Now for some obvious advice: don’t start a ten book series by reading book 8!
I was well aware of this when I was a kid and I happened to pick up the eighth book in Roger Zelazny’s Amber series. But I didn’t have money to buy lots of books back then, and my local library didn’t stock much science fiction or fantasy, my main interests at the time.
So this solitary Amber book on the library shelf looked nifty and I dove right in. I admire my younger self for the sheer insanity of such a move, but I still wouldn’t recommend it.
I was bewildered by almost everything about the book, Sign of Chaos. I don’t remember which book I read next – I don’t think it was the ninth book. But when I had finally read the entire 10 book run, I quickly realized that the first five, which form a complete story arc, were much better than the second set of five, which formed a separate follow-up story. I also realized that the very first book, Nine Princes in Amber, was probably the best of all ten.
Granted, some of the charm of the first book was already ruined by my out of sequence reading order. Nine Princes in Amber is a very carefully constructed book – it brings the reader into a unique fantasy world a step at a time, especially in the first half. It can get a little tedious if you already know all the secrets.
Specifically, the main character, Corwin, starts the story with no memory of his own identity or why he is locked up in a hospital and kept sedated. The story of the amnesiac is a handy way to get your reader up to speed, but it makes re-reading a bit less worthwhile.
One of the things we discover quickly in Nine Princes in Amber: Corwin is clearly a bastard. And his family is worse.
It’s inevitable in the set-up. The realm he is from, Amber, is the only true world, and everything else is called Shadow, since all these other worlds are precisely that, variations on the true source. It’s like the whole multiple universes thing, except that Corwin and his family can “walk through Shadow” by sheer will-power.
So our world is a Shadow too, as are all the worlds where Corwin and his brothers get their cannon fodder from. Corwin has a few pangs of conscience, but they don’t last long in the face of his ambitions. The nine princes of the title are vying for the throne since their father has gone missing, and Corwin is determined to be crowned king.
The series does go to a very different place by the end of the fifth book, but the first book is a concentrated dose of anti-hero. Shadow people, those poor slobs like you and me, get slaughtered by the hundred thousand, and the princes of Amber continue with their power grabs.
Nine Princes in Amber is written in a prose style that no one uses anymore, and that hardly anyone else could do right at the time — Zelazny uses a mix of anachronism and high-flown rhetoric.
The oddness of the mix is made much more obvious by the fact that I listened to the audiobook — read by Zelazny himself! And he was not a professional actor (or voice actor? is that what people who read audiobooks are?), so his delivery is dry, due to amateur delivery as well as his own personal emphasis on the laconic. When I was listening to the audiobook, I was really struck by the debt Amber owes to noir. The old school detective novels, like Chandler and so on, were an interesting mix of gritty genre violence and highly-concentrated rhetoric. That seems very familiar here.
Amber is definitely a light fantasy adventure. That’s pretty much where Zelazny’s career went — short, fast books that were definitively well-written but didn’t add up to the genre-busting classics that people might have expected from him. His early stories, written in the 1960s, are still masterpieces. Nine Princes in Amber, written in 1970, seems to have started him down a different career path.
All the same, the first five books of the Amber series represent, as a whole, an accomplishment the equal of anything other writers were doing at the time, like more seriously regarded fare such as Dune. The building of the various bits of fantasy apparatus is impeccable, and Zelazny has remarkable control of his tone — this would all fall apart from the pen of a lesser writer.
I promised last month to talk about two classic Robin McKinley novels – I’m planning to get to those next time. This look back at Amber is part of the same intermittent series: to revisit some of the books that had a big influence on me as a young reader. The process has been full of surprises so far!
Ever started reading a series out of order? Ever read Zelazny? Email James about it or leave a comment below.
i actually used to do this pretty frequently when i was a kid. i’d get excited about what i’d read on the back of the book and go right for that one. i try to be better now.
I dunno… I think I’m maybe too much of a responsible reader nowadays! There’s definitely something to be said about that excited feeling that you mention. Am I missing something by being too careful about not missing anything??
It also makes me think about a lot of the TV shows that are on the air nowadays – the big storylines, lots of characters, intricate backstory, etc. I often catch up with a show when it’s out on DVD, when I can watch things in proper order. But as much as this is addictive, I also find that I can lose interest. There’s something to be said for the haphazard approach…
maybe you can set yourself up somehow. “accidently” buy or watch something out of order. although, so much is arced rather than episodic now that i think it’s hard to be haphazard but not confused.
i did start the series of unfortunate events with _the austere academy_. on one hand, the books actually stand alone pretty well. on the other, i liked it so much that the first book wasn’t as shiny to me.
One thing I like about old TV series is that you can pretty much watch any episode from any season and it doesn’t make much difference about the order.
This allows me to enjoy shows like Kojak or The Rockford Files when they play in syndication on late night TV. I can catch an episode every couple of weeks if I happen to be up late, and I don’t have to worry about what season I’m watching or where I am in the story arc.
Once I tried watching some Babylon 5 episodes when it was in syndication and I found myself setting my VCR so that I wouldn’t miss shows when I was doing other things. That series didn’t provide the “no-strings” experience I’d come to appreciate with syndicated TV shows.
As for books, I can’t remember the last time I read a series of novels out of order. But I do it with comic books all the time. I can’t afford to buy all the different comics that might interest me on a monthly basis. (I could afford to follow several regular series, plus crossovers and some limited series, when I lived at home, but I couldn’t afford to keep up that habit when I went to university.) So I read whatever’s available at the library, or I pick up comics from the discount bins at the comic shop (usually only 50¢ or $1 each) and just jump into the middle of the arc.
It can actually be pretty intellectually engaging to be partway through a series and try to pick up the pieces. It can require some attention to detail and some deductive reasoning to figure out who everyone is and what’s going on. It does help that comics are designed to be readable as individual stories, as well as being part of larger story arcs. Cliffhangers are pretty annoying, though, if you only bought that one issue.
I think a lot of TV shows have tried the longer storyline approach – it seems to be a trend right now… who knows how long it will last though.
On a separate note, I finished listening to the first five Amber audiobooks. I was really impressed with the structure of the series – Zelazny really ups the ante or provides a good twist for each book along the way. The female characters were notably weak all the way through, and the treatment of people living in Amber’s Shadows became less offensive – but that’s mostly because the story turned inward to Amber’s politics and infighting in the royal family. Quite a fantastic tale, all told though.