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.

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