What I’m Reading: Nine Princes in Amber

Like the Dune series, the Amber series by Roger Zelazny is one I enjoyed greatly when I was younger and have decided to revisit. The first rather slim volume, Nine Princes in Amber, came out in 1970. I first read it in probably the 10th grade and immediately noticed it was different than other fantasy books I’d read. Although it does have kings and magic and such, it eschews the warmed-over Lord of the Rings-inspired cliches so often found in other fantasy books, as well as their flowery language. Indeed, its clipped, dry style is far closer to a detective novel by Hammett or Chandler than to Tolkien or Terry Brooks.

Its main character is Corwin, who wakes up in a hospital room with his memory gone, but realizing that he’s being over-narcotized. Why? Probably somebody doesn’t want to kill him outright, but doesn’t want him waking up. He drags himself out of bed, rips out the IV, pushes aside the nurse and stumbles down to the hospital director’s office, where he bluffs his way out with the threat of a lawsuit. But where to go from there? Indeed, after this first chapter we very easily could have ended up in a mystery.

But instead, as Corwin’s memory gradually returns, he learns (and so do we) that he is actually one of nine princes of Amber, heirs to the throne of that kingdom which is the only real place in the universe. All other places are mere shadows of Amber, their realness and solidity dictated by their distance from Amber itself. Earth is a fairly important place for it is where several shadows cross, making it somewhat more real than most places and something of a crossroads for travelers through shadows.

Corwin discovers that during his stay in the hospital (and how long was he there, anyway…?), his brother Eric, a cruel and merciless man, has positioned himself to take over the kingdom and is in fact only a few weeks from his coronation. The book relates how Corwin gains his full memory of his true self, and his joining the tangled alliance of brothers who have decided to fight against Eric. But if you think you have already predicted the ending from what I’ve written, you are quite wrong. I meant it when I said this book eschews the fantasy cliches, and it ends up in quite a different place than expected, seemingly teasing the reader with certain fantasy tropes only to veer off in other directions entirely.

This book held up for me as an adult better than the Dune books. In fact, I’d say Nine Princes of Amber was full of pleasures. I’ve mentioned the writing style and the unexpected plot twists, but the characters also are superbly drawn: some have a measure of nobility but all have weaknesses and vices, and take time for the simple pleasures of food, beer, cigarettes, even walks in the woods or games of chess. All have mixed motives, complicated relationships with the other characters, and conflicting desires. This is the first of ten books, and I will definitely be reviewing the others over the coming year. I only ever read the first seven or eight of them in high school, but I have recently purchased The Amber Chronicles, which has all ten in one volume.

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