates to England where he’s engaged to be married to Rosie. When he finds out his father’s died, he also learns that he has a brother, Spider, and that Spider inherited the magical talent in the family. Unfortunately, their reunion results in Spider stealing Fat Charlie’s fiancee, and putting Charlie in hot water with his extremely unscrupulous boss. Fat Charlie’s efforts to get rid of Spider and get his life back sends all of them on a strange odyssey across the world.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much like Gaiman was channeling Douglas Adams – or heck, Dave Barry – as in Anansi Boys Despite its serious subject matter, it’s really a light and whimsical book about trouble with one’s family and being careful what you wish for.

What makes the book work is the interplay among Fat Charlie, Rosie, and Spider. Fat Charlie and Rosie seem to really love each other, but there’s an undercurrent that Rosie’s really with Charlie to spite her grumpy, controlling mother. Spider falls for Rosie hard – even though he used trickery to (somehat unintentionally) ensnare her – and being a godling she falls for him in return. The sibling rivalry between Spider and Charlie is palpable, because for Charlie the stakes are so high, and because Spider’s advantage is so large it forces Charlie to unusual (but not truly unethical) extremes. Charlie’s agony as Spider seduces Rosie is powerfully drawn, really the most emotionally powerful part of the book, and it turns the middle of the book into a real page-turner.

The plot converges into a neat and whimsical little bit of coincidence (though when gods are involved one wonders whether there can ever be true coincidence). While Gaiman plays with conventions of myth and quests, his heroes and their approaches to their problems are unconventional and that’s what makes them feel real rather than like figures in some larger story. Everything ties up neatly – incorporating some elements I haven’t even mentioned here – and with the satisfying feel to it.

Quirky, funny and inventive, I wouldn’t rate Anansi Boys above American Gods, but that’s hardly a slam. I’m glad I read it.

Destroying Poker

Although I haven’t often written about it, I’ve been playing poker recreationally for the last 9 months. I’m not very good, and I stick to low-limit hold ’em poker games in the local casinos and in Vegas, but for the most part I have fun. (Losing $90 in 90 minutes at a $3-6 table would be the “not so much fun” part. On the other hand, I’ve won that much in 2 hours, too, so like I said, mostly fun.)

Anyway, I started playing poker because I wanted to have a game to play in Vegas in which I wasn’t playing against the house, with the odds de facto stacked against me.

One of my plans for this month was to investigate playing poker on-line. For instance, Poker On a Mac is a pretty nifty resource for those of us who own Macs and don’t want to install Windows on them. My plan was to play in some no limit hold ’em tournaments, since the casinos around here only seem to offer fixed limit and spread-limit games, which aren’t really the same.

It looks like I won’t get a chance, though, since the Republicans passed a bill making it illegal to transfer money to on-line gambling sites from most bank or credit card accounts. Actually, weasels that they are, they didn’t pass a separate bill but attached it as an amendment to the Port Security Bill at the 11th hour. The bill – which I think was regarded as one of those “must-pass” pieces of legislation, on to which some legislators love to try to tack unrelated amendments such as this – passed by a 98-0 vote in the Senate.

(The House passed its own bill regarding on-line poker. It passed 317-93.)

Many think that it’s likely that this bill will destroy the on-line poker industry in the United States – even the Motley Fool thinks so – and I’m inclined to agree. One blogger thinks that the on-line poker companies simply flubbed the ball when lobbying Congress.

Another blogger makes some grim predictions about the future of poker in the US. I can’t argue with his reasoning. One implication of his predictions is worth spelling out, since it affects the little casual players like me directly: It’s going to become a lot harder to play poker on-line. And that means that even if there are a few on-line sites which decide to risk the penalties of Federal law, the barriers for players to figure out how to get their money to those sites to play will be too high for most people (the casual or curious players), because they just won’t care enough to make the effort.

I wonder whether this will spill over into card rooms, too. With fewer members of the general public playing on-line, I could see card rooms lose popularity, and possibly increasing their rakes to make more money. The competition there would become stiffer, which in turn could dissuade new players from coming in to play, because the learning curve relative to the average player would become that much steeper.

And then there’s the elephant in the room: Poker at the big casinos is (I’m told) just not as profitable as slot machines. So a general decline in the popularity of poker could cause many of those shiny new card rooms at big casinos to downsize or go away entirely. Which means more players forced to play in less savory joints, which further dissuades the casual player from showing up.

The end result of this legislation is that it’s going to effectively destroy an industry and ruin a fun experience for hundreds of thousands of Americans in the name of… what? Helping those few gambling addicts who aren’t so addicted that they wouldn’t care whether they’re violating the law when they gamble anyway? (The correlation between the on-line gambling bill and Prohibition seems obvious, and I’m not the only one to think of it.)

For myself personally, the law means I’m probably not going to play on-line poker. Even though the players aren’t being targeted by the law, do I really want to take that risk? Moreover, do I want to go through the hassle of trying to get money to and from whichever sites remain active in the US? Not so much. I’ll still play in card rooms from time to time, but I missed my opportunity to get in a bunch of relatively inexpensive practice at no-limit hold ’em.

It’s too bad.

On the other hand, I’m trying to console myself that I really ought to be working on my writing rather than playing poker.