Friday, June 28, 2013

How'd I Miss This?: The Chronicles of Amber

I glanced at the bookshelf the other day and saw a pair of books I didn’t recognize.  Since I’d recently finished the book that I read on the bus each day, I pulled them off the shelf and took a look at them.  It turned out that they were my wife’s: a 2-volume set called The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny.

I didn’t know much about Roger Zelazny.  I had to look him up to learn that he’s a heavy hitter in the fantasy literature realm.  He won a huge number of awards (6 Hugos, 3 Nebulas (Nebulae?), 2 Locus awards to name a few) starting in the mid 1960s.  I packed the first volume into my backpack, all set for my next bus ride.

I was immediately taken in by Zelazny’s writing style.  It’s simple and approachable (for a guy like me, who gets distracted by big, flowery sentences!) and after only 20 or so pages I decided that I loved it.  The story felt vaguely Narnia-like at first, but quickly grew to much more than that.  I love how, even after over 50 years, this novel felt very original.

The Chronicles of Amber tells the story of Corwin, one of the princes of Amber.  He is recovering from a several-centuries’ long bout with amnesia, and we learn with him about the political and geographical layout of the kingdom of Amber.  We also learn about the world of ‘Shadow’, through which he and the other princes and princesses of Amber can navigate.  Corwin and his siblings are all vying for the throne of Amber, after the disappearance of their father, and it is in this quest for the throne that the action of the novel lies.

While princes, politics, and epic quests seem like just more of the same old fantasy stuff, Zelazny keeps things original.  “Shadow” is the multiverse--the infinite reflections of the true kingdom of Amber--and Corwin and his kin can move through this multiverse by manipulating reality.  Sure, it’s an epic quest across worlds, but with a hell of a twist.

There are also lots of layers of meaning within the Chronicles.  Tarot cards, for instance, play a key role--but they are used for more than just fortune-telling.  Corwin and his compatriots can use them to communicate with each other and to travel across the multiverse.  There are also a LOT of Shakespearean references--Corwin’s father, for example, is named Oberon (which is an allusion to the king of the fairies from Midsummer Night’s Dream).  This kind of layering adds depth to the fun and light-heartedness of Zelazny’s epic.

I did find the language of the series a bit dated and distracting.  Although the series takes place in another kingdom and universe, the characters use words like “hip” that calls to mind a very specific cultural moment in American history.  It’s certainly not a deal-breaker, but it did take away from the aesthetic of Zelazny’s prose.

Overall, though, I would highly recommend this series.  And who knows--it may have even inspired me to browse my wife’s bookshelves more often.  

By Adam Miller