Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, Book 1: A Review

In Which Corwin Reaches for a Pack of Cool Amber Lights

I recently finished the first book of the Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny, the first of ten books which comprise two story arcs of five novels each. If you are unfamiliar with Zelazny and his work, you might think this is a relatively new novel, given today’s penchant for series of works, often voluminous. That would be a wrong estimate though, considering that this first work was published 46 years ago in 1970 and clocks in at brisk 190 pages or thereabouts in the paperback version — a veritable novella by today’s often bloated standards.

the-great-book-of-amberThis is my first work by Zelazny; I have not read his earlier work — reputedly dense and brilliant compared to his later work, according to Publishers Weekly — nor have I read any of his later work, so I really can’t comment on that. What I can say is that the plot was taught and fast moving, and that his use of … anachronism, for lack of a better word, although that’s not quite right in this instance, was intentional and worked for the characters involved — albeit, it was a bit confusing, at first.

While later books may prove to be simple and formulaic — again, Publishers Weekly — thus far it seems rather refreshing, given its sword-and-sorcery setting. Given that our main character wakes up in an ordinary hospital room in modern upstate New York but quickly moves on to become involved in dimension hopping and a race for a throne — or should I say “the” throne — it is rather off-putting, in a good sort of way, that he talks more like Sam Spade than Gawain and the Green Knight.

And cigarettes; let us not forget the cigarettes.

Probably anyone reading it for the first time won’t bother to think too much about Corwin’s — the main character’s — smoking cigarettes when he’s running around New York state, particularly when you take into account that it is, presumptively, 1970. Later on in the novel — I’ll tell you now there is some minor spoilerage ahead; if it is an issue quit reading now — when he’s stuck for years in a dungeon in the bowls of the city of Amber, the fact that an unexpected friend smuggles him cigarettes on a somewhat regular basis may jar some readers. Given the fact that Amber is at least a couple of dimensions away — again for lack of a better word; Zelazny never precisely says — in space and/or time away from Earth, and that few people can traverse the shadows, as it is called in the novel, of which Earth is but one of many, perhaps give some pause.

How do cartons of cigarettes get to Amber? Or do they? Perhaps they grow tobacco and roll their own, just like they do back on Earth; we never learn if Corwin smokes Lucky Strikes or Amber Lights. Perhaps tobacco and/or cigarettes were bought back to Amber years ago from Earth and now they produce said Amber Lights; we all know what happened when the Spanish bought tobacco back from the “New World.”

Again, Zelazny isn’t saying, at least in this first of ten novels, and that’s OK with me. Some may fault him for shoddy world-building, but I don’t think so. It works here, especially given this fast-paced novel which has little fat; Dashiell Hammett’s characters don’t lend much time to ennui and thumb twiddling — or vivid descriptions that may wow some readers but do little to otherwise advance the plot — and neither does Zelazny. This, perhaps more so than anything else, separates him from today’s serial novelists.

So, what’s next? Am I burning through the next novels? Not exactly. I’ll say again that I liked it, but not so much that I’m addicted, per se. I’ll return at some point, but don’t hold your breath; there are many others waiting in the wings. Plus I think — or rather, I know — that my tastes seem to be changing. But we’ll save that topic for another time and perhaps another blog.

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