Trumps of Doom: A Review

536790Trumps of Doom by Roger Zelazny
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The Cycle of Corwin has ended. Now come the adventures of his son, Merlin, born of Dara, holy terror of the Courts of Chaos. You might remember her as the demon that disguised herself as Corwin’s grand-niece, in order to learn how to walk the Pattern and gain enough power to destroy Amber. Yeah, her. I didn’t like Dara, but maybe this book would have been more interesting if she’d been the main antagonist, because the book certainly needed one.

A sorcerer, artist, warrior, athlete, and technological genius, Merlin (aka Merle) lives a boring, uncomplicated life in one of his father’s old Shadow haunts, trying to emulate the father he wishes he could have gotten to know better before he disappeared into Shadow. However, the white rider Corwin met in the Courts of Chaos in the last book is a far cry from the ‘Merle’ shown to us in this novel. He is unquestioning, uncaring, and in general, unaffected by anything going on around him, which makes the narrative a boring trod through “This happened”, and then “this also happened”, and “Wow, what a coincidence”. Very rarely does his ‘humanity’ show through, and when it does, it is self-serving. While I didn’t like Corwin overall, Corwin at least had real moments of questioning his motives, or feeling sincerely bad for the things he had done. Merle has only one instance of this, but after what felt an obligatory ‘whoops, my bad’, he carries on without being truly affected for the rest of the story.

The book begins on April 30th. April 30th is an unlucky day for Merlin, and has been for the last seven years, on account of the reoccurring attempts on his life. He has come to expect them now, and hopes to get to the bottom of it this time.

Following the horrific death of one of his ex-girlfriends, and his procurement of some very strange Trumps, Merlin jumps off to solve the mystery of the Trumps (the title of the book, after all), but after the only real interesting scene of the first half (in which he plays a riddle game with a Sphinx), this plotline is promptly forgotten and never picked up again. Instead, it becomes another “Who-dunnit”, without all the weight and skill of “Sign of the Unicorn”, or even a conclusion. No real spoilers to give here. Nothing happens. The antagonist’s name is revealed, but that is basically all. Again, all a teaser for the next book, which I have no real inclination at present to read.

Other things that really bothered me about this book: it is clear that only a couple of decades have past, as there are still friends of Corwin alive on Earth (Bill Roth, lawyer, and suddenly the only council to Amber, out of all of the infinite number of universes and people closer to the conflict… This is the man Merle bounces ideas off of for most of the book, rather than contacting one of his aunts or uncles.)

Suddenly everyone seems to have the ability to draw Trumps on a whim. This was a skill that was heavily guarded, and for good reason, but now anyone who is related to Dworkin can do it, and it takes away all of the interest for that magic system for me.

And speaking of the magic system, Merlin has the ability to do a “backwards shadow walk”, which means he can conjure anything he desires out of shadow, no harm, no foul. It doesn’t even seem to tire him. Yet when it comes to the climax of the book, he decides to take the longest possible route, rather than pulling that thing to him, easily. It’s also just one of those ultra-convenient abilities that makes things a little too easy.

Frakir. I’m assuming that there is a short story somewhere out there in the universe that Zelazny wrote that explained things more, but I do not know why Merlin is in possession of a half-sentient, invisible thread whip, or what even its full abilities are. More convenience, that was never really explained.

Ghostwheel. I can not believe the willful ignorance on the part of Merle regarding his creation. When Random (thank goodness he was in the story for a few pages… that’s one of two reasons this book has a star at all, honestly… the other being the conversation with the Sphinx) brings up valid concerns about the latent power of Ghostwheel, Merle just pouts and says “I don’t care. I do what I want.” …to obvious calamity.

It was really disappointing to read this first book in the second cycle of Amber, and find basically everything from the first books that are still unanswered abandoned, and instead get led around by a shadow of a shadow of Corwin (without the arrogant wit, or any real defining personality trait) on a mostly mundane and speculative journey to… well, I suppose it was less of a journey, and more Merlin thrown in a whirpool of coincidences and events thrust on him by other characters trying to have a story.

In short, I will keep reading, but only because I feel obligated to finish the omnibus. But, if you are looking for a casual read to pick up, you can stop at book five, “Courts of Chaos”, and pick up something else on your to-read.

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10 thoughts on “Trumps of Doom: A Review

  1. Andrew says:

    Well, I skipped most of the review because I don’t want to know too much in case I do ever get to reading these. I’ve only been meaning to for 20 years, so the prospects aren’t good, and, from this review, maybe that’s a good thing.

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    • Alex Hurst says:

      I wouldn’t, honestly. They have their moments… their novelty, and as one of the first novels that explored metaphysical fantasy, I can see why they are important, but I have a feeling his successors have learned a lot more about delivery and form for the genre.

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  2. Queien says:

    I can understand that this series isn’t for everyone and respect your opinion for not liking these books. However, I’d like to explain some of the powers a little better, since this review makes it sound like the powers are most of the reason why you don’t like this series. One of the problems is that none of these things I mention below are spelled out clearly in the books, so they can be hard to grasp at first.

    (Spoilers below)

    Like all powers, the Logrus (how Merlin summons items) has rules and restrictions. If I remember correctly, the rules are as follows: 1. It can only summon nonunique items, and it goes for the closest one (so it could summon a ruby pendant, but not the jewel of judgement). 2. It can’t summon sentient or living things. 3. It can only summon things that the summoner can comfortably lift physically.

    Ghostwheel is a unique, sentient item that is a giant supercomputer. There’s no way the Logrus could’ve summoned it.

    As for trumps, all the citizens of Chaos make and use trumps. It’s necessary because their version of shadow walking is really shitty and inaccurate (which is why Merlin uses the Pattern to shadow walk instead of the Logrus). Once a citizen of Chaos stumbles on a desirable shadow, a trump is made to guarantee that they can return. Dworkin is a lord of Chaos, so he’d know how to make trumps. Oberon is his son, so Dworkin might’ve taught him a thing or two. The generation after that wasn’t taught how to use trumps at all for lots of reasons, probably having to do with the fact that their Chaos blood was thin, that they didn’t need it because their shadow walking was superior, and that they were all little brats who’d probably just misuse the gift anyway. It’s also possible that Oberon wasn’t good enough himself to teach them, or maybe he just didn’t want them knowing.

    The only three children of Oberon who can make trumps are Brand, Bleys, and Fiona. All three of them are children of Clarissa, who is heavily implied to be a citizen of Chaos, so they have strong Chaosian blood. The reason why it feels like everyone’s using trumps now is because the perspective has shifted from someone who doesn’t know anything about trump to someone who grew up where trumps are the norm.

    Also, Trump is one of the few powers that literally anyone from any shadow can learn how to use as long as they study hard enough. This is another reason why it seems like everyone’s suddenly using Trumps – someone from Chaos is giving out lessons. (Btw, one of the other anyone-can-use powers is sorcery.)

    Frakir is explained later. She was created when Merlin walked the Logrus. It’s apparently common for Logrus initiates to bring something with them for the Logrus to enchant as they walk. Merlin brought a strangle cord, and the Logrus brought it to life. Basically, a lot of citizens of Chaos have magic souvenirs from when they walked the Logrus. It’s nothing too special in the Courts. Corwin having Greyswandir is weirder, actually, since the Pattern doesn’t seem to enchant items like the Logrus does.

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    • Alex Hurst says:

      Thank you so much for the comment. It does make things make more sense, but I’m curious where this information was gleaned from. Are there short stories or companion pieces that explain this, or are they explained in one of the subsequent books (like Frakir)?

      I loved the magical systems of the first novel, and I guess I had a lot of trouble switching “cold-turkey” from the world I really loved, to the flipside that I knew nothing about, with a narrator who didn’t care to tell me, and who really, I feel, doesn’t hold the same position position of strength in my mind that Corwin did.

      I suffered the same problem in one of the books previous, when a third of the book was spent in Random’s narrative… I LOVE Random as a character. I found him intriguing and not completely transparent (Corwin tells us everything. Random tells us half. Merlin tells us nothing.) So, when the book switched back to Corwin again, I felt frustrated because I wanted more Random.

      This book was also hard for that reason…. With the exception of Bill and the brief period in Amber, all of the former characters are utterly abandoned, and we are back in the mundane world. It made it very hard to get into.

      But again, thanks for clearing that up for me!

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      • Queien says:

        Yeah… I can understand. ^^; Amber can be a tough series to get into because not a lot is straight-up explained.

        (Spoilers below)

        It probably doesn’t help that Merlin is telling his story to a friend in Chaos, so he’d leave a lot of stuff without explanations, whereas Corwin was telling his story to Merlin, who knew nothing about Amber.

        The information is from the novels and from the side books (though the side books are mostly just headcanon). I can’t remember if the Logrus rules are expressly stated or not. If they aren’t, then they were fan-made based off the things that Merlin never pulls through the Logrus and/or things that he chooses to summon by spell instead. One of the side books (Amber DRPG Core Rulebook) says that unique items are almost impossible to summon through the Logrus because the Logrus is kinda lazy and will just go “close enough” and grab something similar to the item. This book also says that people can be pulled through it. However, it also states that if the person being summoned by the person using Logrus doesn’t have shapeshifting and at least 0s in Psyche and Endurance (most creatures in shadow have straight -25s in their stats), then doing so is a pretty effective way of killing them. And if the person does have a high enough Psyche and Endurance, then there’s always a chance that they’ll be able to resist the summon. So… yeah. Living things aren’t good to summon with Logrus. ^^;

        The Trump thing is explained in more detail in the prequel series, but that series isn’t by Zelazny and it’s pretty horribly written. I recommend never reading it unless you really want to know more about Trump, because that’s one of the major powers explored in the series. (Logrus is also explained more in that series, so that’s another possible place where the rules could’ve been outlined…)

        Clarissa’s background as a citizen of Chaos is implied from the location of her home and the Courts of Chaos being described in almost the same way (I believe both locations were “a far off shadow to the south” if I remember correctly). Also, Brand is implied to have Logrus imprint. Julian tells Corwin at one point that Brand can suddenly summon items with just a thought. It wouldn’t be safe for someone with strong Amber blood to walk the Logrus (in the prequel books, several of Oberon’s older siblings died trying to walk the Logrus because their “imprint” wasn’t quite Pattern, but it definitely wasn’t Logrus).

        The characters from the last set of books show up more regularly soon, but I’ll admit that most of the scenes feel more like cameos than proper appearances. There are even a few scenes with Random (though not nearly enough). There is a character who is very similar to Random, however. His name is Mandor, and he shows up fairly soon.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. dweezer19 says:

    Thanks for the honest review. I have trouble reading fiction anymore. So much seems repetitive and many stories are like trailer park chronicles, just set in a different era.

    Like

    • Alex Hurst says:

      I admit I’ve become much more demanding of my fiction, which probably isn’t a fair lens to put on a book written in the 80s, but it is what it is. πŸ˜› Thanks for the comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Jemima Pett says:

    It is a very long time since I read this, and I think I was in the stage of waiting for the next one to be written – yes THAT long ago! I do remember being disappointed, though. Loved the first books in the series. Maybe I should read them again. They are among the few books that have followed me through all the many house moves, after all!

    Jemima
    #TeamDamyanti
    Blogging from Alpha to Zulu in April

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