ZELAZNY’S AMBER AS PLATONIC FANTASY: compassion for the shadows

Review of “Nine Princes in Amber” by Roger Zelazny
This is an engrossing story, and I read it very quckly, despite having read it three times before (over a 40 year period). The book is only 175 pages long, so quite short by more modern standards. To be fair, it is only the first instalment in a five volume tale. The hero, Corwin, is a quasi-immortal prince of Amber, the one real world, exiled in one of the infinite Shadow worlds, our Earth, with no memory of his past. The action begins straight away, and he must learn his powers, his identity, and his world as he goes. The language is masterful, as Zelazny moves from factual to poetic, from archaism to slang, as if it were second nature.

All possibilities exist in Shadow, so a prince of Amber can “walk” through shadow worlds till he arrives in one with any property he can envisage. For example, a world where he is worshipped as a god, and so can raise a faithful army. No attempt is given to explain this premise in the first series of 5 volumes (the Corwin cycle). In the later pentalogy (the Merlin cycle) it is suggested that the shadows correspond to the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, but in the first pentalogy no such science-based explanation is given. Amber is the Platonic model, and all other worlds are mere shadows, as are the people who populate them. We could call this an “ontological fantasy”. Hut the metaphysical premise is not treated speculatively, but merely as an effective plot device for maximising the possibilities of adventure, just as Corwin’s immortality functions to give him more-than-human experience, training, and first-hand knowledge. But not wisdom.

Corwin is likeable, but not wise. He is spontaneous and cagey, cynical and poetic, adventurous and contemplative. He has the typical arrogance and self-absorption of his brothers, their indifference to the lives of the people of the shadows. However, he has learned some compassion in his exile in our world. He occasionally spares an individual life when one of his brothers would have killed without a second thought. Strangely, his compassion manifests when he is willing to lead an entire army of his faithful to their doom, but feels “sorry” for them.

One dated feaure of this first volume is the very subordinate role of women in the story. The women are all weak, both in power and in personality. This impression can be attenuated, but not justified or eradicated, by the fact that the narrator is Corwin, a pathological mythomaniac. He is reciting, or dictating, this account as he waits before the “Courts of Chaos”, so the seemingly simple cosmology is perhaps more complicated than we were initially led to believe, and his motivations in telling the story may be complex.

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