The First Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny

November 15, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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The Chronicles of Amber were originally published as five books, but today they would be published in one since they form one long story so as is my custom I will review all of them together. These books are decent but flawed and I almost gave them four stars, but ultimately they are just so frustratingly mediocre I couldn’t do it. Plenty of people absolutely love these books and I can see why, so let me make clear what you are getting (spoiler free, of course) so you know whether you should give them a try. First, these are technically fantasies but really they fall into a combination of mystery and intrigue. If you like books filled with plots within plots, duplicity, and unexpected revelations, then this might be up your alley. The first person narration is somewhat uneven but effective when it has to be. Although I anticipated one major twist by a couple hundred pages, there were several others I didn’t, and the story kept me turning the pages.

So what’s not to like? I have a whole laundry list of complaints, with no individual one being so serious as to keep me from enjoying the books but together they make the affair rather less than memorable. First, the main character is a gigantic tease in that he is initially painted as a complete rogue but pretty quickly–before he does anything that’s genuinely unlikable–he becomes nice to a fault. We hear that he has changed, but no evidence is given for it. After I was done I knew what he had become…a boilerplate goody two shoes protagonist…but I knew almost nothing about who he had been. Second, I said this was really a mystery novel and not a fantasy, and this is particularly noticable in the world building, or lack thereof. Zelazny was nothing if not creative, and his world is full of interesting features and ideas. It’s a terrible shame, then, that is must remain a static backdrop occasionally remarked upon and never truly explored. In the wake of the Lord of the Rings films I have heard Amber proposed as a great candidate for the big screen treatment, but in truth the book’s true form is a stage play. What’s important here are the characters and their efforts at outwitting each other. It’s absolutely criminal that (this isn’t a spoiler) Amber is apparently the “true city” from which all other cities gain their form and yet at the end I had a vague idea as to the surrounding terrain but no understanding of what was in Amber itself, how big its population is (the size of its army suggests its population is quite small), and what, if anything, makes it so much better than Rome, Paris, or, let’s face it, Gary, Indiana. Meanwhile, the Shadows cast by the true city form an infinite number of universes, and this infinity is hardly touched upon. That’s not to say I want a lot of dilly-dallying filler adventures along the lines of Otherland, but this infinite tapestry just provides a few boilerplate settings that serve just as matte paintings behind the dialogue. As for the strength of the book, the intrigue, the dialogue was clever enough but not exceptionally smart or subtle. The narration was, well, linguistically naive. Several times each book I hit a sentence or word choice I found quite jarring. It doesn’t help that Zelazny never quite takes himself completely seriously, which to my mind undermines the supposed import of what is going on. Either the universe hangs in the balance, or we’re trying to be witty, but not both, surely? Finally, although the plot is the book’s best feature, it begins to break down towards the end as the author gets distracted by his own metaphysics. This is such a common feature of modern fantasy and science fiction that when things began to seriously go off the rails in book five it was like I was meeting an old friend.

This review may sound more like a one or two star review, but really taken as a whole it is a competent fantasy. It is a blissfully quick read, so its flaws are quickly passed over. If you like intrigue and want some relatively light and quick reading, give it a try.

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