The world as we know it is a mere shadow of the true kingdom of Amber, a land bereft of shadow, and home to several princes and princesses vying for the empty throne that rules over all. A metaphysical fantasy with complex magical systems, an intriguing back story, and a clever mix of a multitude of genres, the Chronicles of Amber is well-regarded as one of the most influential series of its kind––and with the master wordsmith and philosophical Zelazny at the helm, the series promises much to its readers.
What it chooses to deliver on is another matter entirely.
After the disappointment of Guns of Avalon, I was hesitant to pick up this series again, but I decided I would give the books the benefit of the doubt, and chalk the floundering feel of the second book to ‘sequel jitters’. In short, Sign of the Unicorn delivers much in the way of character development and intrigue, but fails to deliver satisfying conclusions to conflict.
Before I get into what I really loved about the book, I’ll mention what I wasn’t all that fond of. Guns of Avalon ended on a decided cliffhanger, a hook, of sorts, for this story to pick up on, but it never does. Dara is absent, and there is no further retrospection that considers her existence save one scene, at the very end of the book (invariably trying to hook readers once again, and perhaps succeeding a little better for avoiding the corny dialog from Guns of Avalon).
Secondly, the first part of the book (roughly 20% of the entire novel) is taken up with a narrative told from the perspective of Random. Now, I’ll be the first to say that Random is one of my favorite characters, tied closely with Ganelon, but there in laid the rub: I found Random’s narrative more interesting that Corwin’s, so sulked a little bit when we had to go back to him (I got over it). A secondary, stylistic concern to that was I didn’t actually realize I was reading Random at times, because there is no stylistic change between Corwin and Random––their narratives read exactly the same. Part of it was Random was telling Corwin his story in full, descriptive detail, but this is also told in full, descriptive detail by Corwin to the Courts of Chaos (who we do not know yet), so it felt a bit out of place––when was the last time we could relate a story in direct quotes that your friend told you, which took several hours to tell?
With the exception of those couple of grievances, though, I did actually enjoy this book. It got right into the meat of what I was interested in. Characters were developed, intrigue within the family was opened unapologetically, and the whole of the narrative took a break from the action-adventure-that-doesn’t-go-anywhere (Guns), to a heavily twisted game of Clue. The plot moves very little in this book, so I don’t want to give any of it away, but I loved the play of the characters analyzing one another, the richness of the dialog, and how you could feel the multiple layers in every answer and question. Zelazny also devotes a huge amount of time in the text getting philosophical and psychological, and these were readily enjoyable. Even though the plot was not really resolved satisfactorily, the richness of character in this volume restored the excitement I had for Amber in the first book, and has made me eager to continue the series. The books should, however, be considered more parts to the whole, rather than anything close to standalone novels. If approached that way, they are less likely to disappoint, I think.
I also want to mention the noticeable confidence of the writing in this third installment. More than the two previous books, I found this one an elegant, engaging read, and found myself highlighting passages for little gems the entire time I was reading. Here are a few of my favorite lines:
“Of troubles I considered myself amply possessed.” ––Corwin
Texorami was a wide open port city, with sultry days and long nights, lots of good music, gambling around the clock, duels every morning and in-between mayhem for those who couldn’t wait.
And, when describing one of his sisters:
The others glanced our way as she appeared and she hit them with that smile, like the Mona Lisa with a machine gun, turning slowly.
One of my favorite moments of exchange between Random and Corwin, when they suspect a killer is among them:
“To hell with everything. I’m going to bed.” He nodded.
“Look under it first.”
As a writer, this tickled me, and can totally relate:
“Yes,” he said. “But I wonder… I’ve a peculiar feeling that I may never see you again. It is as if I were one of those minor characters in a melodrama who gets shuffled offstage without ever learning how things turn out.”
“I can appreciate the feeling,” I said. “My own role sometimes makes me want to strangle the author.”
One of the more philosophical passages:
More strongly in recent years than ever before I have tried to convince myself that people do change, that the passage of time does not serve merely to accentuate that which is already there, that qualitative changes do sometimes occur in people because of things they have seen, done, thought, and felt. It would provide solace in times such as these when everything seems to be going wrong…
Which is promptly rebutted by Corwin’s less-than-savory brother:
“You are spoiling my day’s effort at idealism.” ––Corwin
“Beginnings are always difficult. Wherever I begin, something preceded it.”