Book Review: Nine Princes In Amber

lady lascivious revels in her first taste of Zelazny,

I want you all to know that this is the first time that I’ve set out to write about a book since I graduated from college.  It’s not that I haven’t wanted to; I think it’s partly from fear that my review either would become incredibly long-winded and academic, or that I won’t be able to do justice to the subject without becoming academic.  And let’s face it, you didn’t come here to read a graduate thesis.  (Even though I could write a thesis on these books and it would be fascinating.  A friend of mine wrote her master’s thesis on cannibalism.  But I digress…)  Alternately, this book I’m about to review is the first in a series of five, and I fear that once I do the first review I’ll have committed myself to doing the other four, and that I may lose steam somewhere in the middle, or worse yet the later books may not be worthy of reviewing.  And already I’ve gotten way out of hand with just the introduction to the review!  Truly mine is a dizzying intellect.  Wait till I get going!

But enough!  As every journey, through Shadow or otherwise, must begin with a single step, I shall begin.

Nine Princes in Amber was published in 1970 by author Roger Zelazny, whose name sounds like something you might find in a sci-fi novel.  (Interesting factoid: he has an ostracod named after him!)  It begins when our narrator wakes up in the hospital with no recollection of who he is.  He remembers there was a car crash, and something in his subconscious tells him it was no accident.  Though he has no idea as to his identity, his location, or who he might turn to, he proceeds to escape from the suspicious hospital he was confined in and sets out to locate the mysterious relative that’s kept him cooped up and unconscious since the “accident”.  What follows is a bizarre drama, part detective story, part fantasy, as our hero slowly learns that he is Corwin, one of the nine princes of the kingdom of Amber.  As his memory slowly unfolds, he must remember (or forget) who to trust, who to avoid, and what he must do to return home to Amber and make a try for the throne.

With such a broad glance one might see this as a somewhat typical fantasy story; hell, reading back over what I just wrote, I don’t know if I’d be convinced to add the book to my Amazon cart.  But there are a few things that set this apart from most other rags-to-riches pauper-to-prince stories you were told as a kid.

Part of the appeal is the whole mulitverse approach, more specifically the way that it’s manipulated by the characters.  I think it’s incredibly important that we see Corwin starting out here on Earth, our Earth, because it grounds him in a reality we can understand.  He’s not some distant monarch in the land of our imagination; he’s just a guy who is lost and confused and may be more than he seems. (Aren’t we all?)  Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for heroic princes and white knights, but sometimes it’s nice to start off with just a kinda regular guy who doesn’t know everything.  Who doesn’t really know much of anything at first.  There’s a great line near the beginning when Corwin is talking to his rediscovered sister, trying to pull information from her without revealing that he has no memory:

I drew on my cigarette, hoping she’d say something more. But she didn’t, so I decided to seize what seemed the advantage I’d obtained in this game I didn’t understand with players I didn’t know for stakes I had no inkling of.

I won’t say that we’ve all been there, but enough of us have that I can reasonably say that it’s little things like that that make Corwin such a relatable protagonist.  And while he may have no memory, he’s definitely not short on personality.  He’s incredibly intelligent and dangerously witty, and his rogueish charm is near-infallible (maybe that’s just girly-me talking).  Part of this may be attributed to the fact that he himself is a bit of a writer, having penned poems and songs in Amber and on Earth. “The ballads of Corwin do touch upon the strings of the heart”, remarks Moire, queen of Rebma.  He later says of her:

Upon the couch, I gave her a ballad. Her lips replied without words.

Yep, even his sex is well-written.

One of the things that really helps characterize Corwin is his speech.  Since he is our narrator, everything we read comes through his filter, and I find it brilliant to see the change in his language as he learns and grows and settles into his identity.  In the beginning, he’s very well-spoken but still casual.  There’s slang, cursing, clever paraphrasing.  But as he learns more and more about himself, his language begins to change.  He takes on a more formal cadence, a vivid vocabulary, the speech of princes and kings.  Yet all the while, he never loses touch with that bit of humanity, for lack of a better word, that sets him just a bit apart.  The juxtaposition of language patterns mirrors the juxtaposition of his personas: one piece still striving for the spotlight, one piece still remembering the time in Shadow.

I know what you’re thinking: what happened to not being long-winded and academic?  Sorry, that went out the window.  I can’t help it.  But it’s true, one of the best things about the book is the protagonist.  And let’s face it, if you don’t have a compelling protagonist, you don’t have a story.

Beyond protagonist and tone, the book is rife with gorgeous scenery and engaging characters.  Zelazny even manages to make swordfights sound frightening on paper.  And as much emphasis as I put on language, the story is full of action.  Swordfights, sea battles, marching armies, a giant smelter that eats cars…it’s got it all!  I could probably write at least another day or two on all the different elements, but I think I’ll spare you that.  Besides, I don’t want to spoil it for you.  I suggest you go pick it up for yourself, check it out, and if you have any complaints you know where to find me.

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