Forgotten Fantasy: The Chronicles of Amber

chronicles-of-amber

It’s been several months since I first mentioned this, but I think I’m finally starting to get the whole “Forgotten Fantasy” idea down: format, focus, exactly how I want to engage these series, etc. In a lot of ways, this is going to be the test post for all of that.

Which means that all of the problems I’ve been having are going to be hashed out here, first. Including the main one: how exactly do you define forgotten? If no one has ever heard of a series or book, then I probably won’t have either, but choose a series too well-known and the “forgotten” moniker becomes meaningless. My original definition was 90’s or earlier, doesn’t permeate pop culture. Which is…extremely broad, I realize. I’m working a lot from intuition and my own experiences here.

This makes The Chronicles of Amber sort of an odd choice as a first topic, then; I know perfectly well that these books were extremely popular at one point. Most of my friends are spec fic fans of some stripe, and so are most of their parents. Everyone who was around in the 70’s seems to know Zelazny in general and Amber in particular. Wiki even lists them as Zelazny’s most commercially successful series.

But. I’ve never met actually met anyone younger than middle-age who’s read them, and even online the people who know them seem to be older. The few younger people I’ve seen have read the first one for class. And I very rarely even see people my age who’ve heard of them. I’m thirty now; I’m not that young anymore. At some point recognition of this series just plummeted. So forgotten, at least on some level.

With that in mind, I guess we start with the basics.

So—What are The Chronicles of Amber?

Well, on the simplest level they’re a series of ten sword and sorcery books written by Roger Zelazny between 1970 and 1991, with four prequels written by John Gregory Betancourt after Zelazny’s death and against his wishes. This overview will mostly be looking at the initial ten books, which are the ones I’ve read.

The series details the lives of the immortal and morally ambiguous royal family of Amber, the primal point of existence of which all other worlds, including our Earth, are merely shadows. Amber is this primary point of existence because it’s the site of something called The Pattern, the thing that first ordered the universe in opposition to Chaos, thereby creating all shadow worlds as part of a spectrum between the two.

It’s very low fantasy in some aspects; our Earth exists just as it always did, and Corwin, our first protagonist, has spent enough time there to have been involved in everything from the Black Plague to World War II. This isn’t a heavily built world, though it does have plenty of lore of its own.

In spite of that, it also draws on many of the themes that are the basis of more traditional high fantasy; the rise, fall and restoration of a nation, conflict between order and chaos, fights to save the world from evil, generational legacies and the problems that come with them. This last one is important enough that the original series is split in two, with the first cycle focusing on Corwin, a prince of Amber, and the second on his son Merlin, with a rather drastic shift in tone and focus between the two.

Corwin’s section of the narrative begins with the family’s political squabbling over their father’s vacated throne, with Corwin himself positioned as an outsider who’s been away from Amber too long to really know what’s been happening. From there the plot deepens into conspiracy, war with the forces of Chaos, and betrayal by an unknown one of their own. Metaphorical as this is, though, it’s all fairly standard action adventure fare compared to Merlin’s side of the story.

The second five books continue the fight between order and chaos, but in a more personal sense. The sentient forces governing each, The Pattern and The Logrus, begin to fight over Merlin’s loyalty, as he is a child of both, bringing up questions of what the ultimate goal of each side is. This half of the series takes its established mythology and throws a wrench into it, suggesting that the war between order and chaos is far older and more complex than the people involved and giving very few answers to its actual scope by the end.

The four prequel novels go back and focus on Oberon, Corwin’s father, instead of looking for those answers. Fans were, let’s say, slightly angry about that.

Add to this strangely metaphysical plot some rather interesting prose intended to convey stylistically how the Amberites’ powers work and what it feels like to shift between worlds. The prose is one of my favorite parts of the series, and one of the things that really sets it apart for me. It’s not 1940’s bloviating, and it’s not a modern back-scaling thereof. It’s 70’s head trip all the way, and parts of it really feel like they were pulled straight from the Beats’ playbook.

The series is really made, though, by its large cast of interesting characters. The focus is only placed on the royal family of Amber, but Oberon himself had at least fifteen children, with the grandchildren, lovers, and extended family of all of them also involved. The huge cast means that not all of the characters get heavy development, but they all start out as big, notable personalities anyway.

Even the underdeveloped characters feel like they have more going on than is shown, though. You can see where they could be three dimensional, with lives in the background that aren’t given space in the text. This implication is aided by Corwin’s lack of knowledge about the situation in Amber, and we do get some glimpses into those threads, so I think it’s intended.

Corwin himself is very interesting as our lead. Even at his best he verges into antihero territory, and at his worst he’s almost a villain protagonist. He’s witty and charming and roguish, but he’s also violent, prideful, and dishonorable. Like most of his family, actually.

Merlin does lose this a little; he’s far more down to earth than his father. They’re both a little reckless and both want to push boundaries, but Merlin’s more scientist than mercenary.

All in all, it makes for a fast, snappy series that’s good as a fun read but can be analyzed on a deeper level. Zelazny was more known for his experimental writing, and it shows here. As Christopher Kovacs at the New Your Review of Science Fiction notes, there are plenty of classical and philosophical references to work through and shape into interpretation.

Or you could just laugh at Corwin’s one-liners.

My Thoughts

I didn’t expect to enjoy these as much as I did. I didn’t expect fast, I didn’t expect funny, and I didn’t expect to be rushing on to the next book because Zelazny dropped some completely unexpected bomb at the end of the previous. The man knew how to keep tension up, especially in the first cycle.

This has partially to do with a plot contrivance that I’m always a sucker for: the lead who knows next to nothing about what’s going on, and who learns as the readers do. Corwin’s amnesia at the beginning of the series and his distance from the political situation even once he regains his memories mean that for much of the narrative he’s completely out of his depth and faking it. This makes for some funny situations while also showcasing the character’s cleverness. It also makes for some nice surprises from the rest of the cast with regards to motivation and allegiance.

If the first book drags a little in setting the stage, the following four more than make up for it as well planned, well constructed roller-coasters leading to an exciting, satisfying end. Which only makes the second five books all the more tragic.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that they’re bad.

Sure, I like Corwin more than Merlin, and find the father’s supporting cast more interesting than the son’s. Sure the plot in the second cycle has far less drive. But what it lacks there it makes up for in its deepening of the mythology. The Merlin Cycle keeps throwing out these tantalizing little hints at a larger scope acting behind everything we’ve already seen. The problem comes from the fact that Zelazny never got to do anything with all this meticulous setup, leaving the second cycle feeling lacking and unfinished.

In the end, it makes the series feel like it starts out strong and then falters badly. Which is a pretty major problem, even if the author’s death is probably the best reason for that issue a series could have.

Speaking of problems, I also want to put a note here on my thoughts about sexism in the series, since that’s the biggest fault modern readers seem to take from it. To sum up: it didn’t bother me that much.

It’s not that it’s not there; it certainly is. The main focus is on the men, at least three characters get fridged, and all of the women fall into fairly standard archetypes. But to be fair, so do most of the men. Fiona is a schemer just like Brand is a trickster figure. Llewella is quiet and melancholic like Benedict is stoic and honorable.

Once you’re outside of Corwin and Merlin, our POV characters, you sort of have to look for action and importance in the background for everyone. There were enough women that had interesting potential there that I could accept it. This isn’t Gor, and in fact it’s far better than what I expected from 1970. Corwin does decide it’s perfectly acceptable to sleep with his great-great-great-great-grandniece at one point, which was…weird, but that’s about as bad as it gets.

I think what throws a lot of people off is the first book, where the only female character we’re really introduced to is Flora. And Flora is awful. She’s a coward, she’s manipulative, she relies on her looks to use people, but she’s too stupid to realize that she’s not getting away with it because everyone already knows her game. She’s about as much of a pure sexist stereotype as you can get. But she’s also an interesting character when set among women who are brave or clever or kind. Which the latter books do.

I have my problems with the series, but my memories of it are fairly positive.

So, Why Was it Forgotten?

This sort of section is always going to be mostly guesswork, but I think I actually do have some theories as to why the series’ star fell so fast.

The first is fairly simple: it fell out of step with the fashion of the times. Even ignoring the sexism issue, I can see where it would have had problems making a transition into later eras. What I remember of the 90’s and what I’ve seen of the 80’s were extremely high-fantasy oriented, with a strong tendency to completely created, alternate worlds and Tolkienite reluctant hero/dark lord style plotting. This has some of that, but it feels completely different in everything from the snarky, irreverent heroes to the trippy prose. Even in the last Zelazny books it still feels very 70’s.

The second has to do with how unfinished the series feels. Like I said, when it was announced that the books written after Zelazny’s death were going to be prequels instead of continuations, fans rebelled. And I can understand that. Corwin’s story wraps up fine, but most of Merlin’s is obviously setup for future works that the author never got to write.

Without those further stories the ending feels slow and anticlimactic, and that’s the final note readers are left with for the entire thing. We never get to the big reveals and exciting moments that were promised, which makes for a huge damper on an otherwise fun ride. I can see that leading to less excitement for the series and a slow fade in word of mouth about it.

Does it Deserve to be Remembered?

I have to say yes, in spite of some misgivings. It may be a little dated, but it’s still fun as hell. The writing is quick, witty, and often hilarious. The plotting is likewise fast-paced, for the most part. The characters trend toward dark gray and are incredibly interesting in that. So often classic fantasy feels like it drags, just because of the prose style and character archetypes, but I blew through these wanting to see what happened next.

Add to these other positives a wealth of interesting ideas and a huge vault of untapped potential for fans to argue about, and yes, I’d like to see these get a resurgence. Even if only because I want some ten thousand word meta on Fiona pulling strings from the background.

Summer and Bird by Katherine Catmull

summer and bird

Standalone, Dutton Children’s Books, 2012, 344 pgs.

Once there were two sisters, as different as sisters could be. One kept her feet on the ground, did well in school, and learned every fact about the world that she could. The other ran wild, kept her secrets, and tried to learn the language of the birds. So, when one night their parents disappeared, they each tried to find them in their own way, on their own journeys. Summer followed clues, tried to put together the puzzle, and found help in an old man. Bird listened to her heart and the sound of the birdsong in the trees and found herself captured by a puppeteer. Both were necessary, both were pathways to their parents, and both led to the salvation of the queen of the birds.

You know, usually when I write a review of something I try to find an entry point, a springboard which I can use to launch into everything else I want to talk about. Maybe I know the author and have some thoughts on their other work. Maybe one of those weird, picky plot points has broken an otherwise decent story for me. Most often it’s the fundamental idea I take from the book, the thing that stuck with me so much it overwhelmed everything else.

I think a lot of people do this. Time and time again I hear people say how hard it is to talk about books or movies that were just middling for them; when nothing about a piece sticks out, it’s very hard to say anything more than that.

This book has almost the exact opposite problem. It’s not that I have no thoughts or feelings on it, but that those I do have are badly, violently mixed, to the extent that I almost can’t get a read on them. While reading I flailed wildly between complete engagement and utter boredom, I have about five different theories as to what the actual point of the story is, and all in all I don’t quite know what to make of it.

Typically I’d say I didn’t get this book, but I think I got as much as I usually do. I just can’t set what I think about it straight in my head. I’ve put this review off for weeks because of that problem, but it’s been over a month and my thoughts still haven’t cleared into anything usable.

So. I guess I have to bite the bullet and start somewhere anyway.

I like the characters. I will say that flat out. They’re probably the one part of the novel I wasn’t ambivalent about. The story being told has a sort of modern fable feel to it, and they’re archetypal enough to suit that while still being developed enough that they’re not too flat for a long-form work.

I was worried about the setup of carefree dreamer vs. logical realist for the sisters at the beginning. With that sort of framing I’m always anxious that one side is going to be portrayed as completely right when, frankly, the world needs both. I think Catmull did well with it, though. The girls both need to take on a little of the other to survive, in the end, and neither ended up where they thought they belonged at the beginning. It’s good development for interesting characters.

The prose is beautiful, too. Writing in most YA novels has a tendency to be more workman-like than anything, but this is lyrical and poetic and really creates that dreamlike fable quality. Everything about the writing does, really, from the moral interjections by the narrator, to the way the story develops, to the constant mythical references the author tosses in. We have the phoenix, the world tree, the swan queen, and the two sisters in the woods.

Combined with the archetypal characters and their slow, gentle expansion from that, everything about this book seems perfectly timeless. To the extent that the first time one of the girls mentioned her cell phone I was completely thrown for a loop. And for the most part, the novel does exactly what an expanded fairytale should, which is toss its characters headlong into its strange world and let them wander along to explore and learn. There is a three act structure to the story, but it’s not as brutally obvious as it is in most books.

I do like that. I like when authors have the ability to let a story breathe and develop as it will. A slow build of plot and atmosphere always lends a lot of power to the big moments in a narrative when they do come.

But that has to be set against the fact that that the lyrical prose often sacrifices clarity and readability to get that quality. Against the fact that said slow build sometimes felt meandering and aimless. There were definitely parts of this novel where I had to force myself to push through. There were also parts where I was blazing along in an emotional rush and struggling not to cry, and both of those things have to do with the exact same quality in the prose and plotting. The good and the bad are inextricably bound up together here.

Though I may have been more consistently engaged if I hadn’t been changing my mind on the meaning of the book every twenty pages. Those interpretive interjections from the narrator add to the fable feel, but make it unclear what the overall point is. Is this a coming of age story about finding your actual place, instead of forcing yourself into what you thought you wanted? Is it a warning against building your identity solely on other people? Is it a dissertation on the courage necessary to jump into the creative conversation without fear of failing? Is it just a fable, whose components aren’t necessarily metaphorical, but more atmospheric?

I can pull out evidence from the novel for all of the above, but I’m not sure I have an overarching interpretation that fits everything. Nothing drives the overall point home or clarifies it. Again, I’d say I didn’t get this book, but I was picking things out. I’m just not sure what my ultimate take on it is. Though even that is mixed, because those shifts in meaning did keep me intrigued even through the slow parts.

Which is probably the closest I’m going to get to a consensus on Summer and Bird: the good and bad in it are part and parcel of each other. I write this already knowing that I’ll be coming back to it at some point to see what I missed, what the story tells me next time. I think having a story that’s interesting enough that your audience wants to return to it is probably the goal of most authors. From that perspective it’s a complete success, and that’s probably the highest compliment I can pay to it.

Don’t Judge Alone-The Old Kingdom Series

Apparently when I get stuck with my writing, when I have a review that is almost there but just needs to percolate a little more, I default to ranting about covers.

Well, I default to ranting about stuff in general, but covers are the easiest. Anything else I might do, the overviews of older fantasy books, the character analyses, the looks at weird dollar store finds, all require at least as much planning and research as a normal review would. They’re no good for an on the fly “this isn’t working.”

Covers are mostly impressions, though, and that’s exactly their power. No research needed, just eyes.

Today my eyes are looking at the covers for Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom Series, consisting currently of an original trilogy from the late 90’s (Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen), several short stories, and a fourth book from 2014, with a fifth coming out later this year. This is a piece of dark high fantasy, set in a world where wild magic and necromancers run amok, the structure of the controllable Charter magic used by humans is starting to fall apart, and a hero called the Abhorsen is tasked with defending the remnants of the Charter and setting the warlocks’ reanimated minions back to rest.

You can already start to see from that description where that might go. It’s heroic fantasy, which carries a certain aesthetic with it, it has darker elements, which carry another, and aside from both of those things, the novels build their symbology beautifully. From the magical language we’re given in the Charter marks, to the tools the necromancers use, to any of the other beautiful imagery Nix gives us, there’s plenty in there for a cover artist to work with.

And most of the covers use it well. This is kind of the opposite of The Modern Faerie Tales, the last series I talked about. Where those had three sets of covers that I liked well enough and one that I hated, this series has generally good cover sets with one that I absolutely love. The original covers are perfect and I still can’t say I know why they ever changed them.

We’ll get back to those, though. I want to save the best for last.

I also want to note that I’ll only be looking at the English-language covers, and only for the main series. Looking into it, I’m seeing a lot of foreign covers that I have neither the space nor inclination to talk about, so I’m sticking to the ones that are familiar to me: the two newer American covers, the new Australian ones, and the originals.

As for only doing the main series, there seem to be a lot of little variations among the short story and omnibus covers, but they’re all along the same lines as the four cover sets that I’m already doing. I figure it’s good pick out the most relevant with a series that has so many covers I couldn’t possibly talk about them all.

We’ll go with my personal worst to best, this time around.

The newer American editions come in two versions; these slightly older ones that show Charter marks aflame over a flat color, which apparently double as the UK editions.

And these which are the same idea, transposed over background images of our heroes striding across fantasy landscapes.

I have no dislike in my heart for either of these covers. They pull in one of the major aspects of the series’ worldbuilding, they’re decently eye-catching, and the background images on the set that use them are very pretty. The ones with the backgrounds even have this nice effect of smaller charter marks picked out in gloss all over the mostly matte cover.

But I’ve always thought they were a little boring, especially the ones that just use the flat color as the background. They look to me like nothing so much as those adult Harry Potter covers: made for people who are embarrassed to be reading fantasy because someone, somewhere decided that Real Books don’t have pictures on them.

The ones with the actual backgrounds are definitely better, but they still look sort of standard to me. I feel like I’d probably glance over them on the shelf if I didn’t already know the author.

The newer Australian covers are much better.

I actually really like these, and wish we’d gotten them here in the States. These just look like heroic fantasy to me, with the heroes in fighting poses, sending glowing beams out of their fingertips. I think a lot of people view this sort of thing as cheesy, but to me it’s always been a marker of a book I’d be interested in reading, with characters I want to read about.

These not only look like characters I want to read about, they also look like their book counterparts right down to their attitudes. Sabriel looks like she’ll destroy you, and finally gets her bob. Lirael looks suitably unsure. The glowy magic isn’t book accurate, but considering that most of the powers in the books are sound based, I think we can forgive the translation for a visual medium. The lines in the Abhorsen cover look like they’re supposed to be sound waves anyway. I appreciate the attention to detail as much as the beautiful artwork here.

But I’ll never stop mourning the original covers.

I put Across the Wall here too, largely for balance. This set never got a cover for Clariel.

Done by legendary husband and wife duo Leo and Diane Dillon, these are perfection to me. They’re stylistically unique, they’re creepy and dark, and they’re explicitly fantastical. Not only that, they pull in and showcase so many of the elements that make the series stand out: the Charter marks, the bells, the surcoats and their symbols, the magical accoutrements that Lirael finds.

I think what I love most about these is that they look a little like religious iconography, or something out of medieval manuscript. It suits a fantasy series that deals with the nature of life and death in the collapse of the world’s order perfectly. It even suits the direction the books eventually take, with our characters seeking to rebuild the Charter by becoming the new pillars in its foundation.

Nothing they could put out after was ever going to live up.

I said in my last cover post that all I really want out of a good cover is something pretty enough that suits the series, and I stand by that. All of these covers do that, and I do honestly like all of them. But there’s also that perfect sweet spot of combining what the books give with an artist’s own vision. That’s where you get something really special.

Anyone else have a preference, either for these or one of the international editions that I didn’t cover?

Legacy of Tril: Soulbound by Heather Brewer

soulbound

Legacy of Tril #1, Dial Books, 2012, 394 pgs.

In the world of Tril there’s a divide between the Skilled and the Unskilled. Barrons, preternaturally gifted fighters, and the Healers that can bring them back from the brink of death at a touch keep themselves secreted away so the Unskilled don’t even know they exist. There’s a divide between Barrons and Healers, too. Each person with these supernatural abilities is born as one half of a pair, and each are expected to stick to what skill they were born for. It’s anathema to get between the bond a Healer and Barron share, just as it’s anathema for two Barrons to fall in love. But that’s exactly what Kaya’s parents did, leaving Skilled society and hiding in a peaceful Unskilled village. Until one day a monstrous threat forces them to reveal themselves to both the village and the council that governs the Skilled. This Zettai Council takes Kaya hostage, forcing her into one of their schools as payment for her parents’ safety. Now she’s forced to work inside the Skilled rules she hates and deal with snotty Barrons who view Healers as inferior and spoiled. She’s not even allowed to learn to defend herself at a school for fighting! The monsters mysteriously breaking through the walls of the campus make her really wish she was, though.

I’m fairly critical to a lot of the things I read; on some level I’m probably a little too critical. I have strange tastes, small things can easily break a narrative for me, and I’m sure that sometimes it seems like only perfectly written characters and deathless prose will satisfy me.

Which is not true at all, because fun stupid is absolutely a thing that exists. I’m the sort of person who loves bad movie marathons and will shriek happily when I spot a novel titled Vampirates: Empire of Night. I have specific pet peeves, but beyond that I’m pretty easygoing about quality. This book is the perfect embodiment of fun stupid for me, tailor made to drag me back to my fifteen-year-old self and give me acute secondhand embarrassment for an earlier age.

And when I say earlier age, I really do mean that. So much of this novel seems like it fell out of early 2000’s era fandom that, even though it’s newer, I felt like I spent half the novel looking at it with nostalgia goggles. This book is so like the nerddom of my adolescence, in so many little ways that I’m having a hard time describing what creates that feel.

I’ll try, though.

For one, it’s obvious that the author really, really liked anime at one point. It sort of takes one to know one, and I’m probably completely outing myself here. But the katanas. The secret martial arts high school. The copious use of rose petals. The random Japanese words that she keeps tossing in.

The three main continents in this world are Haruko, Kaito, and Kokoro. I find myself having the strangest intuition that Kokoro is the central one.

The freaking white-haired pretty boys.

That’s not only anime, it’s throwback anime. This character design still crops up today, but they were freaking everywhere when I was in high school. Much like anime itself, come to think of it. I was going to put pictures here, but god, there were So Many.

If it were only the anime thing, though, I would be saying she’s pulling from a source of inspiration, not instantly calling throwback.

Like, okay.

Tragic misunderstandings between our star-crossed lovers are still a staple in YA and fantasy books in general; an author sometimes has to pull conflict from somewhere other than the main plot. But how often do they involve the male lead being a jerk with a heart of gold and a tragic past who actively pushes the heroine away anymore? In recent years tastes have shifted, and I think most people now view that as a light form of romanticizing abuse. Instead the trend has moved toward more positive, supportive couples.

The guy who’s mean to you because he loves you and has a broken heart is not really something I’ve seen in recent days. The closest character I can find is Edward from Twilight, and even then he’s not exactly the same archetype I’m thinking of.

From the mid-90’s to the mid-00’s, though?

*cough*

*cough cough*

Likewise, how often do we get a flat-out stereotypical mean girl clique now? The girl bully character is definitely still present, but thankfully there have been efforts to vary and/or humanize her lately. It’s more rare to get someone like Queen Bee Melanie, who is just evil and spends all her time trying to ruin our lead’s life. I almost expected Kaya to call her a prep at some points, or maybe “put her middle finger up” at her.

Even the detailed descriptions of clothes.

Even the names. Kaya isn’t so bad, but I did snort at Darius and Trayton.

I don’t know how well I’m explaining this, but seriously, if you want a decently accurate representation of what nerd culture looked like in the aughts, just pick up this book. It’s like all the most ridiculous bits of my teenage years rolled into one campy, wonderful ride.

Yes, wonderful, because in spite of the secondhand embarrassment I don’t only like this on a mocking level. It may just be the nostalgia goggles, but I honestly found this thing so charming. It doesn’t have the depth or dimension that Holly Black’s work does. The characters are flatter, the plot’s goofier, the prose is clunkier. At some points it seems like the author doesn’t really know what she’s trying to do with this story. It does have that same sort of unselfconscious revelry in its own silly elements, though. And all of those things, which would be problems in a different book, are fine as far as stupid fun is concerned.

What can I say? I’m a nerd who appreciates ridiculous nerd things.

Beyond that, though, there’s also the fact that I would have called Black’s early books nothing but goofy fun, too. She’s one of my favorite authors now, and she did that by moving away from making nerdy references into taking that sensibility, and fully and uniquely incorporating it into her stories. She didn’t change what she was writing, she just developed it.

This novel gets far less silly towards its end, when the plot hits and the author stops trying to write high school shenanigans. Even before that there are some flashes of diamond under the dirt. The scene where Kaya is bound to her fighting partner still sticks out to me as honestly creepy.

I feel like if given a shot, Heather Brewer has a real chance to make that same transition that Holly Black did. Apparently this series was cut after its second book, so any development Brewer might be making won’t be here. I find myself hoping someone lets her do it somewhere else, though.