Monday, October 31, 2016

Further Readings: Amber

The following three stories are but a partial list of recommendations for readers who enjoyed Nine Princes in Amber:


The Guns of Avalon
Across the worlds of Shadow, Corwin, Prince of blood royal, heir to the throne of Amber, gathers his forces for an assault that will yeild up to him the crown that is rightfully his. But, a growing darkness of his own doing threatens Corwin's plans, an evil that stretches to the heart of the perfect kingdom itself where the demonic forces of Chaos mass to annihilate Amber and all who would rule there.
This is the immediate sequel to Nine Princes in Amber.  Many recommend reading The Guns of Avalon together with Nine Princes in Amber.


Lord of Light
Earth is long since dead. On a colony planet, a band of men has gained control of technology, made themselves immortal, and now rules their world as the gods of the Hindu pantheon. Only one dares oppose them: he who was once Siddhartha and is now Mahasamatman. Binder of Demons. Lord of Light.
A strange yet compelling mix of the American Revolution (per Zelazny), sword and planet fiction, and Indian religious myth, Lord of Light is a classic.  Read it, and then watch Argo to see the effect it had on history.


The Dark World, by Henry Kuttner

An amnesiac man is transported to another world -- a new world, where he has a new name, and a new destiny!
World War II veteran Edward Bond's recuperation from a disastrous fighter plane crash takes a distinct turn for the weird when he encounters a giant wolf, a red witch, and the undeniable power of the need-fire, a portal to a world of magic and swordplay at once terribly new and hauntingly familiar. In the Dark World, Bond opposes the machinations of the dread lord Ganelon and his terrible retinue of werewolves, wizards, and witches, but all is not as it seems in this shadowy mirror of the real world, and Bond discovers that a part of him feels more at home here than he ever has on Earth.
Sounds familiar, doesn't it?  Henry Kuttner was a major influence upon Roger Zelazny, and elements from the Dark World appear in the Chronicles of Amber, such as the amnesiac recovering from a crash, worlds that are shadows of the real world, and Ganelon.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Nine Princes in Amber, chapters 8-10

Chapter 8: Corwin is dragged out of his cell to attend Eric's coronation feast.  Despite being disruptive at every turn, he is forced by Julian to crown Eric.  Instead, Corwin sets the crown on his own head and claims the throne.  After the resultant beating, Eric finally ascends to the throne of Amber and orders Corwin's eyes to be burned out.

In his wrath and suffering, Corwin curses Eric, an act that scars Substance and Shadow.

After an unmeasured time of darkness and hanger, Rein, a jester elevated to a knight by Corwin's earlier instruction, visits in secret to deliver fresh food, wine, and cigarettes to Corwin.  After catching up on current events in Amber, Corwin forbids him from returning.

On the anniversary of Eric's coronation, Corwin is cleaned up and brought to the feast.  He eats and drinks his fill, ignored by all.


Chapter 9: Over the next four years, Rein visits Corwin regularly, bringing care packages and news.  Strange violent things walk the Shadows.  At the end of one visit, Corwin realizes that he is regrowing his eyes.  He now must escape before the next anniversary of Eric's coronation, or be blinded again.

Corwin attempts to escape by digging a way out with a spoon but is interrupted by a visit from a fellow captive, Dworkin, the designer of the Trumps.  After learning of Dworkin's ability to walk through Substance like it was Shadow, Corwin convinces him to etch a drawing of the Lighthouse of Cabra onto the prison wall.  The image is lifelike enough for Corwin to use it like a Trump and escape.


Chapter 10:  Corwin recovers in the lighthouse for three months.  Before he leaves, he sees the damage done to Amber and Shadow by his curse.  He then sails into Shadow, but not before sending a challenge to Eric.  The Throne of Amber remains contested.


Nine Princes in Amber serves as the first act in the five volume Corwin cycle.  As such it contains our introduction to the City of Amber in Corwin's failed attempt to obtain its throne.  It also contains the inciting action for the series in Corwin's curse, which creates a way into Amber that its enemies in the Courts of Chaos can exploit.

For all of Corwin's significant power and ability, it is clear that his victories are dependent on his kindnesses shown to those of lesser station.  Without offering protection to Random, the black sheep of the family, Corwin would not have reached Rebma and would have remained Carl Corey.  By previously elevating Reim from jester to balladeer and then finally knight, Corwin would have been deprived of comfort and news in his captivity.  The kindnesses shown to Dworkin and the lighthouse keeper at Cabra enable his escape from Amber.  When Corwin's victories are not directly enabled by another person, they follow a show of compassion.  Before Corwin walked the Pattern, he convinced Random not to walk out on Vialle of Rebma, an act that would also provide comfort during Corwin's of a different kind than Rein's.  Corwin's escapes through the Trumps also follow kindnesses, whether through favor shown to old retainers or attempts to minimize the casualties of his men.  In all these cases, Corwin shows grace as the stronger party to a weaker.  It is also telling that the greatest failures in the story come from Corwin relying on his own strength, whether it be his defeat, blinding, captivity, or the evils inflicted on Shadow and Substance by his curse.  His one great success by his own hand, leaving the hospital in the beginning of the book, was even the work of amnesiac Carl Corey, and not by the strength of the restored Corwin of Amber.

I have recently come across biographies of Zelazny that show that he studied Elizabethan drama in college.  Not only does this explain the five act structure used in the Chronicles of Amber, a common feature of the plays of Shakespeare's day, it also helps inform Zelazny's love of literature and literary references, which becomes evident in the next book, The Guns of Avalon.


I had originally selected Nine Princes of Amber based on how vivid the detective pulp introduction gave it a sense of reality not seen in many recent fantasies.  And I marveled at Corey's successful bluffing of his family without having memories of any of his siblings.  After the reread, I still think that the introduction is the strongest part of the book, but Corwin's escape and the curse on Amber are also hook enough to continue reading the series.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Nine Princes in Amber, Chapter 7

Chapter 7: After escaping the sinking of his navy, Corwin now marches on Amber.  The dying continues, through weather, nature, and constant ambush.  They climb the hill to the city, with each step costing lives, until, on the very landing itself, Eric wipes out the last of the soldiers with a hail of arrows.  Corwin is captured and imprisoned.


Readers get a chance to see why Corwin's return to Amber was feared by the Court of Amber, as few leaders and fighters would have breached the walls.  Corwin and Bleys's army should have broken long before they reached the Earth of Amber, much reach the City itself.  At the same time, Eric's cruelty and power is also revealed.  Eric is able to attrit an army larger than many WWII armies down to five thousand before the final battle.  His control over the Jewel of Judgement gives him power beyond which a Prince of Amber can match.  That said, I see no need to describe each turn of the meatgrinder as it grinds Corwin's soldiers away. 

Unlike previous chapters, this chapter is a distractionless dive towards the resolution.  There are no diversions with Corwin's siblings nor dalliances with the wonders of the City of Amber.  Instead, the plot delivers one key idea, that the skills and powers of a Prince of Amber are not enough to defeat Eric.  It is the climax and resolution to Corwin's story, which has been the attempt to take the throne of Amber away from Eric.


I have previously hinted at the five act structure underlying Nine Princes of Amber

The five act structure is a storytelling device that developed out of Classical Greek and Elizabethan English drama.  It divides a story into seven parts: an introduction, inciting action, rising action, the turning point, falling action, resolution, and denouement.  The introduction establishes characters and setting.  The inciting action is the event that creates the story's problem.  The rising action describes the events leading to the turning point, where the main character makes a decision that gives him the means to solve the problem.  The falling action whisks the characters towards the resolution, where the plans created by the turning point succeed or fail.  Afterward, the denouement tells of the repercussions from the resolution and reveals secrets if needed.  These parts are also placed at certain points in narrative space.  The turning point is always at the center of the story, with the inciting action and resolution at equidistant points from the center.  This means that a story's rising action will be as long as the falling action, and the same with the introduction and the denouement.  Analyses of dramatic works with narrative problems often show that the turning point was moved out of the center, creating too much or too little rising or falling action, breaking the proportions of the story.  Or, in the case of Save the Cat dramatic structures, no turning point exists at all.  The story is active, driven by the characters' choices, instead of passively relying on the current of events to carry characters along to the conclusion.

Not all stories use the five act structure.  Last month's Puppy, Nethereal, ended on its resolution without offering any denouement before its final scene, a device also used commonly by John Ringo.  Robert E. Howard's "Rattle of Bones" relies on repetition of events and phrases for its narrative structure.  And Hollywood favorite Save the Cat champions a three-act structure that makes stories nearly 75% introduction and rising action.  However, for those readers and writers who wish to learn five act structure, Nine Princes in Amber serves as a textbook example.

I previously noted that Zelanzy "[lined up] key parts of the book at the 20%, 40%, 50%, 60%, and 80% points." The precision is intended, as these points line up with elements of the five act structure.  These proportions are page counts, not the passage of time in the story as the denouement of Nine Princes in Amber lasts five years, longer than the combined events of the rest of the story.  Before the 20% mark, Corwin is making introductions to his family and Eric through the device of recovering his memories.  At the 20% mark, he declares that he will oppose Eric's schemes, presenting the core problem for Nine Princes in Amber.  Although the rising action will take Corwin from his declaration to walking Rebma's Pattern, the 40% point is when Random tells Corwin that he must walk the Pattern to restore his memories.  At the 50% mark, Corwin commits to walking the Pattern by setting foot upon its path.  This restores his memories and powers, giving him the capability to confront Eric.  It is the turning point in Corwin's conflict with Eric without which the succession war could not have occurred.  Again, while the falling action is the entire span from walking the Pattern to the succession war's end, at 60%, Corwin escapes from a confrontation with Eric and allies with Bleys.  The armies the two brothers raise turn Corwin's capabilities into means, and the resulting battles drive events to their resolution at 80%: Corwin's loss and capture.  From this point on, the denouement wraps up the loose end of the succession with Corwin's captivity and escape, as well as revealing the secret of strange things occurring in the Shadows. 

Unfortunately, the five act structure has fallen out of favor for try-fail cycles and monomyth.  However, it remains a potent tool for organizing storytelling.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Nine Princes in Amber, Chapter 6

Chapter 6: In the land of Avernus, Bleys and Corwin take advantage of local religion to raise an army of Shadow men against Eric.  Despite the size of the army, it won't be enough to depose Eric, so Corwin raises more from a world of rat-like me.  Even with a quarter million troops, he feels it won't be enough.  Corwin then uses his Trumps to convince Caine and Gerard to be negligent enough in their duties to Eric for an army to slip past their patrols.

On the night of departure, Corwin tries to contact the remaining members of his family. He contacts Brand, who begs deliverance from a hellish prison, but the connection is severed before Corwin can react.  Corwin then tries his father Oberon's card.  Oberon is still living, but is in an area of Shadow that masks his signal.  Through the faint connection, the former Lord of Amber gives Corwin his blessing.

The next day, Corwin leads the navies to Amber while Bleys marches upon the city.  The dying soon begins, from storm and ambush.  Eric bleeds away the army and fleet through a thousand small cuts.  Through the Trumps, Random tells Corwin to turn back since Eric can control the weather through the Jewel of Judgement.  However, Eric is about to assume the throne, so Corwin presses on.  In the waters near Amber, Caine's fleet meets Corwin's.  Told to surrender, Corwin stalls, attempting to trade his fleet's safety for the chance at a duel with Eric.  Eric refuses to duel, leaving Corwin with no other chance but a desperate fight.  Finally, as his fleet is reduced to one last ship and twelve crewmen, Corwin surrenders his navy.  But before Caine can take him captive, Corwin uses the Trumps to escape to Bleys's camp.


Corwin leads his navies on a forlorn hope to gain a foothold in Amber, with the expectation that Bleys will relieve his sailors with the armies, if either can survive Eric's defenses.  In an attempt to even the odds and save some Shadowmen lives, he attempts to cut deals with the members of his family not directly involved in the succession.  The mysteries of Brand's captivity and Oberon's exile will drive the plot of the Corwin cycle, the first five books of the Chronicles of Amber. Unfortunately, neither Brand or Oberon can influence Corwin's cause, which, at the end of the naval battle, appears lost.

The men of the Shadows might lack the Substance of the residents of Amber, but Corwin regrets their loss more than the fratricides he is planning.  Where Corwin (de)values his brothers and sisters of Substance based on utility, the less real Shadowmen have a marginal level of innate value to their lives that affects Corwin's conscience.  He will still spend their lives to gain the throne of Amber, however, as the city itself is the only thing he truly values.


Avernus is a volcanic lake considered to be the doorway to the underworld.  Many of the Shadows featured by name in Amber have mythological connections.  The realm of Avalon will appear once again in our reading in the next book, The Guns of Avalon, with visible mythological links to the Matters of Britain and France.

The cosmology of the Amber series is similar to that of Nethereal's.  The source of all reality is the Earth of Amber.  As a person leaves the city, he steps into Shadow, which grows thicker and darker until the realm of Chaos is reached.  The city of Amber occupies a similar place to Nethereal's White Well, which is the source of prana for its universe.  As a person leaves the White Well, he descends through various Strata, each with a progressively diminishing level of prana, until, at the very end, he reaches the Void.  In both the Chronicles of Amber and Netheral, the lords of Light and Chaotic Void clash.  However, while Amber gives the perspective of the "gods" of Light and Void, Nethereal's story belongs to the beings in the shadowy middle realms.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Team Corwin versus Team Eric

Over on the twit box, fellow traveler Hooc Ott (blog here) has been calling out Prince Corwin for his treatment of the million man army duped into launching a doomed assault on Prince Eric’s control over the city Amber.  The madman has gone so far as to throw his support behind Prince Eric.  He quotes from the text:
But I was feeling kind of funny. Most of these troops were destined to die. I was the agent responsible for much of this.  I felt some remorse, though I knew the difference between Shadow and Substance.  Each death would be a real death; however, I knew that also.
This is an interesting thought, and it shouldn’t disappear into the vast emptiness of Twitter’s servers – it deserves a more permanent home in the blogosphere.

PCBushi follows up with a more in-depth analysis of the situation on his own blog:
So far as the children of Oberon believe, Amber is the only Substance; all else is Shadow. However it also appears that the people of Amber do not know everything about their world or how their powers work. They seem to speculate and take for granted.
Even if Corwin doesn’t consciously realize it, I think he knows that the people of the Shadows are more than nothing. Perhaps this is a result of having lived on our Earth for some centuries. That, too, raises an interesting point. If the Shadow worlds are just reflections of Amber, devoid of any substance, then we too are nothing.
My gut instinct would be to throw my lot in with Team Gerard, called “the best of us” and the most loyal of the Princes, but he just doesn’t have enough screen time in the first book to fully justify such support.

So for now, I’m willing to wear my Team Corwin t-shirt.  For now.  From what we’ve seen in the first book, Eric is no prize pig himself.  We know he is capricious and scheming from day one.  He locked Corwin up in a mental hospital and drugged him for Oberon knows how long.  Imprisoning Corwin in response to the failed coup is understandable; his decision to torture and humiliate Corwin far less so.  And for all his faults, Corwin at least shows some sign of humanity in his regret for the loss of lives among the Shadow folk.   He has some growing to do yet, but he provides a glimmer of hope for a more just rule over the multiverse.
And I fully admit to feeling some bias for Corwin merely because he serves as the point of view character.  I’ve got four more books to spend in this guy’s head.  I’d rather not spend all that time rooting against my guide to the world of Amber.  It may not be fair or intellectually honest, but neither of those are preconditions for enjoying literature.  If they were, there wouldn’t be a need for Puppies of the Sad or Rabid flavor.

What about you?  Anybody else want to stake a claim for supporting one of the nine Princes…or maybe even one of the Princesses?

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Nine Princes in Amber, Chapter 5

Chapter 5: Three days of travel later, Deidre, Random, and Corwin reach the beach where the Stairway to Rebma begins.  A horn sounds, and horsemen drive them into the water.  They descend the underwater stairway, chased by the horsemen.  At the gates of Rebma, Corwin and Random make a stand.  Relieved by footmen from the city, the princes run to the gate.

Inside Rebma, the Court of Amber is brought before Moire, the queen of the realm.  She agrees to let Corwin walk the Pattern, but Random must stay in Rebma for a year in penance for the death of Moire's daughter, Random's one-time fling.  Random agrees, and will also marry a blind girl named Vialle.

After receiving the queen's blessing and affections, Corwin is escorted to the Pattern, a maze of swirls the size of three football fields.  He steps off, and the Pattern comes alive in a spray of sparks.  He pushes first the First Veil, first in a series of obstacles, and memories of WWII, the French Revolution, Shakespeare, and China flood back.  He recalls a special memory of walking through England during the Black Plague, and realizes that he has been without his memory for just as long.  The Second Veil restores memory of his family, including the ten dead siblings, and then memories of the city of Amber itself.  The way through the Pattern grows more difficult until he passes through the Final Veil.  His memories and powers restored, Corwin uses the pattern to transport himself to Amber.

In Amber's library, Corwin steals a pack of Trumps.  After declaring his intent for the throne of Amber to an old retainer, Dik, Corwin runs across Eric.  Their meeting devolves into a duel.  The two princes bloody each other, but Corwin escapes before Eric's retinue can overwhelm him.  In hiding, Corwin uses the Trumps to contact Bleys, who reaches out and pulls Corwin from Amber into Shadow.  The two brothers set aside their own competition for the throne to depose Eric.


Random has a son, Martin, from a fling with Morganthe, Moire's daughter.  In the greater story of the Chronicles of Amber, You Will See This Again.  The seeds for the greater conflict that will fill the five books of the Corwin cycle are starting to be planted where the reader can see them.


Rebma is on the same Earth of Amber, so Moire and her followers are of the same Substance as the Court of Amber.  Corwin's compassion for Vialle, expressed in his use of incentives to keep Random from running out on her, is different from that later expressed for his Shadowmen warriors in that Vialle, to Amberites, is Real in ways that that Shadowmen are not.  However, this compassion exhibited prior to Walking the Pattern contrasts with Corwin's callous abandonment of his family, who are as Real as Vialle, after he gets his memory back.  Prior to regaining his memories, glimpses of the ruthless Corwin of Amber shone through the amnesiac Carl Corey.  Soon, though, readers will find that the more compassionate Corey leavens the ruthless pragmatism of Corwin.

Heightening the weirdness of the underwater city of Rebma is Corwin's description of the underwater fight.  Blood poured from wounds like red smoke at a depth of over fifty feet.  However, as any diver can attest, blood is green at depth since red light gets absorbed quickly by the dense water.  It is to Zelazny's credit that this description is wondrous and weird, instead of reading as  ignorance.  After all, Corwin is fighting mounted cavaliers on an underwater staircase that allows people to breath water while they tread upon it.  It's just further proof that the Earth of Amber has different rules than our Shadowed home.


Walking the Pattern is the turning point for the plot of Nine Princes in Amber.  Without Corwin's memories and powers, he does not have the means to challenge Eric's claim to the throne.  Afterward, he gains the solution to the problem of how to foil Eric, as he gains access to Amber, powerful allies, and the ability to raise armies from the Shadows.  This sets Corwin on the path towards the plot's resolution, conflict with Eric's forces, which will decide if Corwin gains the throne or not.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Nine Princes in Amber, Chapter 4

Chapter 4: Disheveled, Random stumbles into Flora's mansion, followed by a gang from the shadows.  After a moment for preparation, Flora calls her dogs and a melee begins.  Random and Corwin dispatch their foes, humanlike creatures not from Earth.  While Flora attends to the staff, Random probes Corwin over the matter of Eric.  He agrees to help Corwin against Eric.

Corwin and Random leave New York.  When Corwin decides to start his play for Eric's throne, Random takes them on the road to Amber.  As the skies and fields change around them, they encounter a series of obstacles.  Routing around the roadblock sends the brothers through more strange places, including other planets.  Finally, after a bucket of Kentucki Fried Lizzard Partes, Random chances the direct path to Amber.

Along the way, they run into Julian on horseback.  After exchanging veiled unpleasantries, Julian allows them to depart, only to ambush Corwin and Random soon after.  Corwin captures Julian, releasing him after an interrogation.

Once past the Lighthouse of Cabra, Corwin and Random emerge in the real Earth of Amber.  As Corwin dresses for the occasion, he finds a sword and scabbard once thought to be long lost.  Fearing ambush as they grow closer to the city, the brothers come across a camp.  Another sister, Deirdre, is held captive inside.  Corwin rescues her and confesses his amnesia for the first time.

After an attack by werewolves, Random tells Corwin that he must walk the pattern in Rebma to restore his memory.  Random would accompany him, if not for the fact that he has upset the occupants of Rebma.


This one chapter serves as the majority of the rising action of Nine Princes in Amber, continuing Corwin's quest to discover more about himself and Amber.  It's also one-fifth of the entire length of the novel.  In fact, a quick perusal of the page count gives the impression that the story structurally was written in fifths of equal length, with chapters 1-3 as the first, 4 the second, 5, 6 and 7, and finally 8-10.  Key events happen at the end of each section: Corwin's announcement of his opposition to Eric, Random's plan to restore Corwin's memory, Corwin and Bleys's declaration of war against Eric, and Corwin's defeat.  Additionally, Corwin regained his memories at the exact center of the book.  Lining up key parts of the book at the 20%, 40%, 50%, 60%, and 80% points shows deliberate craftmanship by Zelazney and a textbook application of the five act structure.  I will discuss the concept in depth in our Chapter 7 review, closer to the actual climax of the book.


In this chapter, Random and Corwin are revealed to be true brothers as opposed to half-brothers.  Kindly chalk this up to Corwin's memory problems as later books will retcon this fact.  Corwin's actual brother and sister are Eric and Deidre, his mortal enemy and his favorite sister.  The 70s fascination with incest rears its ugly head here.

Corwin's game of blind-man's bluff with his relatives continued.  But while his attempts with Flora were confident and off-the-cuff, we see deliberate move and countermove against Random.  His facade is requiring more effort, until he finally abandoned it when he had no more moves.

Pre-amnesia Corwin appears for a moment after Random kills a Shadow man who challenged him.  He grows upset with Random, not for the death, but because "he was mine to kill."  Corwin's return to Amber is feared by his siblings for good reason.


I thought Julian's "I enjoy slaughtering beasts and I think of my relative constantly" to be a clever and chilling bit of wordplay.


Random moves through Shadow by adding and subtracting elements until he gets where he wants.  This explains the increasing yet familiar strangeness on the road to Amber, complete with atmosphere and gravity shifts.  As a consequence, this means that fighting in Shadow favors confortation instead of hiding behind a fixed defense.  As Random declared at Flora's mansion, "There exists a possibility that they will enter, so they will."


Rebma is the reflection of Amber, not just in setting but in name.  Cute naming tricks like this will become an enduring fad in SFF.  At least it wasn't the contemporary wanton apostrophe abuse.


On the road to Amber, Random and Corwin shift from speaking English to speaking Thari.  Some readers consider this a reference to Shelta Thari, the language of the Irish Travellers, a gypsy-like people also known as Tinkers, as it fits the English and French naming in Amber.  (Tinkers will also appear in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time.)  However, Thari is also the name of a dialect of the Sindh language, which is spoken in a land that some believed to be where the Indo-European languages originated.  Zelazny's Lord of Light showed that he was familiar with Indian myth and culture, so it is not impossible that he chose an Indian Thari from the land that is the sun-source of language for the royalty from the sun-source of reality to speak.

Monday, October 17, 2016

November 2016 Puppy of the Month: Thune's Vision, by Schuyler Hernstrom.

“And be wary. Victory will test your iron in ways defeat cannot."

A death knight embroiled in the schemings of a dark god, a warlord reluctantly chasing the visions of a dying shaman, warring lizardmen are disturbed by a strange sign from the heavens, an old wizard attempts his definite gambit to finally cheat death. These and others are the stories that you will find in Thune's Vision, a collection of four short stories and a novella, by Schuyler Hernstrom.

Some of you may already know him from his work on Cirsova magazine, but if not, this is the perfect opportunity to fix that. Anyone who knows his pulps and the classics of writers like Robert E. Howard and Jack Vance will quickly see the similarities between Hernstrom's style and those works. Although not yet a famous author, and it's in fact quite an obscure book, if you are interested in the renaissance of Sword & Sorcery and fantasy in general you should read Thune's Vision. Since the short story was also the cradle of fantasy, this collection is a great homage to those tales and the spirit that inspired the Appendix N and the work we do here at the Puppy Of The Month Book Club.

Do you want to join the discussion about a book that will surely be recognized in the future? Read the book and comment, or write your own post if you feel adventurous or have something to say!

You can buy Thune's Vision at Amazon.

Continuing Conversations

Inspired by recent posts here at the Puppy of the Month Book Club, Hooc Ott pulled a copy of the D&D module X2, Castle Amber, off the shelf and found some very interesting things.  I almost did the same thing, but aborted early when I discovered that the common consensus was that X2 was inspired by the writings of Clark Ashton Smith. 

The Wikipedia entry, for example, doesn't mention Zelazny's influence at all - only Poe and Lovecraft rate a mention despite.  You've got to hit up the new kid on the block, Infogalactic, to get the straight dope.  Funny that.

Once again, common consensus proves to be as reliable as common wisdom, because there's a lot more to X2 than most reviewers would have you believe.  Hooc Ott sets the record straight with wave after wave of fun connections and deeper meanings to a huge number of aspects of X2.  He continues the conversation over on his eponymous blog:

Beyond the Nine Princes of Amber X2 Castle Amber is a hot mess of pulp references. As mentioned there is the Clark Ashton Smith stuff as well as an Poe encounter with an Amber sister who is buried alive by her brother and calls out to him. There are Rakasta, cat like humanoids, which Alex pointed out come from Zelazny’s Lord of Light and there is the Brain Collector or Neh-Thalggu which looks to me comes from Lovecraft.

Go check it out - this is exactly the sort of wider conversation about these older works that the Puppy of the Month Book Club aims to inspire.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Amber Diceless: Appendix N Taken to the Next Level

Previously, The Frisky Pagan discussed the important role the city of Amber played in inspiring the city of Sigil, the central location in D&D's Planescape setting.  In 1991, the Amber role-playing game hit the market.  Now commonly referred to as "Amber Diceless" for obvious reasons, it was written by the prolific Palladium game author Erick Wujcik. Unlike most games of its day, Amber Diceless was designed to focus more on relationships and political intrigue than pure action and combat.  It's other main selling point was the novel rule set that eschewed dice for a simple comparative skill comparison. 

This particular game had been on my radar for years, but having no exposure to the source material and favoring games that included at least an element of chance kept me away.  Having read the first book in the series, it's clear that the Amber universe is a rich mine of possibility for role-playing.  Apparently, the three major methods of doing so consist of 1. playing as the main characters from the book fighting for Oberon's throne, 2. playing as the children of the main characters in the book (during the time after the fifth book in the series), 3. chucking the characters from the book and making up your own children of Oberon fighting for the throne.  Each method gives a gaming table the prize macguffin and ready made conflict, and a whole multi-verse in which their god-like princes and princesses can stomp around.

It's worth pointing out that Amber Diceless was released the same year as another RPG that incorporated relationships and political struggle as a central premise - Vampire: The Gathering.  With its more gothic and bloody undertones,  and perhaps a beefier marketing machine behind it, Vampire: The Gathering took the gaming world by storm and largely overshadowed the smaller press Amber.  Amber also suffered for its strong tie-in to a source material less widely known outside of nerd and geek circles than the ubiquitous vampire.  (Ever seen a kid dressed as Corwin on Halloween?)

While the diceless game mechanics proved off-putting to many gamers, this rule set would prove to be a precursor to a whole RPG movement dedicated to promoting more story based games that rely less on chance than on narrative control.  Now commonly referred to as story games, they represent a full blown niche of their own within the larger RPG hobby.   While there may have been diceless games before Amber, none were as large, as well received, or enjoy the continuing cachet of Amber Diceless, which still boasts of periodic conventions dedicated solely to its play. 

Having read Nine Princes in Amber, it's easy to see how it influenced early iterations of D&D, and how a table full of friends could sit down to play out their own version of the fight for Oberon's crown.  That temptation still lingers two and a half decades after the publication of Amber Diceless, with a new title written exploring the same themes and potential adventures, Lords of Gossamer and Shadow, published in 2013.  That these books could still be inspiring tabletop gaming more than 40 years after they were first recommended by E. Gary Gygax is both a testament to his tastes and the creativity of Roger Zelazny.  Clearly, these two men tapped into something that resonates with people in a profound way.

If you have any direct experience with Amber Diceless, just scroll down a little bit - there's a comment section right down there - we'd love to hear about what you did with Zelanzy's work and how well it works at the gaming table.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Nine Princes in Amber, Chapter 3

Chapter 3: The next day, Corwin spends time in Flora's library attempting to jog his memory.  While the source of his family's wealth remains hidden, he discovers a knack for the medical and military arts.  Not content with only those discoveries, his investigation turns into outright snooping.  In a hidden compartment of Flora's desk, he discovers a deck of tarot-inspired playing cards.  He finds a picture of one of his brothers and sisters on each of the Greater Trumps, but notices some are missing.  Handling the cards creates a air of nostalgia for Amber, but memories of the city remain closed to him.

After dinner, Random tries to call Flora on the phone, but Corwin answers instead.  Random is shocked to hear Corwin, but is in a spot of trouble so he asks for Corwin's protection.  The black sheep of Amber tells Corwin that he is on his way, but through a circling route in shadow.  Corwin perceives that Amber itself is at the heart of Random's troubles.  He then sleeps off a growing headache.

Waking Corwin, Flora sounds him out about the state of affairs in Amber.  Corwin cuts her off by stating she is missing some Trumps.  Flora panics and begs Corwin to give them back.  After regaining her composure, she also accuses him of blocking her attempt to report to Eric.  Despite her frustrations, Flora holds a measure of respect for what she perceives as Corwin's skill at out-maneuvering her.  She then provokes Corwin into declaring that he will try for the throne of Amber, although he is not aware of exactly what he has agreed to.  She immediately starts scheming.  A chime interrupts her as Random arrives at the mansion.


While it would be interesting to see what tarot card corresponds to what prince or princess of Amber, none of the tarot titles, such as The Emperor, The Chariot, or the Fool, are associated to any of the characters, despite the fan-made Amber tarots in existence.  Rather, the Trumps function similar to the paintings of the Endless in the Sandman comics.  Both are used to communicate and even summon family members.  (Similarities between the Court of Amber and the Endless abound.  One can easily deduce the influence of Amber upon the comics.)  At this stage of the story, the cards are used to introduce each of the living princes and princesses of Amber, Corwin's relationships with each, and a potential tragedy in the missing cards.

At first blush, Random's name seems out of step with the general English and French naming convention for the Court of Amber.  However, it's etymology is that of Old French.  It does, however, still reek of Purposeful Naming, a trope that has since grown into a cliche.  In addition to its current meaning, the word random has been used to denote impetuousness and even a sense of shunned outsidership.  Random does live down to his name, as we will soon see.

For all the intrigues among the Court of Amber, the members are quite trusting of each other. Also taken for granted is Random's swift cross-country trip.  While the powers available to a prince of Amber have yet to be explicitly stated, we already have clues to their superhuman skills.


Nine Princes is Amber is part of Dungeons and Dragons' Appendix N, a collection of fantasy works spanning fifty years that inspired the game. As such, it often gets lumped in with the pulp fantasies, even though it is among the newest works in Appendix N, and the pulps are among the oldest.  Pulp influence is certain, as Corwin's escape from the hospital would not be out of place in a film noir movie.  But is it in the pulp tradition or just pulp flavored?

Let's use Misha Burnett's "Five Pillars of the Pulp Revival" to examine Nine Princes in Amber, as read up to this point, to find out.  While Misha is quick to point out that the pillars are a work-in-progress, many in the Pulp Reformation have found the Five Pillars to be a useful description of what makes pulp stories stand out.  Besides, all good ideas need testing.

The Five Pillars are:

Action - With the exception of the escape from the hospital in Greenwood, most of the story so far has been focused on Corwin's memories and impressions.  However, we have already seen that Corwin can act decisively and is no stranger to violence.  Furthermore, little actions enliven the dialogue.  Flora is never just scared or happy; she is clutching her dog-whistle or covering Corwin in sisterly kisses.  Her actions underscore the dialogue in a clinic on the old adage, "Show, don't tell."

Impact - We've yet to see much impact to Corwin's actions by the end of Chapter 3.  So far, the story has been about who Corwin is instead of what Corwin does.  Also, his amnesia shrouds his previous actions from the readers.  However, with Corwin's declaration to try to outmaneuver Eric and Random's arrival at Flora's mansion, this will soon change.

Moral Peril - Corwin has yet to be placed in any serious physical peril, much less any moral peril.

Mystery - Whether it is Corwin's continued discovery of who he is, the thirteen members of his family, or Amber itself, mystery abounds at this stage of the novel.

Romance - While Flora might have a fondness for her brother, Corwin's love at this point is the dim recollections of Amber.  This affection is just a feeling, and hasn't been embodied in any individual.

At this point, it is too early to declare if Nine Princes in Amber is a member of the pulp tradition, although we can confirm the presence of two of the Five Pillars of pulp.  Let's revisit this examination in a later post.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Nine Princes in Amber, Chapter 2

Chapter 2: Corey makes his way to New York City and readies himself for his meeting with Evelyn.  He hopes that she will jog his memories.  However, when we meets his sister, Corey hides his amnesia behind bluff and non-committal statements.  He manages to alleviate Evelyn's suspicions while navigating through a mire of family intrigue without knowing the lay of the land or the players involved.

Carl Corey is actually Corwin, a major piece in the chess game played by his family.  One one side of the board is Eric, who is gathering support among the family, including Evelyn's.  Corwin weaves his way through her conversational raps, suggesting that he might first support and then challenge Eric.  Evelyn shifts her support to Corwin, revealing her name to be Florimel.

Woven throughout the conversation is talk of Amber, a land whose mention has an electric effect on Corwin.


I find it interesting that Florimel and Corwin are so trusting even as they verbally bluff and riposte. Corwin has little choice, as his memories are gone, but he gives Flora a measure of unearned trust. After all, she is the sister that kept him in Greenwood to be sedated.  Additionally, Corwin is not liked by much of his family, which pleases him even in his amnesiatic state. Flora, however, is opportunistic, willing to toss aside her support to Eric if a better option presents itself.  Given the intrigues of the children of Amber, she must suspect a trap.

Also odd is that Corwin shrugs off the simple fact that the car accident that sent him to Greenwood occurred only 15 or so days before.  Broken legs can take six weeks to months to heal.  His swift recovery is unremarkable to him, even without his memories.


Like many works prior to the fantasy explosion of 1977, the Chronicles of Amber does not sit easily in any one genre.  Fortunately, in The Hand of Oberon, a self-inserted Roger Zelazney states that he is "...writing a philosophical romance shot through with elements of horror and morbidity."

Odd that for the naked intent of the author, philosophical examinations of the Chronicles of Amber are rare.  I was only able to find one article seriously addressing philosophy, in the New York Review of Science Fiction.  Perhaps John C. Wright, Michael Flynn, or one of their more philosophical fans might remedy this lack.


After many months of delay, the fourth book in the Chronicles of Amber, The Hand of Oberon, has finally been released on ebook.  Hopefully it will not take as long for The Courts of Chaos to be released, followed by the five book Merlin cycle.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

All roads lead to Amber.

Some books are timeless, others, however, constantly remind you that they were written in a certain era. That is not necessarily wrong, though, and I think that Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny are of that kind. In the first book of the series, Nine Princes in Amber, there are certain things like the style and language of the narrator, its philosophical and psychedelic themes, and the specific references to our world that seem to scream "This was written in the 70s!

Nonetheless, the book(s) have outlived their time, and they are still a classic of fantasy, and through their (sometimes quite indirect) influence, they have helped shape a lot of contemporary fiction, and not only novels but also games, from D&D to Games of Thrones. 

Now, for those who have not read the book, the basic plot of the book is about Corwin, the amnesiac member of a dysfunctional family of nine chainsmoking god-like brothers (there are also fours sisters who don't seem to matter that much) who fight over the crown of Amber, the real City of the real Earth. Apparently, almost as if it were the center of creation, Amber is the original archetype of a City, and all the other worlds, cities and civilizations (including our own planet) are a "shadow" of Amber, who is said to cast its shadow everywhere. The princes of Amber (the former king, Oberon, is currently AWOL) have some pressing sibling issues, but they are also stronger, smarter, and more powerful than any other human -real or from the shadow worlds- and in these worlds they are usually mistaken for gods, a belief the princes do not try to deny.  Beyond all that backstabbing, there are also hints of something bigger going, like references to odd shadow beings, and something about "Chaos," but that's for the next books in the series.

About the book itself, I think that The Nine Princess of Amber (the first of the Amber series,) like other Zelazny's books, goes from impressive to clearly not so good in an instant, and the changes back again. It has parts clearly written by someone with a great knowledge of the craft, and then others that seem like someone is translating the instructions for a Chinese dishwasher. Although I'm sure other people may disagree, I think the quality of the book follows a V-shaped form. It starts great, with all that hardboiled gumshoe action, and it still great even when it suddenly gets so weird that even Philip K. Dick would shake his head in despair, but then (just when the action and the epic battles start,) the quality goes down. Perhaps it was just me, but there was a moment I got the impression I was reading the description of a spreadsheet of distances, time, weather, and casualties tabulations, not a real war to conquer the most important city in the multiverse.

Still, the failed invasion that Bleys and Corwin attempted fails quickly, and we find our beaten and blinded protagonist in a dungeon. I've read some people criticizing that part, usually because they believe it's boring ("where's the action!") but I think it's not only interesting but also necessary. Corwin's suffering humanizes him and gives him a certain personality and motivation he had lacked before. Sure, we know that his brothers had been fighting over some crown or somesuch for centuries, but we have no reason to care about that struggle. In fact, the whole thing is a bit solipsistic because it's almost as if there were only nine people alive in the whole Universe and the whole point of existence was just that crown and the brothers hating each other until the end of time.

"Thus did I bear Sir Lancelot du Lac to the Keep of Ganelon, whom I trusted like a brother. That is to say, not at all."

(that quote is not from the first book but the second one, but it would be a crime not to use it.) 

Making him fail, and hard, is a perfect way to humanize him, to make him weaker and, yes, "normal," to give him a distinct character compared to that of his other brothers. That is why in the previous post I commented that you should read the first two books as one since the first one clearly looks like an introduction.

All doors lead to Sigil.

Roger Zelazny appeared in the fabled Appendix N but -unlike a more definite influence of Jack of Shadows on the thief class- trying to find how the Amber Chronicles shaped the original Dungeons & Dragons is a bit more difficult (to me, anyway.) But it did end up influencing D&D a lot, even if years later. A kind of time-warping retroactive influence that I'm sure Zelazny would have enjoyed.

In 1994 the Planescape Campaign setting was published, and with it the city of Sigil, The City of Doors:

"Sigil: the City of Doors. This town's the gateway to everything and everywhere that matters. Step through one door and enter the halls of Ysgard, or turn down a particular alley and discover the Abyss." 
                                               From the Player Guide to the Planes

And then there's this:

"The multiverse is a big place, and logically it has to be because hypothetically it encompasses every AD&D campaign world ever created, whether these are made by TSR or by any of the thousands of DMs who play AD&D games. This is all theoretical, of course, since no one has recorded all the campaigns created for the AD&D game, yet theoretically, they're all out there somewhere.
                                            From the "A DM Guide to the Planes."

Although I haven't found any prove that David "Zeb" Cook was influenced by Zelazny's work when he designed the Planescape setting, it's hard not to think of Amber when reading about Sigil. The second quoted part also reminds me of those debates concerning the nature of the shadow worlds. Are they real, or are they a creation of the Princes of Amber who by conceiving them create them? It does not matter, or so  the argument goes, what matters is that theoretically every world/campaign ever imagined or to be imagined should be there, somewhere. And in the center of it all, Amber/Sigil.

Then, in 1999, what is sometimes considered one of the best computer role-playing games, was published. It was Planescape Torment, and this is what his main writer (Chris Avellone) said about his influences:

"Zelazny was probably the biggest influence, since he was pretty much the master of writing stories with amnesiac heroes coming into their own.

The Nameless One, Planescape Torment protagonist, is not only an amnesiac who has lived hundreds or thousands of lives on different worlds/planes, but he (like Corwin) also has an incredible regenerative power. Unlike Corwin, however, power (e.g. Amber's throne) isn't the goal he seeks but to understand who he is (unlike Corwin, he doesn't regain his memory in the introductory chapters.) Also, his regeneration also seems to have some limits because he looks live he routinely sleeps in a combine machine, probably the inevitable result of his body having being destroyed hundreds of times.

The main theme of the game, the question "What can change the nature of a man?", that repeats itself through all of Nameless One's amnesic reincarnations and hunts him everywhere he goes, is probably a direct reference to something written in the second book of the Amber series, The Guns of Avalon:

"Why had no one ever come up with a way to change the basic nature of man? Even the erasure of all my memories and a new life in a new world had resulted in the same old Corwin. If I were not happy with what I was it could be a proposition worthy of despair."

Changing or not the nature of man, I'm glad that a book that was written almost fifty years ago and in a very specific style and era, still casts its shadow after all that time.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Hardboiled Fantasy

Now this is how a game of thrones should be played, by vicious backstabbing political princes with ever-shifting alliances and a whole lot less rape. 

Source: Ayej (DeviantArt Page)
Roger Zelazny is one of those authors who has largely flown under my radar.  His books were a staple of the used-book stores for a long time, thanks largely to the Amber series.  Never in a position to pick up the full series, his has been a name filed away for future reading, so it was with some gratitude that I saw Nathan had chosen it.

Amusingly, looking at a bibliography just now to confirm how little of his work I have read, two names jumped out at me.  One book is set in Saberhagen's 'Berzerker' universe and the second, of all things, is 'Damnation Alley'.  That was a blast from decades past.  I recall enjoying the movie as a young child, and reading the book years later only to be surprised at how much more sense everything made in the book.  I was young.

For me, Nine Princes in Amber got off to a bit of a rocky start.  The gimmick of an amnesiac protagonist, Corwin, learning of his past the same way the reader does - through slow and subtle discovery - may have been relatively new at the time the book was written, but it's been done so often now that I wondered what Nathan had signed us up for.  That lasted until the amnesiac pulled a neat trick and effected an escape as clever as it is sudden and brutal.

The book's tone pulls a neat trick of its own, speaking with a very Dashielle Hammet style in the modern setting, and slowly fading into a more mythic and fairy-tale-ish tone the closer Corwin gets to Amber.  Corwin seems to share the attitude of 'regretful willingness to do violence to get what he needs' of most hardboiled detectives, too.  The frequent questioning of himself and concern for others that he counts a weakness adds to that feeling.

Another feeling that the book evoked in this reader is the feeling of datedness.  Whenever else one considers Amber to exist, there's no doubt that Corwin is a product of the 1970s.  He and his siblings drink and smoke constantly, even in a dank prison, and he commonly uses the verb 'to dig' as a synonym for 'to understand'.  Use of the 1970s slang jangled against the gentle dreaminess of most conversation set in Amber, and pulled this reader out of the story.  A minor quibble, but given how well the book is written, and how well it stands the test of time otherwise, that particular slang term stands out as a uniquely proud nail.

I'm not too thrilled that the book ends on such an obvious cliffhanger, even as I understood going in that it was the first of a series.  Corwin is an agreeable protagonist, and the conflict had been nicely setup to the point that the remaining books in the series are now on my 'must read' list.  Somewhere.  I may have to select 'The Guns of Avalon' as my next Puppy of the Month, just to squeeze it in.

If September's posts are anything to go by, Frisky and Nate will open our eyes to all of the subtle references in the book, and its sequel move from 'must read' to 'must read now'.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Nine Princes in Amber, Chapter 1

 Chapter 1: A hospital patient slowly comes to in a private room.  Recognizing the symptoms of a long sedation, he immediately grows suspicious.  Playing possum as a nurse checks in on him, he tries to recall what happened to him.  But when it is time for his next dose of sedative, he sits up and refuses treatment.  An orderly tries to force him to take the injection, but a low blow and an improvised blackjack lay out the staffer.  Dressed in the orderly's scrubs,, the patient roams the hospital until he finds the records room.  Threatening a lawsuit, he extorts his name, Carl Corey, his sister's name, Evelyn Flaumel, and her address from the clerk - as well as $500 in spending money.  Corey then leaves the hospital in search of a cab.

Corey is in the Greenwood Private Hospital for a legitimate injury, as the only memories he can recall are about a car falling off a cliff into a lake.  However, he is suspicious that someone is trying to keep him there as he recognizes the symptoms of narcotic overuse. He certainly exhibits those symptoms - memory loss, paranoia, and irritability - but nothing in the narration suggests that Corey's paranoia and irritability is unwarranted.

Rather, Corey's voice suggests the hardboiled detectives of film noir and the detective pulps.  This impression is further strengthened by Corey's familiarity with violence and his hard-nosed negoitiating style.  The genre conventions of the pulp detective add to the fantastic by grounding the first chapter in a foundation of reality.  From the reader's perspective, Corey will journey from present day (at the time of Amber's writing) reality into a realm of pure fantasy.  However, from the city of Amber's perspective, he will move from fantasy to reality, as Amber is the sun-source of reality that all other realms are dim reflections of.  It is an excellent thematic touch, serving as an example of how drawing on other genres besides fantasy can strengthen a story.

At the same time, the grounding in reality is also a trope of the Lost World genre.  In these stories, a person from the current day discovers a new world separated in time and/or space from the current world.   Examples include children's tales such as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, epic fantasies including the Thomas Covenant series, and the Song of Albion, and alternate histories like the Crosstime Engineer and the 163X series.  However the heyday of the genre was in the pulps, where Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter, Tarzan, and David Innes adventured through their own lost worlds - and sometimes each other's.  Amber takes inspiration from the pulp versions by making Corey a competent man of action able to face the challenges of his strange new world by strength and cunning.  Even from the reversed perspective to the reader of Amber, Corey's tale is the homecoming of an adventurer thought lost in a Lost World.  Unfortunately for Corey, it will be the homecoming of Odysseus.


I have previously mentioned that Nine Princes in Amber was chosen because it was the leading suggestion by Puppies when asked for reading recommendations during the time of the Hugos and the Dragon Awards.  I also had two other reasons for picking it. First, I noticed that on a couple of blogs that the editor of Nethereal, L. Jagi Lamplighter, has compared Brian Niemeier's work to that of Zelazny's. The latent literary critic within wants to see how and why that might be true.  Second, I consider it a refutation of the common fandom assumption that readers only enjoy current works and that the past masters are impenetrable I found that first chapter of Nine Princes in Amber to be more real/true/identifiable than the works of Sanderson, Rothfuss, and Lynch, all writers I enjoy and have a certain amount of respect for.  Rather than just rant on the marketing inflicted myopia of the industry, I would also like to raise awareness of some of the classics so that new readers can find them.  Fortunately, the ebook revolution is bringing the backlists of the past back to the marketplace, making the classics more accessible than they have been in years.  For those of you reading along with us at the Puppy of the Month Club, you're in for a treat.