BY ARTHUR MCCULLOCH
[A new entry in our “I Loved This Book When…” series will appear every Monday this summer. To keep up with this series or any other, check out our Special Features page.]
Fantasy. After three years of grinding out an MFA, and reading all the literature that entails, a fantasy book reinvigorated my passion for books. The concept behind “I Loved This Book When…” must have already been knocking around in my head when I came down with pneumonia this spring.
Pneumonia. An old man’s disease. Lying in a hospital bed, an asthmatic just trying to breathe, I found the situation almost laughable. Like when my wife broke her hip two summers ago. An old woman’s debilitation. What are the odds? I thought. But that’s just the kind of lucky couple we are.
In the hospital there wasn’t much to do except read. I could have turned to any number of books. Or I could have re-read the last book I finished prior to attending graduate school: Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. It would’ve been a kind of book-end to the experience for a middle-aged man now three years older.
Instead of Joyce, I chose Roger Zelazny’s Great Book of Amber: a 1,200 plus paged behemoth of a book that contains all ten novels of a series. Heavy and cumbersome, the base of the spine dug through my Johnny and into my gut as I settled in to read the first novel: Nine Princes In Amber.
There are very few books I can say that I truly love, which is sad because I am fairly well-read. Though I confess that after finishing a truly remarkable book I sometimes bestow a kiss on the back cover. But I can think of no other book than this that has hit me quite so hard at two very different times in my life.
Amber is the one true city from which all other places exist. All other planes of existence, including our Earth, are but a derivative of Amber. In Zelazny’s world, these planes are referred to as Shadows. The further one travels in Shadow, the greater the difference between that world and Amber. The Shadows stretch across space and time until all sense of order and “reality” lead to Chaos. In Nine Princes in Amber, Zelazny plants the seed for the main conflict in the series: the Order of Amber versus the Courts of Chaos.
While Amber itself is a pure ideal, the politics at work in Amber are Machiavellian. Oberon, the true King of Amber, has mysteriously disappeared. It is unclear if he has simply abdicated the throne. He has been absent for so long that he is considered dead, lost, captured–never coming back. His absence sparks a bitter battle among his offspring to determine who will seize the throne.
Nine Princes in Amber is told from the perspective of one of the princes, Corwin. At the beginning of the novel we find Corwin in a mental hospital on Earth, suffering from amnesia. He is unaware of the political upheaval at work in Amber. At first he is unaware of his true identity as a Prince of Amber, a being who possesses talents and strengths beyond the reach of any human. As a child of Oberon, he has the natural ability to manipulate existence to travel through Shadow.
Corwin gradually regains his identity and his memory. Zelazny does a terrific job of teasing out the mystery about Corwin’s memory loss. It is over the course of the first five books in the series that we learn he had been living on Earth and suffering from amnesia for centuries. A faction among the siblings arranged for Corwin to remain “exiled” on Earth while they planned to install their choice in the battle of succession.
I loved this book when I was a kid. I recall sitting out on the wall surrounding my friend’s parents’ garden and earnestly discussing the series. We’d talk for hours about all of the characters and their powers and desires; the plots and schemes at work; the possible machinations that might be in store in the next installment in the series; and marvel at the powers at work in the world of Amber.
I still find many elements to admire. First of all, this series thwarts convention. Corwin is not a typical hero. In many ways he is an anti-hero. In fact, he is often a bastard; he’s governed by survival and cunning; he’s not above trickery and deceit. He finds the notion of “playing fair” when his life is on the line idiotic. But his stay on Earth has tempered Corwin’s nature.
Unlike the typical hero, Corwin does not possess an undeniable, near mythic level of justification for his “rightful place”. There is no destiny at work. Corwin is simply governed by ambition. He needs the throne, he must have it, and he will not suffer anything or anyone standing in his way. As a writer, I appreciate this quality in his character even more. Good characters must have desire. Here, in this fantasy novel, we have a character that wants, and he often pays a price for his ambition.
Since I read The Chronicles at an early age, I wasn’t able to appreciate the various subversions at work. I simply accepted Zelazny’s approach as the norm. As I grew older and the patterns of convention became apparent, perhaps my early encounter with Zelazny helped fuel the fire that caused, and still causes, me to rail against convention. Thanks to Zelazny, I am doomed to appreciate the anti-hero. But I have no regrets.
The writing is clean, solid prose. There is nothing fancy at work in terms of style and the level of the writing certainly would not be considered literary. However, the principals at work governing the universe of Amber: Order, Chaos, existence, time, space, physics, metaphysics, etc. get quite complicated and Zelazny does a good job of describing them clearly. The originality and complexity of Zelazny’s fantasy is something I have found, and continue to find, much more compelling than any typical fantasy series. A winner of six Hugo Awards and three Nebula Awards, Zelazny was no slouch.
There are certainly many faults with the Chronicles. Some of the characters are rather flat. The Chronicles of Amber are written for young adults, particularly boys. Corwin’s encounters with women are sexist, and generally the daughters of Oberon are summarily dismissed as threats for taking the throne. When I first read the series I wasn’t aware of these aspects, but now I certainly am.
As a child, I loved the complications and the scheming. Zelazny was able to establish a mystery that remained fresh and exciting throughout the entire Chronicles. After revisiting it I recognize that the manipulations aren’t terribly complex, or maybe I now lack the imagination I once had which could once create so many possibilities for Corwin that there was an illusion of complexity. Regardless, three decades later the excitement is still there for me. Sitting in that hospital bed, I found myself smiling through numerous passages.
I looked forward to the moments every day when I would pick up the book and see where I left off. It was exciting. I wanted to re-write it and maybe edit out the material I didn’t like, reshape it on a “higher” level. I know, talk about ego! But I couldn’t help myself from feeling this way. I checked to see if Zelazny had written anything new. I discovered he’d died in 1995. Were there others writing about the world Zelazny had created? I checked. There were, however they were out of print. But I was not dissuaded, and I still just might look into pursuing the world of Amber as a future writing opportunity.
There was a process at work within me as I read Nine Princes of Amber. I realized that for so long I had been reading dispassionately. Somewhere in the course of my studies I had lost the thrill. I had arrived at a point where I was unable to shut off my critical eye, to simply enjoy a story, more simply, to relax. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy a single story I read as a graduate student. I did, but they were few and far between.
During my graduate studies, I met more than a couple of students who were working on young adult fiction or fantasy/sci-fi. My first reaction was to laugh. What a joke, I thought. Emerson was a place for serious writers, for those striving for literary merit. Not a place for monsters, or swords, or super-heroes. Right? If one wanted to pursue genre fiction, one should simply write their damn novel and be done with it. Join a book group. Have some friends read it. Then try to get it published. If one really needed any help beyond staying abreast of the latest trends in convention, enroll in an adult education class, not an MFA program! What a waste of time. Time spent meeting degree requirements was time away from writing.
Why was I reacting this way? If I truly dismissed this work wouldn’t I simply just reject it and move on, rather than come up with a litany of justifications? I realized the reason why I reacted so strongly was because I actually cared about what my colleagues were attempting, and that I admired their efforts.
After I finished Nine Princes in Amber I found a fantasy novel I had written in the early nineties. It was unfinished and it would require a significant amount of work to revisit it and resurrect it. I’d always planned on writing a fantasy novel. But I had wanted to first master the craft, establish myself as a serious writer and then, later in life, write the type of fantasy novel that had originally sparked my passion for reading. What ego!
I decided I’m not going to wait to write to my interests. Two outlines for novels immediately came to me. I’m busy writing one of them. Maybe they will never be considered high art, maybe they will never be considered literature, maybe they will be an object of ridicule to those that are looking for an elevated form. But I’m bringing what I can to my writing. I’m writing and reading with renewed passion. I am still critical but I am not allowing my criticism to dull my enjoyment. Quite simply Nine Princes In Amber has reinvigorated me. And that is why I love this book.