George RR Martin’s next installment in the A Song of Ice and Fire saga, The Winds of Winter, won’t be out this year. Maybe it’ll be out next year. Maybe.
In the meantime, I felt the need to read some compelling fantasy that would be similar in many ways.
There are tons of great fantasy books available and there is no end of lists of suggested reading while waiting for the next GRRM epic. Although I should be reading something new, I had a yen to re-read something something great, that I knew would hit the spot.
It was high time to re-read Roger Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles.
Why the Amber books in particular? Well if you like these elements from A Song of Ice and Fire:
- bad things happening to our hero
- bad things happening to our hero’s opponents
- mystical visions
- amputee swordsmen
- poor decisions regarding lovers
- guys in white armor who aren’t necessarily “good” guys
- dangerous canines
- characters trying to make amends for the past
- characters trying to burn down the old world to rule over the wreckage
- magic trees
- magical messenger birds
- red headed witches
- the walking dead
- morally gray characters
- greatly exaggerated rumors of demise
- prolific kings who happen to be crappy fathers
- sea battles
… then you’ll like them in the Amber books as well.
(I’m not saying Martin is ripping off Zelazny. I’m sure I could create a big list of similar features from the corpus of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan books. Not exactly the same list, probably.)
You’ve never read Nine Princes in Amber, by the Big Z? I really recommend it. It was published in 1970, but it doesn’t necessarily feel dated (unless you notice that everyone is chain-smoking, all the time.)
At a slim 169 pages, it’s easy to power through. But then you’ll be wanting to read The Guns of Avalon, the second Amber book. Go read Nine Princes in Amber and if you’re not willing to keep reading the series, let me know. The gauntlet has been thrown.
If you have read the Amber chronicles, right on! The rest of this post is going to be some broad observations on the Amber chronicles and why I think it’s a good series to read while waiting on more Westeros action. (Other than the big list of similarities I spouted above.)
So, if you’ve not read the Amber books, this is your SPOILER warning.
There will be comparisons to A Song of Ice and Fire, so if you’re not up on the books or HBO’s Game of Thrones adapation, this is also your SPOILER warning for that.
Many, Many Characters
Okay, maybe not as many characters in total as in any of the Game of Thrones books.
But with nine princes and four princesses (that we know of), the ruling family of Amber would pose a threat in an impromptu backyard softball game with the Starks or the Lannisters. (The Baratheons would show up with all of Robert’s bastards, and would therefore be able to properly field a team.)
There are many royal Amberites, they mostly all hate each other, and they’re willing to raise armies against their siblings in a bid to seize the crown. This creates a situation a bit more complicated than the Lannister-Stark conflict or even Stannis vs. Renly. (It’d be more in line if Renly conspired with Stannis to overthrow Robert, but Renly was actually in league with the supernatural Others north of the Wall, and planned on poisoning Stannis the moment the Red Keep was taken.)
There’s That Conflict, and Then That OTHER Conflict
So I mentioned the Others (aka the White Walkers to you Show Watchers)…
Similar to the theme found in the Westeros big storyline, where the various houses are squabbling over the Iron Throne but Winter (aka the White Walker supernatural menace) is Coming, Corwin and his relatives are myopically fighting over a weakening Amber while a tremendous, ancient, and distinctly Not-Friendly-At-All-To-Amber enemy has been building up, causing issues, and is poised to strike.
The Courts of Chaos (hey, that’s the name of the last book!) provide an intriguing opponent to Amber, not only as an overt threat but as a personal foe tied to the magical origin of Amber itself. And it’s a threat that’s largely going unrecognized by our narrative protagonist.
Magic and Poetry. Not So Much Food
For those who find A Song of Ice and Fire books only slightly magical and wish it was ramped up a bit, the Amber chronicles are rich in magic. It’s a straightforward, systematic style of magic, not flashy or random like Harry Potter miracles.
Although, depending on the environment an Amberite might find themselves, one might encounter brief moments of flashy, zappy magic. But that’s rare.
Hey, I’m going to talk some specifics. If you’re wandering here and haven’t read the books, skip a few paragraphs.
Amber is a significant place, because it’s real. Realer than real. So real that Amber casts its influence through a universe of possibilities. Those who possess the royal blood of Amber can attune themselves to this reality, and gain influence and control over the quasi-reality that exists as a shadow of Amber.
All of the Amberites who have been initiated through the Pattern (which is totally a big deal but I’m not going to go into details) will unlock abilities powered by probability and the imagination. Because the first enemy of any Amberite is going to be an equally powered sibling, there’s an immediate check and balance, toolboxing this reality-bending ability without having it be overpowered or falling into the Deus Ex Machina category.
The result is a logical set of powers and their applicability and usage ends up being mythic and poetic.
Mythic poetry is a description I’d apply to a lot of Zelazny’s writings. Particularly Creatures of Light and Darkness, possibly my favorite of his books. But CoL&D isn’t in the Amber series, so I’ll stop talking about it (other than to say you should read that too.)
Zelazny and Martin both tell good stories, but I’ve read complaints that Martin’s books are a bit too descriptive when it comes to food. If characters are setting down to a feast (and there are several in the books), one might expect to finish the chapter very hungry from the vivid descriptions of the many courses.
Zelazny’s approach is a bit different. Characters do eat, but such an activity usually sounds like this:
We paused for dinner. The steak was prepared just the way I like it.
Zelazny presents sex scenes in similar fashion. If relations were imminent between two characters, a chapter might have this entry:
We made love.
I’m not saying one way of writing is superior to another, but since this is Prince Corwin telling a story, I appreciate his observations without his going into excessive detail. It’s of interest to the story, for example, that Corwin and various characters in the books were lovers, but I probably don’t need to know exactly what presses their buttons.
Hero With a Thousand Faces? More Like a Thousand Heroes with the Same Face
Although I appreciate Zelazny’s terse approach to food descriptions over the gustatorial essays on Westeros dining, GRRM has the Big Z beat in the characterization department. Martin’s use of POV chapters from a horde of different characters really exercises his ability to provide different narrative voices. A Jaime chapter is very different from a Jon Snow chapter, an Arya chapter is different from a Daenerys chapter.
Corwin is our narrator in Nine Princes in Amber, and so we only see the story through his words. At one point in Sign of the Unicorn (the third book), Corwin is dictating a story told to him by Random, his excellent Tyrion-esque brother. The first time I read the book I didn’t realize the subtlety, and I thought Random’s adventures were happening to Corwin. Sure, that might just indicate I’m an idiot (never a dangerous assumption, yo) but Corwin’s narrative voice and Random’s narrative voice were pretty much the same.
You might defend that aspect by rationalizing that Corwin’s the one telling Random’s story, and might be relaying the story in his own personal style. I’d accept that.
But in general all of Zelazny’s characters sound the same. There’s very little difference in feeling or tone between Corwin of Amber, or Conrad, or Shadowjack, or Mahasamatman (he tended to drop the Maha and Atman and just went by Sam), or even Jack the Ripper’s dog Fang.
I don’t mind so much, because the Zelazny-style hero story is always a pretty good read. I’m not saying Zelazny had his own heroic archetype the way Hemingway had an archetype that inhabited his stories. But to be fair, the only reason I’m not saying this is because I’m afraid the ghost of my High School English teacher might take notice and decide to haunt me, and High School English was hellish enough for me.
On a related note, Zelazny’s stories aren’t particularly feminist. I’m not saying Corwin is a misogynist, it’s just that women in the Amber chronicles (at least in the first five books, which are the only ones I’m interested in re-reading) are relegated to secondary roles in general, and serve more as plot complications or resources for Corwin than individuals with primary stakes in the narrative conflict. (I’m happy to be debated on this, I could totally be wrong. I’d be pleased to be wrong in my interpretation.)
An Almost Unbelievable Success
The first Amber chronicles are an amazing piece of work, because they were written without necessarily an overarching goal in mind. I’ve heard Zelazny relate this story (he was the guest of honor at the first Science Fiction convention I ever attended, he was the reason I went in the first place) and he explained the process of writing the series.
Apparently, he had the idea for the story told in Nine Princes in Amber and Guns of Avalon, originally conceived as one book. He had a deadline to deliver a couple of books, so he tweaked his draft and submitted the first half of the story, and while polishing up the sequel, decided that the story wasn’t done.
I’ve heard other writers talk about a book taking on a life of its own. I don’t particular get invested in the romantic notion of a story doing its own writing, but I understand this element of the process. When writing a story, you need to open up possibilities, and then you need to close them down to get to a satisfactory end. Sometimes, it’s hard to close things down.
But in the case of the first five Amber books, Zelazny succeeded. Elements put in early on and particularly through the middle books really pay off near the end. Once the smoke has cleared in The Courts of Chaos, it was hard for me not to immediately re-read the series. In fact, I think I did just that.
Allegedly, Martin has an end goal in mind to be resolved a few books from now in A Dream of Spring. I’m hoping he gets there with equal success.
Images are mostly from various paperbacks of the Amber books. The beautiful image in the Magic and Poetry section was taken from the cover of the Amber Diceless Role Playing Game. The Amber Trumps of the family and the anime style image of Corwin were found online, I wish I could credit the original artists.
Image of Jeff Goldblum’s chaotician character is from Jurassic Park, baby.
I make no claim to any of the artwork obviously, but I do make some claim to the text of this posting. So there. What is presented as Zelazny quotes on steaks and sex were paraphrasings from the top of my head.
© Patrick Sponaugle 2014 Some Rights Reserved