When I was a kid, my whole circle of D&D-playing, science-fiction reading pals was really into Roger Zelazny's ten-volume Chronicles of Amber, but somehow I never read it; for years, I'd intended to correct this oversight, but I never seemed to find the time — after all, there's more amazing new stuff than I can possibly read, how could I justify looking backwards, especially over the course of ten books?
But I do have some time in my day to read older books: I swim every day for my chronic pain, and when I do, I use an underwater MP3 player to listen to audiobooks that I generally get from Libro.fm, Downpour, or Google's DRM-free audiobook store (the market-leading Audible, a division of Amazon, mandatorily wraps audiobooks in its proprietary DRM without allowing publishers to opt out, which has the dual deal-breaking effect of locking me into Amazon's ecosystem and not working on my underwater MP3 player).
A couple of months ago, I decided to go looking for DRM-free versions of the Amber books, which is how I found Speaking Volumes' editions of Roger Zelazny's own readings of the books, long believed to have been accidentally erased and lost forever, but which were recovered and remastered in the mid-2000s. Speaking Volumes sells these as MP3 downloads and MP3 CDs, and I bought the complete set of the former and listened to them over a couple of months' worth of laps in the pool.
Zelazny's reading is pretty much fantastic. The books are justly loved for their deadpan, ironic, noirish prose style, and Zelazny's voice — smoke-cured by the cigarettes and a pipe — and delivery are absolutely delightful. The audio quality is patchy at best — whatever medium these recordings were recovered from was evidently in less-than-perfect shape — and in some places there's bleed-through of other people having arguments. One book was only partially recovered and is read in places by another reader, who is competent enough, though he's no Zelazny. Despite these imperfections (or, perversely, because of them), it's pretty fabulous to hear these rediscovered lost treasures.
What about the books themselves, then?
They're…a mixed bag. The story is a set of courtly intrigues based loosely on Hindu and Buddhist scripture, infused with heavy doses of psychedelic imagery as the forces of Order and Chaos fight one another for dominance over the universe, even as the royal houses of godlings who represent each force squabble among one another in succession struggles for the thrones of their respective realms. The hero of the first five books is Prince Corwin of Amber, fighting for the crown of the lands of Order, while the second five books tell the story of his son, Merlin, whose mother is demon of Chaos and who might find himself running either one or both of the great houses.
The books start strong, as Corwin awakens in a hospital in our world with amnesia and slowly recovers his memories, thus easing us into Zelazny's universe. These books sport psychedelic interludes in which Corwin walks through "shadow" (the branching, unimportant worlds, including ours, in which everything that can happen does, which the godlings of Chaos and Order can traverse to find any possible outcome) that Zelazny brings to life with deliveries that turn them into free verse poetry, heavy on delightfully weird symbolism.
But — even with the book six reboot and the switch to a new PoV character — Zelazny struggles to keep the story together. His multiple mystical systems of magic allow him to squeak out of narrative problems by inventing some new twist on the rules he's set up that conveniently allows characters to escape from the dead ends he writes them into. This has the unfortunate side effect of setting up characters with overpowered artifacts, unfollowably complicated powers, and an sense of anything-can-happen whose corollary is nothing matters.
The psychedelic interludes that are so much fun in the early volumes turn into self-indulgent cheap tricks for getting characters in and out of trouble the action flags.
All in all, it has the ring of a D&D game whose inventive Dungeon Master has set down all the twists and turns that were so much fun to play through in a book that's significantly less fun to read — like dreams, D&D adventures are generally more fun to live through than to hear about (and it doesn't help that much of the action in the Amber books takes place in characters' dreams).
I nearly met Zelazny. He was scheduled to be the Guest of Honor at Toronto's Ad Astra science fiction convention, but died shortly before the event. Ad Astra was my first con, where I volunteered as a gofer, then attended as a neopro, and I remember being disappointed that I wouldn't get to meet him in person — even if I hadn't read the Amber books, I'd enjoyed his story Auto-da-Fe in Harlan Ellison's first Dangerous Visions anthology and, more importantly, Zelazny was the mentor of one of my favorite writers, Steven Brust (previously) whom I met for the first time two years later when he was a guest of honor at Ad Astra, in 1997.
Brust's work is an instructive counterpoint to Zelazny. His longrunning, nearly complete, must-must-must read Taltos series is filled with homages to Zelazny and Amber, from the hard-boiled tone to the beautifully choreographed sword- and knife-fighting scenes, to the mystical, semi-sentient cord his hero wears around his wrist (Brust even named his kid Corwin!).
What's more, Brust's Taltos books are literally based on an RPG, with the same gods-and-mortals dynamic that Zelazny propels the action in Amber with.
But Brust's books are infinitely better than Zelazny's. It's not just that he doesn't have the same problematic characterizations of (and interactions with) female characters that plague the Amber books — Brust's story is much more consequential because it moves very swiftly from the kind of courtly intrigues that fuel the Amber books, and onto the lives of myriad, everyday people struggling to survive the terrible fallout generated by the power struggles of the unthinking, unregarding great and noble personages who are Zelanzy's heroes and Brust's ultimate villains. Brust's "little people" are heroes; Zelazny's are literal figments of the aristocracy's imagination.
While Brust's magic and mysticism are nearly as expansive as Zelazny's, his tales don't suffer from Zelanzy's ultimately boring, consequence-free meandering, because Brust focuses on consequences for people who have no choice but to live through the aftermath of these mythic struggles in their (decidedly non-mythic) everyday lives.
Brust is nearly finished with the Vlad books, after nearly four decades in progress (!), and here, too, Brust shows that the student outshines the master. As the Amber books approach their ending, they get more chaotic, less controlled, more improvised and, frankly, sillier. Brust, by contrast, keeps getting more salient, trenchant and consequential with every volume, building to a climax that makes me shiver in delight whenever I remember that it's on our foreseeable horizon.
Ultimately, Zelazny ended the Amber books on a note so disappointingly nonsensical and lazy that I could hardly believe it — it was a disappointment to rival the end of Stephen King's Dark Tower books; having made us slog through a Silmarillion's worth of family trees and ancient history, he just…fizzled (Zelazny didn't read the final volume for audio — for that, I suggest ripping the CD version of Wil Wheaton's reading, which does an admirable job with some pretty weak material).
They say "the Golden Age of science fiction is 12," and perhaps if I'd read Amber when my friends were all fizzing with it, I'd have found it more interesting. Decades later, I'm glad I read them, but I'm also not planning on re-reading them ever again — unlike the Taltos books, which I sneak into my queue all the time, inevitably revealing new delights with each fresh reading.
In the meantime, I still recommend the Speaking Volumes editions: for all the failings of the series in hindsight, Zelazny brings in a brilliant performance, one that might have been lost forever. And these books, flawed as they are, are important parts of the genre's history — for one thing, without them, we might never have had Brust's Taltos books.
The Chronicles of Amber [Roger Zelazny/Speaking Volumes]