Fiction Review: "Nine Princes in Amber" by Roger Zelazny

For whatever reason it's taken me forever to really begin reading Roger Zelazny's Amber series of novels. My primarily knowledge of it was from flipping through my brother's copies of Phage Press' Amber Diceless Roleplaying books. My brother raved about both the RPG and the novels. Back in 1999 I picked up The Great Book of Amber omnibus collection of all the Amber novels but I couldn't get into it.

While browsing Audible.com I noticed that all ten of Zelazny's Amber novels were available in unabridged audiobook form, the first five (the original books) narrated by Alessandro Juliani and the latter five by Wil Wheaton. Juliani, probably best known as the reimagined Battlestar Galactica's Felix Gaeta had previously narrated a short story in METAtropolis, a narration I enjoyed, so I decided to give Nine Princes in Amber another try.

I'm probably the last fantasy fan to have read Nine Princes in Amber but just in case I'm not I'll do my best not to give away major plot reveals and spoilers.

The book opens with the narrator awakening in a hospital. That amuses me a little as I seem to recall a guide for writers advising never open a story in such a way. The narrator is amnesic and doesn't even know his own name at first. The book follows him escaping from the hospital and discovering who he is.

One thing I remember from the first time I trie dreading this is being frustrated by the amnesia. Having finally completed it I will say that it is a useful way of gradually revealing the universe to the reader. Moreover, it is not the universe that is being revealed but rather the multiverse.

In the book we learn (keeping things broad) that our narrator is Corwin, a member of a rather machiavellian family with connections to Amber. Amber is the only "true" world, all others, including our own, being shadows of it. We quickly learn that the family is not made up of the nicest or most trustworthy people. They conspire against each other while at the same time maintaining the appearance of polite relations.

Meeting with some members of his family begin bringing Corwin's memories back. While they are far from complete he decides to go to Amber, though he doesn't fully know why. A brother of his joins him in this quest. Their journey takes them on a car ride from one reality to another with various elements of the universe changing as they get closer to Amber. In the course of the book Corwin manages to regain his full memories and we learn why it is he wants to get to Amber and more about his family and the multiverse.

The multiuniversal setting brings to mind later works it clearly had an influence on such as Neil Gaiman's Sandman series and John Ostrander's Grimjack. The influence on Gaiman is especially apparent when one compares Corwin's family with the Endless of Sandman.

Corwin is a bit of a jerk, albeit a jerk who is enjoyable to read about, especially in the novel's first-person narration. His time of amnesia has mellowed him a bit compared to the rest of his family but he is nonetheless a very cocky and self-confident figure, though not so self-confident that he won't withdraw when the circumstances dictate it. The extremely self-confident protagonist is something that seems to have largely vanished - or at least greatly diminished - from modern fantasy and science fiction and is something that I've found I enjoy reading. It's something you'll find in the works of Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, Andre Norton, Robert E. Howard, and other classic genre authors. I live in a world where I need to worry about employment, health, being a good husband, and father - to be honest it's nice to read about characters who don't worry about such things. Not the only thing I want to read but sometimes it is nice just to escape.

The novel ends with some resolution but is clearly part of a series with a ton of loose ends that need resolving. I'll probably hold off on reviewing the remaining books individually but rather do a follow-up review at some point of the first five novels.


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