Roger Zelazny’s Amber Series


Roger Zelazny, the science fiction and fantasy writer, wrote two series about a place called Amber, first described as the place of basic reality, of which all other worlds were just a shadow, and there were many shadows. Of course the first description was over-simplified, and he expanded the definition quite a bit as his series progressed.
Amber is ruled by a dysfunctional royal family, although each individual is talented and most are intelligent. The father and ruler, Oberon, is vital and devious, and very long-lived, as are his children. His children’s main preoccupation is scheming over the succession, which raises their emotions to occasionally murderous heights.
The first book begins with the narrator awaking in a mental hospital and realizing that he doesn’t know who he is. He breaks out of the place, finds his sister’s house, and tries to get information from her without telling her his amnesiac situation. From there a lot of action, and while he accumulates information he still doesn’t remember much until he finally admits all he’s forgotten. Fortunately for him, there’s a cure.
Amber is based on a Pattern, and walking this pattern will, among other things, restore memory. It also gives or strengthens the ability to travel through Shadow. Corwin (the narrator) walks the Pattern and most of his life comes back to him. He’s been stranded on our version of the earth for more than 300 years after a fight with one of his brothers left him with amnesia. He’s tried before to realize his identity, but unsuccessfully. The brother currently running Amber is the brother he fought with and hates, and he decides he’ll try to overthrow him to rule Amber himself.
So far maybe only slightly different from most fantasy premises. But Corwin’s journey isn’t just about discovering new things, but realizing that his past perspective was incomplete. Things had not been as he’d thought, and he realizes that he likes many of his siblings and respects most of those he doesn’t like. As such, it’s a story of a story of reconciliation, something many of us have to undertake at one time or another.
Each son and daughter of Amber has a deck of cards, of which the trump cards are pictures of each of them. These cards are also a method of transportation and communication. You can use them like a phone, travel to the person you’ve contacted through them, or have the person travel to you. Corwin early in the series gets weak messages from his father and one of his brothers. His brother is imprisoned somewhere, and his father also seems very far away, but tells Corwin to take the throne if he can. Corwin makes a couple of tries at that, succeeding the second time.
But in the midst of that he’s also revisiting the past. He visits a world where he used to be a king, and meets someone he used to know and fell out with. He meets his oldest brother again, the greatest fighter in the universe, who has wisely decided he has no desire to be king of Amber, but protects a kingdom in the shadow world.
He has something to protect it from too, as there’s a black road running through all the worlds, with nasty things coming down it and attacking people and kingdoms. After Corwin has completed his arrangements and has invaded Amber he finds the black road there too, and is just in time to defeat an attack from it, in which his brother, who had taken the crown, dies. Corwin takes charge, but has a lot to do.
One of his first moves is to rescue the brother who’s been imprisoned, which opens up a large can of worms. Corwin discovers there have been two different groups vying for the crown of Amber, and this brother, Brand, has been the central figure of one of them. It gradually emerges that he’s something of a sorcerer and has the grand ambition to destroy the Pattern on which the universe is based and make a new one, with himself as the king, if not the god. He has therefore damaged the pattern by shedding the blood of the son of one of Corwin’s brothers on it, which is part of the reason for the black road.
It further emerges that the Pattern is one end of a spectrum, the other end of which is the Logrus at the Courts of Chaos, a place where the natural laws we take for granted are rather topsy-turvy. Corwin, his siblings, father and grandfather ultimately derive from the Courts of Chaos and made the Pattern as an act of rebellion. People living at the Courts believe that the Pattern has become too powerful, and the balance between it and the Logrus need to be adjusted. They’ve been allies of Brand, but don’t necessarily support his more megalomaniac ambitions.
So there are a lot of twists and turns in the series. Brand is finally defeated, after causing a lot of trouble, and so are his allies in the Courts of Chaos. Oberon reappears and tries to repair the Pattern, dying in the attempt. He wants Corwin to take the throne, but Corwin has realized he doesn’t want it, that his previous desire for it had been based on competition with his brothers. The end of the series seems apocalyptic, but turns out not to be. Brand, who has gone so far that he’s eternally untrustworthy, is killed, but takes one of his siters with him into death. The rest survive.
One might see this as the redemption of a family, but also as the redemption of the various aspects of an individual, some of which have to die for development to continue. One wonders just where Zelazny’s thoughts were coming from when writing this. Perhaps an archetypal situation spoke through him.
He wrote a sequel series to this one, but that one didn’t seem to have a deep pattern underlying it. Lots of action and characters, and interruptions, but no meaningful design. I believe he passed away not many years after completing that sequel, so maybe his powers were failing.
In the first series, as Corwin is riding towards the Courts of Chaos, a talking bird starts following him, talking defeatist philosophy to him. Corwin isn’t buying it. He’s going to try his best, and if that isn’t good enough, so be it. I can’t disagree. Even the supremely gifted in the story have to struggle, and some do it in better ways than others. Without that struggle there would have been no reconciliation, and that whole process, involving reevaluation, admission of mistakes and wrongdoing, and at least attempting recompense seems to be a most important one in human life. No one lives without making mistakes, but Corwin is able to learn from his and accept both his own part in what has happened and his misunderstanding of what had been happening. Which is something most of us probably have need of doing, as that seems to be one of the few valid ways to achieve peace.


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