Under The Influence: The Chronicles of Amber



     Roger Zelazny was one of the true masters of fantasy writing. At least one of his works is included in most people's lists of "best ever fantasy" -- and sometimes, people argue, science fiction, as he did very much like to bend the definitions and skewer them. Zelazny produced a number of top-notch books and short stories, but two of them consistently outpace the others in mentions: Lord of Light, and the Chronicles of Amber (especially the original five-book Amber sequence).


     While Lord of Light is indeed an excellent book, and may in some ways be said to have more substance, it never had a tenth the impact on me that The Chronicles of Amber did. I first walked the Forest of Arden en route to Amber in 1981, when I was living in a small apartment with a couple other guys and spending most of my time either gaming or reading (when I wasn't working, of course, but in those days, and with the rent split three ways, I didn't have to work nearly as much as one might think). One of the two other guys, Steve Reed, had a moderate but well-selected collection of science fiction and fantasy, and in that collection was the SFBC two-volume omnibus collection of the Amber series.


     I have mentioned elsewhere that Doc Smith set the bar for "sensawunda" for me; the Chronicles of Amber, starting with Nine Princes in Amber, cleared that bar with plenty of room to spare. Partly it was the brilliant conceit of starting with an amnesiac character who still had to convince everyone around him that he knew what he was doing, while trying to figure out what the hell was going on – and what was going on made very little sense at first to ordinary people. This meant that we got to travel with Corwin of Amber as he, like us, journeyed to the heart of reality – the eternal golden city of Amber, of which all other worlds are but Shadows.


     It's hard to clearly describe the awe and wonder that Zelazny brought to that story, narrated with the cynical yet sometimes wistfully innocent voice of Corwin – a man once as opportunistic and treacherous as any of his siblings, who suffered injuries and illness that robbed him of memory and left him to wander our world, our Earth, for centuries before finally finding his way back to his own people… and discovering he was now a very different, and a very much better, man than he had been – the man who would have been King, and who in the end decided he didn't want the one thing he had been fighting for all his life.


     The awesome progression of discovery, in particular, inspired elements of Grand Central Arena – people beginning on what appears to be an interesting but relatively mundane mission, and then finding that they have stepped through into a world that is ever and always larger, more wondrous, and more bizarre than they could have guessed.


     The first description of Walking the Pattern is perhaps one of the finest evocations of a struggle that is both physical and mental, and brings out the images and sensations that allow us to understand, at least on some level, what it means to become a Master of Pattern, what peril and possibility is offered by choosing to walk the Pattern that controls all reality, and gives you the ability then to "Walk in Shadow", to pass from world to world as simply as walking along a path, or even to bend the reality of the world to your liking.


     Then there are the Trumps – images on pasteboard that hold vast power, gateways, communications devices, weapons and wards. There are true magicians, casting spells and wards, and strange creatures who burn upon being cut down, and worlds in which a certain Colonel founded a restaurant chain that sells "Kentucki Fried Lizzard Partes". A multiverse of the awesome and bizarre and quixotically odd, all at once.


     In Amber, especially The Guns of Avalon, Zelazny also emphasized the ways in which the genres of fantasy and science fiction are separated more by attitude than anything else; here, in a high-magical kingdom whose rulers wield swords, command armies of spearmen and navies of sailing vessels, Corwin suddenly brings drilled troops with automatic weapons, having figured out a way around Amber's apparent suppression of gunpowder. It was clear to me, from Amber and some other sources (some of which I'll discuss later) that magic and technology together offered more possibilities than either separately.


     And in Amber we also were given a new mythology, a personal mythology told from the point of view of one of the gods therein: Bleys, dashing swordsman, master of Pattern and magic, a cheerful and brilliant presence; Flora, warrior in the social scene, less interested in ruling than in being one of those at the right hand of the one in power; Corwin, indomitable will and unstoppable endurance and a film noir wiseguy in one; Gerard, kinder yet as mighty and massive as a wall of stone, one of the brothers that could be trusted and that one would not want as an enemy; Benedict of Amber, consummate warrior, the one all others feared; King Oberon, untrustworthy father, master of disguise, manipulator on the scale of the gods; Random, the jester with a greater heart than any might realize; Brand, the supremely talented user of all arcane powers, puppetmaster and traitor; and so many others. I saw, too, many parallels between these new, more mortal gods and the old – especially in the Norse pantheon of old.


     Amber's lure never ended, and I was often drawn into games that involved Amber concepts, even before Phage Press created the Amber Diceless Roleplaying game. That game is the general structure I generally use for playing these days. The greatest game I ever ran began as an Amber campaign, one that ran for several years and stretched to heights of power that staggered even my imagination – and those who know me know that I am used to running high-powered games indeed. When that game concluded, I stopped running for a year or so, feeling I had, perhaps, nowhere else to go, and I had certainly finally concluded a storyline that had been in my head for many years… a storyline which is very much part of my writing world, too; the original components of that game are some of the most important aspects of my own universe.


     I still love Amber – though I would want some superhuman traits myself if I were to actually visit. Still, on some days, when the air is quiet and I am walking alone, I sometimes wonder if I will turn the corner and see the grass growing just so, the sky a brighter shade of blue, and a forest ahead of me, before a mighty mountain atop which glitters a city of gold and crystal…


  1. melchar says:

    I met ‘9 Princes in Amber’ as a still-on-the-new-rack hardback sf novel at my high school in 1972. It affected me hugely – and when I began reffing D&D the following year, I used elements of the ‘Amber’ idea to help me plot out how the multiverse worked for my world. It also inspired me to use the gunpowder/jewller’s rouge idea for why gunpowder did not ignite on my world. Wonderful ideas.

    The oddest thing about ‘9 Princes’ is that for the -longest- time I really enjoyed it – but had no idea that it was the 1st of a series. It wasn’t until either 1979 that I found out there were others. Other that I leapt upon and visually devoured. The original 5 books are some that I reread every year or so [along with a dozen other books or book series that I love].

    I volunteered at a local game shop/book store and was there when Roger came and did a half day long book signing there. [I think it was for the release of ‘Eye of the Cat’] He was very nice, chatted with people who had dragged in their huge collections – and didn’t buy the new book. [I should’ve asked for autographs, but I was happy making sure he had water, coffee, a clean ashtray – and generally keeping him comfy and helping with crowd control.] I ran out and got fast food for Roger & the guy working the shop for lunch [Roger treated us] – and just remember him as the nicest guy.

  2. My ancient copy of “Nine Princes in Amber” was signed by Zelazny himself. Two months before he died. It is one of my greatest treasures.

  3. I just checked my bookcase. I no longer have an analog copy of The Chronicles of Amber, having donated it with nearly all of my hardbacks to a local library. I loved Amber, especially Corwin, but I used to get *such headaches* trying to keep track of his family and their retainers in my head.

  4. I’ve surprised many a young geek with Amber. I’ve always thought this was easily one of the grandest, most innovative series–if not THE grandest–I’ve ever read. It’s easily up there with Lord of the Rings and yet so few have heard of it. Seems pretty damn unfair to me. Can you imagine an Amber mini-series done with the same love and care as ‘Game of Thrones’?

    Le sigh.

Your comments or questions welcomed!