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Nine Princes in Amber by Roger ZelaznyFour stars
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One of the genre’s most enduring and beloved multi-book sagas, Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels are old-fashioned entertainments that have influenced a number of today’s most popular fantasists (Steven Brust being one guy in particular I can think of) and continue to draw in readers to this day. There’s no point in pretending this is great literature any more than, say, Edgar Rice Burroughs, but it captures the essence of pulp escapism with just about as much purity. It’s fast-paced, bursting with an almost manic energy, and requires about as many brain cells as an old Johnny Weismuller movie.

The first book of the series, which would eventually span ten volumes (all of which are currently available in a massive single-volume omnibus edition), introduces us to Corwin, the long-lost heir to the throne of Amber, the “true” Earth beneath which all other worlds, including our own, belong to the realm of Shadow. Exiled to our world years before by his brother Eric, Corwin’s odyssey begins in a hospital where he awakens with total amnesia and is forced to piece his identity and destiny together with only the scantiest of clues. Reacquainted with two siblings, his sister Flora and brother Random, Corwin learns, gradually, of his true identity even as Eric, fearing his return to Amber, is sending thugs and killers after him. Corwin and Random return — through magical means that Zelazny declines to explain fully so as, one assumes, not to rob the story of its poetry — to Amber. There Corwin’s memory is restored through an ordeal involving walking a magical Pattern, and the battle against Eric is quickly joined after that.

The plot moves so swiftly and packs in so many breathless chase and swashbuckling scenes that it’s easy to overlook just how nicely structured it is. For 21st century readers, though, it may be difficult to get past the book’s many dated stylistic flourishes, and the inescapable impression that the whole thing is a featherweight affair. Readers today expect fantasy writers to show their work, with magic systems indexed and described in a level of detail worthy of Wikipedia. In Nine Princes in Amber, the characters just do magic, willing even entire worlds into being, and one is expected to accept that in the universe of Amber, this is a skill set that comes with the royal territory.

In the early chapters, you feel like you’re reading Chandleresque pulp noir. All the characters smoke, drink, and talk tough. If you’re expecting the kind of character development that gives you a deeply drawn, relatable protagonist, you’re at the wrong address. But as the story progresses, the whole thing takes on a mythic, almost oneiric quality that can be truly awe-inspiring, and you know you’re in sense-of-wonder territory at last. Zelazny’s visuals of Corwin and Random’s surreal journey back to Amber, complete with a descent to an undersea city, are haunting and breathtaking. Yet he offers moments of real humor (anyone for a bucket of Kentucki Fried Lizzard Partes?). Even the story’s deliberately stilted thee/thou/thy dialogue isn’t allowed to get too self-serious, as Corwin might say something like “Pray tell me, what of my brother Random?" and then immediately follow with “My memory is so screwed up.” Little anachronistic touches like this simply add to the pulpy appeal.

Decades after its first publication, Nine Princes in Amber remains a guileless, delightful adventure that’s lost none of its charm. It’s a snapshot in time of a kind of science-fantasy talespinning that used to be, preserved forever in amber.

Followed by The Guns of Avalon.