Prince of Chaos: A Review

71415-coverPrince of Chaos by Roger Zelazny

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Prince of Chaos is the tenth and final book in The Great Book of Amber, and man, what a closer.

I’ve had a lot of gripes with this series, ranging from stunted character growth to mediocre motivations and waffling plots, but I knew by Chapter Two of this book that they would all be forgiven. In fact, events in that chapter would have resolved me to a five-star rating, even if the rest of the book turned out to be more of the same. The rest of the book just kept getting better and better, however. Prince of Chaos is a great book. I would almost call it a perfect book for its genre. Almost. With the exception of the following paragraph:

Feeling, feeling my way now, down through the strata, single toe soft as a flashlight’s beam running along rocky surfaces, testing the pressures of one upon another, isostatic kisses of mountains beneath the earth, orogenic erogenies of slow movement, flesh caressing mineral in the darkest secret places––

That was just a little too much purple prose, even for me! But, with the exception of that, the book really is perfect. Perfect pacing, perfect character development, perfect, subtle resolutions and hints at a life beyond the book’s end. I haven’t been this pleased with the ending of a series since Six Feet Under on HBO. But enough gushing, let’s get to the story.

Prince of Chaos picks up directly after end of the last book. Luke is installed as the new king of Kashfa and takes Coral as a wife. However, Coral, disturbed by becoming the holder of the Jewel of Judgment and the powers that now flow constantly through her, seeks out Merlin for comfort. Merlin, feeling the many favors and duties he owes to his friends and even enemies from the last few books, resolves to “get things resolved and live happily ever after”.

There are many powers at play in this book, including the issues surrounding Coral, Nayda the ty’iga being trapped in her human form, the succession to the throne of Courts of Chaos, Jurt and Merlin’s rivalry, Corwin’s disappearance, Ghostwheel’s autonomy, Dara’s final motives and the reasons behind Merlin’s birth, a strange ring (no, not THAT ring), and an ongoing battle between the Logrus (Chaos) and the Pattern (Order). For 130 pages, that is a lot going on, yet Zelazny somehow manages to squeeze in emotional exchanges, Corwin-like analytics in the form of a much more mature and relatable Merlin, and several fast-paced duels.

There’s not much more I can say on that end without major spoilers, and I don’t want to ruin this book for anyone.

In the end, this book is perfect because Zelazny understood the sheer amount that needed to happen for this last book, and gave masterful treatment to the conclusion of each piece. He spent just the right amount of time on every arc, adding a few new ones that added a certain, nostalgic element to the whole work that really just left me reading the last page, and feeling that it really was the end of the story, but not the character’s lives, or the adventures they would have going forward.

There were also a lot of fourth wall jokes that I got a kick out of, including:

Before we could depart, however, I heard voiced from that hallway. So we waited in the room […] as the speakers approached. One of them I recognized immediately as my brother, Mandor; the other I could not identify […]. In a badly plotted story they’d have paused outside the doorway, and I’d have overheard a conversation telling me everything I needed to know about anything.

In short, this final book makes the entire series worth reading. It will stick with me for some time.


A few final words about the edition I used to read this book:

61G4E6ztjML._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I am reading the omnibus printed by EOS Books (an imprint of HarperCollins). It is a massive book, 1,258 pages and using every single one, with very little white space. It was well formatted, but a bit unwieldy for reading or toting around. The binding is also pretty flimsy. A basic cardstock cover made it hard to balance.

However, the individual books are now out of print, and an official ebook version has not been produced yet. In an attempt to be able to read on the bus and at work, I did download a facsimile scan of the book, but I do not recommend this file. There are entire pages and paragraphs missing, and with a book of this nature, missing any of those elements is enough to confuse and even change the story. So, there isn’t much of a choice except to buy this behemoth. If you’re set on buying the books individually, I suggest looking for them on Abe Books.

And that’s it! I’m done with Zelazny! I was given a review copy of the Complete Works of Mark Twain recently, so I may take him on next. Pretty exciting, since I haven’t read anything of his since 7th grade.

Knight of Shadows: A Review

n6980Knight of Shadows by Roger Zelazny

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The identity of Mask has been discovered, Merlin’s brother is in league with entities desperate to kill him, and Coral, a dignitary’s stepdaughter (and illegitimate child of Oberon) is lost after instructing the Pattern to conduct her to where she “should” go.

Oh, right. The Pattern is sentient.

And practically every other magic tool in Merlin’s employ.

Knight of Shadow has a bit of a misleading title, calling to mind images of a gallant Merlin, fighting the forces of the Pattern and the Logrus (or Avalon and Chaos) as he attempts to find his father and Coral, and deal with Luke and Jurt.

While I can say with confidence that there was a lot to enjoy in this book, there were also many things that frustrated me. On the one hand, Zelazny shows his master weaving of conflict and plots that intersect in wild and unexpected ways; on the other, Merlin spends the majority of the book doing a whole lot of nothing (critical elements of the plot instead given to the characters in his periphery), and not many of the runnings story lines resolved by the end. With only one more book to go, and that book being only 130 pages, I am worried that the resolution of all of these conflicts will not be dealt with in a way that will satisfy.

However, I won’t judge the book on future concerns. Rather, I’ll focus on what I did like, and what I didn’t, in Book Nine of the Book of Amber. Spoilers to follow.

I think Mandor is starting to grow on me as a character. He has sort of a Vincent Price feel to him in my head, if Vincent Price was less into horror and more into fancy magic and playing Mandrake from King Comics. The scenes he was in were interesting, and I’m curious to see how his budding relationship with Jasra will play out in the final book, given that she pretty much duped everyone, despite their best efforts to see through he scheming.

There are a LOT of characters. Like, a lot, a lot. And this book has a problem with names that sound way too similar (Mandor/Merlin) (Jasra/Jurt) (Dalt/Dara). In addition to the problem of trying to keep track of so many characters, it’s also important to keep track of how many people are related (a fair amount of accidental and consensual incest happens in these books). I found a nifty chart to help me keep track of them all in the future (though apparently Oberon had upwards of 47 illegitimate children while he was alive.)

Thank you, Kevin L. Nault. (Click for even more info.)
Thank you, Kevin L. Nault. (Click for even more info.)

During a very lengthy play-by-play analysis of the book, Rajan Khanna, of Tor.com, noted that one of the creepiest scenes in the entire series takes place in Knight of Shadows. Coral, Merlin’s aunt, is under an enchantment that doesn’t allow her to wake, and Merlin, in an attempt to rescue her, negotiates the Pattern to reach her. However, the Pattern demands Merlin have sex with Coral before leaving, a demand which is briefly (and correctly) refused, before Merlin gives in. Merlin KNOWS Coral is related to him, but that isn’t even a thought that crosses his mind. He knows she is under an enchantment, and practically asleep, but after telling Coral of their predicament, receives a “I thought you’d never ask. (actual dialogue)” before stripping Coral of her clothes and having at it. This scene, coupled with the very last, which calls to mind the schemes of Morgana in the King Authur mythology, cast doubt on Coral and her motives, at which point I have to wonder no woman other than Vialle can resist the temptation to walk the darker path.

As well, though the plots were intriguing and extremely complex, the effect was sort of ruined, because the motives that the big baddies have for doing the things they do to Merlin are quite watery. Julia, our prime villain at the moment, is, when we get down to it, trying to murder Merlin and all the others involved with him simply because “he didn’t trust her enough”. That’s it. The scheme seems to demand more than such a weak motivation, and so that sort of killed the effect for me.

Some highlights in the book included a talking Frakir, which, after reading Steven Brust’s Jhereg, and knowing from N J’s vast knowledge that Brust was inspired by Zelazny, I could see an almost literal copy + paste from their witty exchanges in Chapter 5. Frakir is very much a Loiosh in my mind, though I realize Frakir came first.

I also really enjoyed the interactions between Merlin and Benedict (though he was a Pattern-Ghost), and the development Luke and Nayda/ty’iga received in this installment. The supper between Merlin, Mandor, and Jasra was also really fun to read. In fact, now that I think about it, though Merlin’s lengthy walk in the place between shadows did not add much directly to the story at large, his interactions with the Pattern-Ghosts (including a not-so-evil Jurt and an indignant Oberon!) were very interesting.

All in all, I feel this edition of the book is much stronger than some of the others, even with the incest and rat’s nest of plot lines, precisely because it plays to the characters, which I think are Zelazny’s strong suit in this series.

 

Sign of Chaos: A Review

51ZWFJSNFZL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Sign of Chaos by Roger Zelazny

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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 AmberSign of the UnicornThe 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).

Blood of Amber: A Review

bloodofamberBlood of Amber by Roger Zelazny
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It is the second book in the Cycle of Merlin, and in typical Amber fashion, the intrigue is stacking up. Merle begins the story trapped in a crystal cave by his friend Luke (relationships being complicated in Amber, and who is one day your friend may the next have a vendetta against you).

Throughout the book, other curiosities are revealed, including a strange entity that seems intent to protect Merle from harm, yet is unable to speak on the matter or explain its motives; odd blue crystals that seem to work as both a dampening field and a tracking device; Luke’s mounting motivations to destroy Amber; a wolf-like fiend tracking Merle throughout the novel, and last, but not least, Mask, a mask-wearing sorcerer who enjoys attacking Merlin with flowers, among other things (no, really).

This was another book that was hard for me to get into. At 139 pages, it’s a fairly short read, yet I found it dragging, especially in the first half. Large chunks of space are taken up with shadow walks, and extraneous information that at times made me forget what I should actually be focusing my attentions on. However, I did greatly enjoy the sort of guardian angel character that, for the want of no spoilers, has no name I can mention here. Once this character was introduced into the story, I found it quite engaging.

Unfortunately, this was another book that lacked any significant conflict. Wikipedia summarized the book as follows:

Merlin escapes from the crystal cave, and decides to gain leverage over Luke by rescuing his mother from the Keep of the Four Worlds. He spars with the sorcerer who now controls the keep, and who seems to know him. He escapes with the petrified Jasra, and returns to Amber where an unusual Trump summoning imprisons him in the Mad Hatter‘s tea party.

While this is an accurate summation of the story contained, it is important to note that basically all of what is summed up there happens in the last twenty pages of the book. The rest is basically a ramble, and typical of Zelazny for this series, setting up the breadcrumbs for the next book (which may or may not be remembered by the time you read the next one).

Finally, while I found the “climax” of the book entertaining, it couldn’t exactly be taken seriously, even given the decade in which it was written. And the final moment (the Mad Hatter’s tea party) came up so quickly that I had a hard time accepting that it really was the end of the book. All in all, this installment on the Cycle of Merlin feels more like a weekly episode in a drama, complete with teasers at the end.

Blood of Amber, interestingly, was first printed in a limited batch of 400 signed and numbered copies in 1986. It has had 33 other editions since then, including the omnibus I am reading.

M is for Magic Systems

Magic. If you’re reading a fantasy, it’s more than likely got it. And it’s a science, not necessarily dictated by chemical balances (unless said magic system is alchemy), but most certainly limited by the reality imposed by the universe it is a part of.

There are a lot of fantasy books out there, and each one tries to set itself apart by employing a new take on the way magic works. Some are more original than others, but when executed properly, all have the potential to excuse a lot of other weaknesses in the narrative.

Of course, there is no way to mention all of them here (I wouldn’t even try!), but I will mention the top three that come to mind for me.

  1. The Dragon Nimbus series from Irene Radford. Easily one of my favorite magical systems used by a fantasy series. The rules (as I remember them) were concrete, and there were consequences for its use.
  2. The Cycle of Corwin from the Amber Chronicles, by Roger Zelazny. If you’ve been following my blog, you probably can’t believe it made it on this list––however, for all of its issues, I do think the magic system is incredibly complex and interesting.
  3. The Dragaera series by Steven Brust. I love that there is a separation between the types of magic used by the characters, and that their house also dictates their emotional fortitude.

An honorable mention, but only an honorable mention because it’s actually a TV show/comic book, would be Full Metal Alchemist. Don’t let the cartoon medium fool you. Full Metal Alchemist  is one of the darker shows out there, and its magical system, while powerful, has horrible consequences for all of its inhabitants.

"The Alchemist's Experiment Catches Fire" by Mary Mark Ockerbloom
“The Alchemist’s Experiment Catches Fire” by Mary Mark Ockerbloom

What are some of your favorite magical systems? Have there ever been any magical systems that ruined a book, or TV show, for you?

Tomorrow: N is for Naming Characters!