Classic Review – Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny

Classic Review is a feature where I pull a book that is over 20 years old from my collection and re-read it, then review it…

nine princes oldFormat: paperback,  1972

Pages:   175

Reading Time: about 2-3 hours

No author or series that I discovered in my teens was more important in forming my love of reading and fantasy than Roger Zelazny’s Amber series. Not Tolkien, not Eddings, not Brooks, not even Moorcock (though he comes close). From the moment I picked up Sign of the Unicorn in my school library (the only book in the series that they had), I knew this was something special. I was lost after reading the first couple of chapters of Unicorn, but there was something that intrigued me, and I sought out Nine Princes in Amber in a local used bookstore.

What followed was a romp through what is considered Zelazny’s finest work. Though some of his stand-alone books were award-winners, none approach the breadth and scope of Amber. In the Amber series, Zelazny mixes action and humor, drama and mystery, and it all begins with Nine Princes.

The opening of the book displays the fast-pace, off-the-cuff writing that delves into the mystery of the story. Waking up as the victim of an accident that maybe wasn’t so accidental, Carl Corey is an amnesia patient who must piece together clues to his past and identity, and he discovers that he is being over-medicated in a private hospital. Corey is one cool character, able to deduce when things don’t feel right, and when they do. He is strong, stubborn, and heals more quickly than a person should. In fact, when the reader finds out that his broken legs have healed completely in 2 weeks, you know something strange is going on. He turns the tables on his captors, tracks down his sister, and pries information out of her to fill in the blanks in his memories. He does all this without letting her know of his condition, which would be interpreted as weakness…a weakness that he instinctively knows could be fatal.

From here the story shifts from our mundane world to the magical world of Shadow. Amber exists on its own plane, and casts mirror images of itself through other various planes, called Shadows, of which our own Earth is one. Natives of Amber (and also some nasty creatures) have the ability to walk through Shadow, similar to plane-shifting. Corwin (Corey’s real name) is a prince of Amber who decides to enlist the help of a relative or two in order to make an attempt to claim the throne from his hated brother, Eric (it seems their father Oberon has gone missing). Without giving away too many spoilers, the siege does not go as planned and Corwin sets things in motion that he never intended. In fact, you might say the overall arc of the series (which isn’t apparent in this first book) is about the consequences of Corwin’s actions, how he comes to regret those actions, and ultimately takes responsibility for them. In other words, it’s less about ruling and power, and more about how you would live your life after a near-death experience, seen through the transformation of Corwin from a jerk to something a little more noble.

Zelazny’s imagination is on full display here, as he introduces not only the concepts of Amber and Shadow, but also elements such as the ingenious Trumps (which allow characters to talk to each other, travel long distances, and even strike at each other from afar), the Pattern (a sparkly blue maze that gives Amberites their power), the pattern-formed Grayswandir (Corwin’s magical sword), and other fantastical elements.

Though the book is a quick read, thanks in no small part to a wealth of action sequences and snappy dialog, characters are pretty well fleshed out and have specific motivations that drive them. Like real royalty, many of Corwin’s siblings are either noble and dedicated to the throne, or shallow and self-serving.

I’ve often wondered what the Amber series would like like as a third-person narrative, with multiple perspectives and a meaty thickness similar to The Wheel of Time or A Game of Thrones. I think it might have been spectacular. Still, Zelazny has a flowing style that is easy to read and Corwin is a likable enough narrator: part noble, part scoundrel, and part ass-kicker, though his near-death experience has changed his personality (which wasn’t so noble before). There is a smart-ass kind of humor to his character, and ample wit, to make the story engaging. I love the little one-liners like “in the State of Denmark there was the odor of decay…” or “my heart leaped forward and banged against my sternum and asked to be let out.”

Nine Princes in Amber isn’t for everyone; in fact, my friends that I’ve introduced the series to either instantly loved it and couldn’t put it down, or quickly grew bored and returned the book to me. From my observations, you either “get” Zelazny, or you don’t, and for those of the former group, this book is entertaining as hell. Ultimately, there’s no way to tell which group you belong to unless you pick up this first volume of the five-part series and give it a go. I highly recommend it.

A note about versions: during my original search for Nine Princes in Amber during the 80’s, I settled on the black cover paperback version (pictured at the beginning of the post) instead of the hard cover version, featuring Boris art on the cover (pictured to the right). Now, normally I like Boris, but he’s all wrong for Amber. Conan is perfect for Boris, Corwin not so much. Eventually I repurchased the entire series with the Tim White covers (pictured on the left), which I still have today. I have avoided the paperback omnibus, which I detest, and keep hoping that one day this series will re-release in hard cover with great cover art…

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