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Reading: The Great Book of Amber

"All roads lead to Amber."

The Great Book of Amber by Roger Zelazny
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The most important thing to note about this book is probably something obvious, namely that as it’s ten books collected into one volume it’s very big. It’s heavy enough that it’s not really something you could hold up properly for long periods of time, especially one-handed, and could easily be unworkable for certain favoured reading positions. It will also take a long time to get through. It’s just over 1,250 pages long but that’s because of a major condensing job, squeezing out as much dead space as possible (without abridging any novel) to trim it down from what would be about 2,000 pages in the separate volumes.

Now that’s out of the way it’s onto the novels themselves. The Amber series has one of the more interesting fantasy settings around, a universe where there are countless ‘shadow’ worlds spun from one main one, where anything and anyone could eventually be found if one were to travel far enough, people traversing them by walking along and slowly effecting minor changes to shift between worlds, until eventually they’ve made enough changes to reach their goal. The titular world of Amber may be a swords-and-sorcery fantasy world but contemporary Earth is in there too, and in fact that’s where the very first story begins.

The ten books are essentially split into two separate arcs of five books each, so rather than try to tackle each book individually or all ten as one volume I’ll split them by arc:

Corwin

The story opens with an amnesiac hospital patient on Earth. Amnesia can be a very lazy plot device and Futurama has made it hard to ever take seriously, but it does what it needs to here. Without the amnesia Corwin would have known so much right from the start that it would likely overwhelm the reader. It serves to ease into the situation slowly, uncovering more of the world at a steady pace. The amnesia isn’t treated lightly either, being a major aspect of the character that affects his decisions and personality for the entirety of the series.

Eventually it emerges that the king of Amber, Oberon, has disappeared and made no proclamations about a successor, leaving his numerous children to sort it out amongst themselves. It’s not as simple as going with the eldest child when the king has fathered children by multiple women in worlds where time flows at different speeds, so there are several valid candidates and factions have formed in support of each of them.

To add to the fun, dangerous creatures have been invading worlds near to Amber and eventually reach Amber itself, coming from a mysterious black ‘road’ that crosses worlds and stems from an unknown source. These two plots, the succession and invasion, cover the first five novels, and the fifth ends in such a way that it could easily have been the finale of the entire series. It’s dramatic, ties up both major plot threads and goes out with a closing monologue that really underlines everything and says goodbye.

This five-book arc tells a gripping story with plenty of fresh revelations and developments along the way, driven by character feuds and shifting allegiances, in a unique setting, making good on every promise set up early on.

Merlin

This next set of books kicks off back on Earth, on April 30th. For some reason somebody tries to kill Merlin on this day every year and he’s never been able to establish why. He aims to do so this time as he’s preparing to leave Earth and go exploring the various shadow worlds, so doesn’t want this mystery hanging over him or the possibility of his would-be assassin pursuing him across worlds. Things don’t go to plan and ultimately Merlin has more questions than answers.

He’s related to the royal families of both Amber and the rival Courts of Chaos, putting him in a position of questionable loyalties from both sides. Neither side trusts him completely and he’s uncertain how much he can trust them, so sharing information means walking a thorny path of vague hints and doubt, of wondering how much the other person knows and how much they suspect he knows. It takes a long time for him to be able to piece it all together, and everywhere he turns he seems to find a new enemy and another mysterious power using him for its own ends.

Ultimately Merlin’s is a weaker arc than Corwin’s. Where the first is mostly character-driven this second set is more about the setting. Most of the excellent characters from the first arc are absent, sidelinined into minor roles or only appearing as cryptic dreams or illusions, and some of the novels spend a lot of time focusing on dreamscapes or hallucinatory sequences rather than the ‘reality’. The level of mistrust that permeates the characters can be frustrating, Merlin forced into tentative conversations that take a long time but which yield little information, mysteries not being resolved simply because nobody will speak to one another. Most of the unsatisfying seventh novel is built around this, and even the first half of the final novel proceeds in that fashion.

The final half of the last novel feels like it rushes to a conclusion, which seems a silly thing to say for a story twelve hundred pages in the telling. It does bring the key plot threads to their conclusions but in a very quick fashion, and not as neatly as the way the fifth novel handled its conclusion, conflicts resolving with a few words and some characters just not discussed. There are still some good characters but they’re less dominant in this half, and Merlin’s story doesn’t quite hit the same high notes as Corwin’s.

For anybody who enjoys fantasy the Amber series is practically a must-read thanks to its fascinating ideas, and even at its weakest it’s still a great read. It might be better to buy each book separately though.

View all my reviews

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