Sign of the Unicorn (Book Review)

Sign of the Unicorn is the the third installment in Roger Zelazny’s The Chronicles of Amber The hero of the first five books finds himself thrust suddenly into familial intrigue when a royal brother of the first family of Amber is murdered and another is stabbed. The book reads like an Agatha Christie novel, as we spend lots of time locked in a room, with several murder suspects, each a sibling, and each with the motive to destroy the Royal family, capture the throne, and possibly destroy Amber itself.

Corwin suddenly finds himself in his cabin, on old Shadow Earth, wounded, and is offered a healthy dose of information from an old friend.

I’ve noticed that Zelazny, at least in this series, relies heavily on visual input, and makes very slight use of any other of the senses in his descriptive passages. We often know what Corwin sees, but seldom what he smells, tastes, or hears. Thus, when the cast is moving through the Shadow worlds, it becomes vaguely sight-heavy, like reading a description of a late-era Monet. This happens especially when Zelazny describes the uglier passages among the shadows, called hellrides. Passages like the following paragraph:

“Silence and silver… Walking away from the rail, leaning on my stick, passing through the fog-spun,mist-woven, moonlight-brushed fabric of vision within the troubling city… ghosts… Shadows of shadows… Images of probability… Might-bes and might-have-beens… Probability lost… Probability regained.”


I found his use of ellipses tiresome, and the passages visually ugly and thus difficult to focus on his words.

Lots of this writing occurs in the last 40 pages of the novel, when Zelazny wraps up this installment of the tale with a three-man horseback ride through Tir-na Nog’th, the world of ghosts, might-bes, and might-have beens. Corwin is experiencing the deepening mystery of Amber’s gradual crumbling.

The story is compelling, though; probably the best of the three novels so far. Three of the hero’s brothers–Random, Brand, and Gérard–are fleshed out during the telling of the story, as well as a few of the sisters we’d yet to encounter. This was the first novel of the series I have liked. Zelazny is a gifted storyteller; so far into the series, he hasn’t adequately proven himself as a gifted character-builder. Maybe the lead character is too single-faceted for my mind. I’ll let you know what I think when I’ve read the fourth book in the series.

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