Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Kicking it Old School: Nine Princes in Amber

Welcome to Kicking it Old School, your go-to spot for reviews of old-ass Sci-Fi and Fantasy books from the days of yore.  For my purposes, anything written before I could read, the year 1986, is considered "Old School". This is the latest in my Kicking it Old School series of reviews.  

Up for review this time I've got the first in Roger Zelazny's epic Amber series, Nine Princes in Amber.

Maybe it's because he's well respected, or maybe it's because he's like, always the last name you see on the fantasy shelf at the bookstores, but Zelazny has always been on my radar, and I've always been intrigued by his Amber series.  A big turnoff for me though, is the sheer SIZE of the collected omnibus edition, which is practically the size of a phone book.

It wasn't until I moved to Seattle, the land of great used bookstores, that I discovered all the small pocket sized individual volumes that make up that great, epic sized Amber omnibus. There's ten dime sized books that make up the one ginormous omnibus, and they all have sweet old school cover art.  I saw them and knew I had to have them all.  The trouble was tracking down all ten, as each book store never had a complete set.  However, being the book bounty hunter that I am, I eventually completed the set.

Anyway, Nine Princes in Amber is where the whole dealie starts.  Right off the bat we meet Corwin, a guy who wakes up in a hospital with no memory of how he got there, or who he is.  However, from his narration of events, it is plain to see that there's something special about him.  Corwin seems to possess some supernatural healing abilities, and before too long he's making a daring escape from the hospital, and tracking down a woman who may know who he is.  Before too long, alongside Corwin, we discover some tid-bits about his past, who he is, and where he's from...which turns out to be a place called Amber, a parallel universe to our own, which is the one true universe.

Also, while investigating his own past, Corwin discovers a special tarot-like deck of cards, called the Trumps, which feature fully rendered paintings of his siblings, about whom details rush back into Corwin's head as he inspects the deck. As it turns out he and his eight other brothers are all princes of Amber, and they've all been struggling for the throne of that realm for quite some time.  Corwin's major injury and exile to our Earth were the result of an ill fated encounter with one of the other Princes.  Corwin hopes to return to Amber and make a push for the throne, but in order to do so, he needs the help of at least one of his many untrustworthy brothers.

I gotta say, I was pretty damn impressed with this one.  Zelazny is a pretty slick writer, as he describes both the mundane and fantastic well.  There's a lot of really cool fantasy elements at play here, mystical beasts, and underwater world, magical jewels, and more but for me the coolest of them all was the Trumps.  With the Trumps, the princes and their sisters can communicate with one another, attempt to force their will on, or control the mind of another, and also travel to where someone else is.  All these elements make the trumps an interesting and potentially dangerous element, and Zelazny uses that element of danger well.

As far as characters go, Zelazny does a pretty solid job.  Not every family member is introduced, but he gives the reader a sense of what each person is like, and how they factor into the strange family struggle for the throne.  While reading this, my gripe with the character development was that, outside of the nine princes and four princesses, the world/worlds, seemed pretty devoid of people.  Anyone else who gets mentioned is just sorta an empty husk that serves is basically an extra. There's random doctors, nurses, guards, soldiers, and what have you, but they don't seem all that real in comparison.  This serves to make Amber kinda feel like it's an empty place that is really beautiful that the family squabbles over.

However, looking back, I've realized that maybe I've just read too much epic fantasy, where practically every person, no matter how big or how small, gets a name and some character development.  That's probably not what Zelazny is trying to do here. It appears that the focus will stay on the various family members and their internal struggle.  Which, I guess is fine by me, since there seems to be some interesting folk in this family.  At the very least, the series will challenge my modern fantasy reading tendencies.

With the first of ten books under my belt, I can say that as far as opening salvos go, Nine Princes in Amber is a promising first volume.  It does the job of introducing the reader to the world, introducing characters, and giving some hints at future events so that the reader gets hooked for more, all while delivering some great fantasy elements, and some sweet sword fightin'.  Definitely worth a read.

Grade: 8.5 Reebok Pumps


Cursed Armada said...

Even though this one doesn't look like something I'd like, I really enjoyed your review! Also like the "Book Bounty Hunter" title... lol

Bryce L. said...

I loved this series, but for some reason stopped after the first five. May have to reread and then get to the last five. Great review, brought back some good memories.

Ryan said...

@Cursed Armada- Thanks buddy, glad you liked the review!

It's definitely a bit of a "dated" read, but it is still quite good.

Seattle is a great place to be a Book Bounty Hunter...lots of great used book shops. I enjoy the thrill of the hunt.

@Bryce- Thanks! Glad to hear you enjoyed the series. I've got lots of books on my to-read pile, but I hope to get back to this series before too long.