Book Review: The First Chronicles of Amber

I was first exposed to Roger Zelazny’s Amber books when I was in college. I’m sure I was trying to avoid reading Plato’s Republic or Machiavelli’s The Prince at the time. Whatever the reason for picking up the book, I still remember the thrill I got from the first few chapters of Nine Princes in Amber, where the hero wakes up in a hospital with amnesia and gradually comes to discover who he really is: a Prince of Amber, the one true world, of which all other worlds (including Earth) are merely shadows.

I don’t know if the amnesiac-hero-who-is-more-than-he-seems was already a cliché by the time Zelazny wrote Nine Princes in Amber in the early 70s, but it certainly is now. The obvious example is Ludlum’s Bourne franchise; other examples from cinema include Memento and The Long Kiss Goodnight.  The idea has a long history in sci-fi as well. Of the top of my head I can think of Robert Silverberg’s Valentine books and the movies Total Recall and Dark City. And if you include stories that feature a protagonist who is unaware of his/her True Identity for some reason other than amnesia, the list grows to include close to half of the sci-fi and fantasy stories out there, including the Harry Potter books, The Matrix and Star Wars.

Somehow, though, Prince Corwin of Amber stands out. I think it’s because for Corwin, amnesia isn’t a convenient escape from a sinister and troubling world (as it is for nearly every other amnesiac or otherwise cognitively deficient hero in books and movies); it’s an unwanted exile from reality, in a very literal sense. There’s no real question of Prince Corwin settling down and living a normal life on Earth (like Cypher in the Matrix, who chooses to have his memory re-wiped rather than deal with the true reality). Nor does he have to be informed, like Charlie in The Long Kiss Goodnight, that he’s been living a lie. He knows something isn’t right, and he’s going to figure out what it is and who is responsible – and then kill them.

Corwin doesn’t stagger from chapter to chapter exclaiming, “No! It can’t be!”, as is typical in amnesiac-comes-to-grips-with-reality stories. He remains poker-faced throughout, hiding his ignorance in an attempt to get the other characters to fill him in on what’s happening. The setting of the Chronicles of Amber may be fantastical, but Corwin remains pragmatic and no-nonsense. He’s like the Philip Marlowe of epic fantasy adventures: cunning, violent, and mostly amoral, at least at first.

It’s the interplay of these two elements, the fantastical world of Amber and its shadows, along with the pragmatic, incongruous and occasionally heroic Corwin, that makes the Chronicles of Amber so fascinating. A lot of the conventions of high fantasy make appearances: magical swords (and lots of sword-fighting); kings, princes and princesses; great battles featuring human and almost-human creatures; various mythological monsters; etc., but one key element is missing: destiny. It’s never clear that Corwin is going to be victorious, or what being victorious would consist of. A lot of the time it’s unclear who he’s actually fighting against. Corwin stumbles along making the best decisions he can, sometimes thinking only of saving his own skin, sometimes acting out of anger, and every once in a while doing something admirable. As a Prince of Amber, Corwin has the power to create whole new worlds out of shadow, so he literally makes things up as he goes along. He is probably the very first existentialist fantasy hero.

The later books aren’t quite as much fun as the first few, as Corwin gets bogged down in politics and hemmed in by his growing sense of duty. On one hand, it’s nice to see a hero actually grow and change as a person throughout the books; on the other hand, it’s a little disappointing to see an iconoclastic antihero like Corwin drafted into a more conventional heroic role. There’s no way around it, I suppose: everybody has to grow up sometime.

I highly recommend this series. The first couple of books in particular are hard to put down, and once you get started you’re going to want to see how things end.