Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: Nine Princes in Amber

Nine Princes in Amber Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m back to this one after 20 years, and after it had grown in my memory as one of the best fantasy novels I’d ever read. The good news: this absolutely holds up. If you don’t know Amber, then put it on your list. It’s an accomplishment right up there with anything in the genre.

It’s particularly rewarding to revisit the book in the wake of George R.R. Martin’s recent success. I can see a good bit of Martin’s vision growing out of Zelazny’s. As I read them, they are the two most successful fantasy series to take place in, essentially, amoral universes. Neither gives us anyone who really comes across as a “good guy.” Neither privileges the point-of-view character(s) as somehow better than his or her rivals. Corwin may develop some compassion, but he is still generally indifferent to mortal suffering. He may feel bad about sacrificing a quarter of a million “shadow dwellers” in the service of his ambition, but he never lets it ruin his day.

The central difference between Martin and Zelazny, though, is that Martin’s moral neutrality comes from a sense of realpolitik, a post-Cold War sensibility in which all sides are capable of harming others. Zelazny’s comes from an older, hardboiled sentiment: the world is cold and indifferent, and everyone is ultimately a son-of-a-bitch. Once you embrace that foundational truth, you can have a lot of fun.

And this is fun. If it isn’t as sprawling as Martin’s work, it’s much more efficient. (The first five Amber novels combined are probably not much longer than the first Game of Thrones book.) It begins as an almost conventional noir story: an amnesiac wakes to discover he’s being drugged against his will in a private “hospital.” We learn his history at the same time he does. It turns out to be a huge history, one that implicitly stands at the heart of many of the mythologies we know in the West. Corwin and his siblings have been interfering in Earthly affairs for centuries, yet we humans can glimpse them only in shadowy form and cannot hope to comprehend what their one true world of Amber looks like.

You’ll know whether the genre interests you. If it does, give this one a shot. It’s short, adrenaline-fueled, and can stand alone. If you get hooked, though, there’s a lot more where it came from, and you’ll introduce yourself to one of the real masters.

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