Nine Princes in Amber (Book Review)

Roger Zelazny’s novel, Nine Princes in Amber, begins exactly like a bad weekend in Las Vegas, only without all the exotic pleasures associated with hangovers, nudity, gambling and dubious marriages. Our hero, Corwin, is naked, hospitalized, and can’t remember his name. He can’t remember a thing, in fact. He quickly learns he has been in an car wreck, conveniently devised by his brother Eric. Eric has been picking on Corwin for centuries, we discover — arranging for his sibling to live through the Black Death, the Holocaust, Russian Internment camps, nuclear devastation.

Corwin, with the help of a few of his siblings, goes after Eric, who’s soon to crown himself king.  The brothers’ kingdom, Amber, is not unlike the Platonic ideal of a kingdom, or universe. Earth itself, and innumerable other “shadow worlds,” must be navigated to reach Amber, and Corwin and his family are the only beings with the ability to see through these worlds and move between them. Family members can communicate amongst themselves with a special tarot deck with their likenesses painted on the trumps.

OK. Let’s be honest here. I thought the book stank. Without a doubt, Zelazny’s Amber chronicles are classics. Many writers, including Neil Gaiman, heaped accolades on the man. His works have won 6 Hugo Awards, 3 Nebula Awards. three of the Amber novels have won, or been nominated for, Locus Fantasy Awards. Maybe it’s “first of the series syndrome” and the novels will grow on me (I have the second novel in my coat pocket right now), but I found tedious Corwin and his tedious family to be tedious. Corwin is an intelligent stock run-of-the-mill superhero meatpuppet who smoked cigarettes so incessantly, I honestly thought of taking a shot of liquor every time Zelazny had the guy light up. I’d have been blind drunk by page 60. it reminded me of the old Thin Man movies, where, with each martini, William Powell and Myrna Loy killed yet another huge chunk of their liver. Corwin, of course, had superhuman lungs, and didn’t really suffer from the surgeon general’s dire warnings, (they were listed on United States cigarette packaging beginning in 1966). In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were Zelazny’s not-so-gentle nod in that direction. Would Superman get lung cancer? I think not!

The language is somewhat anachronistic. I shook my head, disbelieving the text, the first time one of Zelazny’s characters used the word “dig” in the 60s sense, you dig my meaning? Zelazny went on to use the term a handful of other times in the 180 page novel. I shook my head every other time, too. Now I need a neck massage.

I liked the idea of navigating the platonic shadow worlds. I enjoyed the tarot deck communication. The writing was direct and interesting. Corwin had himself a very very bad couple of years at the hand of Eric. Ok. We don’t like Eric now. We get the picture. On to book two.

Yes, I’m plowing forward through the series. I like to complete these series, and I have all 10 books ready for reading. The first one underwhelmed me, but the rest of the series may prove to be something as memorable as LeGuin’s Earthsea novels. I’ve got my fingers crossed.


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