Review of the second five-volume Amber series, by Roger Zelazny.
The Chronicles of Amber: The Second Series
Trumps of Doom
- PB, © 1985, 184 pp, Avon Books, ISBN 0-380-89635-4
Blood of Amber
- PB, © 1986, 215 pp, Avon Books, ISBN 0-380-89636-2
Sign of Chaos
- PB, © 1987, 217 pp, Avon Books, ISBN 0-380-89637-0
Knight of Shadows
- PB, © 1989, 251 pp, Avon Books, ISBN 0-380-75501-7
Prince of Chaos
- PB, © 1991, 241 pp, Avon Books, ISBN 0-380-75502-5
I remember reading Trumps of Doom around when it came out, having just blasted my way through the first Amber series. And then a few years later reading the series again through Sign of Chaos when it was the latest book. And now, almost 20 years later, I’ve finally read the whole Amber series (modulo a few short stories).
The second series features Merlin, the son of Corwin, who was the hero in the first series. Like the first series, this one is narrated by its hero. Merlin is just as calculating as Corwin was, which probably suggests that the overly-analytical feel of the narrative is just Zelazny’s writing style. Merlin was conceived through deception, and was raised in the Courts of Chaos by his mother. Consequently he possesses the powers of chaos magic, but being of Amberite blood he’s also walked the Pattern and so has the skills of Amber as well. Though he feels more at home in the Courts, he’s recognized and welcomed in Amber, especially by Random, his uncle who is the new king.
What makes this series fun – for me – is how much of it occurs on our Earth, where Merlin has been living for seven years while he becomes a software engineer. He falls in love with a woman named Julia, and becomes good friends with a man named Luke. However, he reveals some of his nature to Julia, scaring her off, and finds that Luke is actually a not-too-friendly fellow with some surprising powers of his own. Also, someone has tried to kill him on April 30 for each of the last 7 years, and the day the book begins launches him on a considerably larger adventure than foiling a murder attempt.
The first two volumes are a lot of fun in unravelling Merlin’s life from several different directions, and making you wonder how it’s all going to come together. Unfortunately I felt Zelazny didn’t maintain the illusion of a tight plot the way he did in the first series. In the ninth book the whole thing falls apart and just feels blatantly improvised. Luke – originally one of the heavies – I suspect was so interesting a character to the author that he ends up patching up his friendship with Merlin, and not very convincingly. And the strands of Merlin’s troubles in Trumps resolves itself into a very different story by the time Knight rolls around. Knight centers around a metaphysical confrontation that Merlin has in a strange Shadow world, while Prince focuses on the central tension between Chaos and Order and Merlin’s role in the realm of Chaos. All the while the shadow of Merlin’s father – who has been missing since the end of the first series – hangs over the story, but the ultimate resolution to this was just not satisfying. The story goes considerably far afield from where it starts; when it was about Merlin’s private little war potentially spiralling out of control, it was fun, but when it resolves into a long-running conflict between two powerful entities, it feels trite.
How did this happen? Well, my understanding is that Merlin’s story was originally going to be a 3-book series, and it expanded to 5 books. I think it would have been better served had Zelazny limited it to 3 books and forced the plot into a less grandiose resolution. Instead we’re presented with an extensive look at the structure of the universe of Amber and I just didn’t find it all that interesting. I think the story got caught up in trying to seem cool (or maybe profound) rather than be good.
The second series is an interesting counterpoint to the first in a couple of ways, though: First, while Corwin was the ultimate insider in Amber – being the preferred choice of some for the throne, and right in the thick of all events – Merlin is really an outsider, allowed in the clan due to blood, but with divided loyalties and not having grown up around his Amberite relatives. So Merlin’s story doesn’t feel like “an Amber series”, but rather the story of someone who visits Amber from time to time but mostly spends his time elsewhere.
Second, if Corwin’s story was about a man who starts out sure of what he is finding out that in fact that’s not who he is at all, then Merlin’s is about a man who’s not at all sure what he is and finding out that he’s actually well-suited for something he never expected nor was interested in. Father and son travel opposite paths.
Merlin’s story ends with a number of dangling threads (as opposed to Corwin’s, whose story felt complete in its five volumes), and I’ve heard that Zelazny planned to write a third series, which never materialized due to his unfortunate death in 1995. So the gestalt of Amber feels unfinished (and I’m not really interested in reading an Amber series by some other author, though one exists).
In summary, the complete Amber series is at its best inventive and fun, but suffers from haphazard plotting and a too-analytical narrative style. It’s entertaining, but feels a little too improvised at times. The first series is well worth reading, but the second isn’t essential.