At the beginning of October, I picked up the first nine of the 10-volume Chronicles of Amber series at Half-Priced books, mainly because my Dresden group also runs an Amber game, and the idea of roleplaying a nigh-godlike figure always appeals to me.
I cannot laud Nine Princes in Amber highly enough. It’s a masterpiece. Zelazny’s prose dances across the page, never slow or boring, the dialogue sparkles and the characters all deep and intertwined. The story’s great, seeming a natural extension of the characters’ desire, the way it should be. It’s quite clear why this book was a Hugo and Nebula award winner. I’m already looking on my calendar for when I’ll have time to reread it.
It’s only 175 pages long, but when I read the last page, it’d felt like I’d just read 700 pages of fantasy novel, in a good way. Zelazny performs this trick tidily with amazingly elastic grammar and vocabulary usage and a poetic insight into the English language that, quite frankly, makes me terribly jealous. I knew from page one that I was screwed, that I’d be pulling late nights to finish this damned series. And I did. Every night. For a month and a half. Damn you Zelazny!
He’s also an incredible action writer. If he hasn’t studied fencing and wrestling himself, he’s at least intensely researched them. The combat scenes are crisp, brief, and rousing. If you’re looking to emulate great action, you could do worse than this series.
For all my praise, though, if you’re strapped for time, you’d do best to just read the first book. If you’ve got a bit more time, the Corwin Saga’s excellent. But much like chocolate, after half a bar of Zelazny, you’ll keep reading even though you know you’ll hate yourself while it’s digesting. The Merlin Saga’s got some amazing ideas, but according to my friend, who lent me Prince of Chaos, Zelazny was fighting a losing battle against cancer while writing the second saga, and the story’s quality suffered.
I’m inclined to agree. For all that it’s still great fiction, the Merlin Saga suffers from an expansion to the Cosmic, rather than the personal, and brimmed out of the Swords & Sorcery style niche and into Epic Fantasy. It waxed philosophical perhaps too often. And sadly, the witty dialogue that so charmed me in the Corwin Saga grew to simply be an expectation by the time I ended Prince of Chaos. Just proves that readers can have too much of a good thing.
Maybe if I’d waited a year or more between books I’d have been squealing with joy upon every release. My disillusionment might simply be a symptom of marathon fatigue. Despite all my complaints, I’d take pain-medicated Zelazny prose over 90% of the other authors I’ve read.
I give the Chronicles of Amber an 8/10. Great story, prose, action, characters, and themes. Just be careful not to gorge, or you’ll get a bad case of indigestion like I did. And that’d be a shame, because the series really does deserve a thorough proper reading. Go read it. Then come back to the comments and tell me what you think. I’m curious.