The Sign of Chaos, the third book in the Cycle of Merlin, and the eighth of ten on the Book of Amber, begins with Merle trapped in a Wonderland Bar with Luke (Rinaldo), the Cheshire Cat, Humpty Dumpty, and a very pissed off Fire Angel from Chaos. Discovering his predicament to be the result of drugs Luke has been exposed to, Merle conjures pharmaceuticals from the shadow and leaves him to sober up.
Defeating the angel is no easy feat, the creature being conjured from Chaos and having three hearts, but Merle manages it, somehow, hardly worse for wear. Unfortunately, that isn’t the end of his troubles. Women, sorcerers, siblings, and old enemies converge upon him, to the point he hardly has time to take his boots off or get a bite of food.
Sign of Chaos capitalizes on the set-up from the two previous books with constant action and intrigue, and with lots of previously peripheral characters coming forward for interesting developments in the complex politics within the family of Amber. Vialle and Llewella, in particular, play interesting roles, and I was happy to see a host of other female characters receiving equal treatment (without sleeping with our progressively sympathetic and intriguing main character, Merlin).
It was clear from page one that when Zelazny sat down to write this book, he was inspired. Interestingly, this was also the point (halfway through the cycle), that he caught his second wind in the Cycle of Corwin, with Sign of the Unicorn, so I am feeling optimistic about the final two books in the series. In fact, I had a very hard time putting this one down, and if I hadn’t of already stayed up until 4am for two consecutive nights before, I would have stayed up late finishing this one last night, too. The writing is powerful, the characters compelling, and there is a general charm to the narrative that is hard to ignore. I love that Merle got a healthy dose of character development and self-awareness, and there were little touches of intrigue all throughout that made me giddy and excited (I won’t spoil them here).
It’s been a while since Zelazny’s books inspired quote-grabbing, but I have a couple that really stood out to me. If there is one thing that I can say about Zelazny, is that when he finds the moment, he can pull off first person beautifully, in the way I feel it should always be done––retrospective, intimate, and questioning:
If you had a choice between the ability to detect falsehood and the ability to discover truth, which one would you take? There was a time when I thought they were different ways of saying the same thing, but I no longer believe that. Most of my relatives, for example, are almost as good at seeing through subterfuge as they are at perpetrating it. I’m not all that sure, though, that they care much about truth. On the other hand, I’d always felt that there was something noble, special, and honorable about seeking truth––a thing I’d attempted with Ghostwheel. Mandor had made me wonder, though. Had this made me a sucker for truth’s opposite?
And, after Merlin speaks with his brother Mandor, upon escaping Luke’s acid trip:
Someone with a high-powered subconscious might have had a brilliantly revelatory dream following as much crap as I’d been through recently, and then have awakened with a wonderful series of insights and answers detailing appropriate courses of action. I didn’t. I woke once, in a small panic, not knowing where I was. But I opened my eyes and satisfied myself on that count and went back to sleep. Later––much later, it seemed––I returned by degrees, like some piece of flotsam being pulled higher and higher onto a beach by wave following wave, until finally I was there. I saw no reason for going any further until I realized that my feet hurt. Then I sat up and pulled my boots off, which might have been one of the six greatest pleasures in my life.
Among other little pearls that say so much about the characters:
I passed Luke his weapons belt and he buckled it on. I knew that she knew that I just wanted to talk to him alone for a few minutes. And she was certainly aware that I knew it. And we both knew she trusted me, which brightens my existence, as well as complicating it.
In short, I really enjoyed this one, which makes four of eight, so far, that have really compelled me as a reader (those being Nine Princes in Amber, Sign of the Unicorn, The Hand of Oberon, and now Sign of Chaos). Two more novels to go (those being Knight of Shadows and Prince of Chaos) before I make an overall review (including a few complaints I have about the physical omnibus).