Roger Zelazny wrote two Amber cycles. The first five books were published from 1970 to 1978, and have Corwin as the main character. They are one long story, and taken together they are one of my all time favorite fantasy books, as the story is something daring & unique. It’s considered to be one of the classics of the genre, and rightly so.
The second cycle, also know as the Merlin cycle, was published from 1985 to 1991. It consists of 5 novels too: Trumps Of Doom, Blood Of Amber, Signs Of Chaos, Knight Of Shadows and Prince Of Chaos. Their story takes place a decade or two after the first cycle, and focuses on Merlin, the son of Corwin.
I’m disappointed to report that I agree with those who think this second part of The Great Book Of Amber doesn’t live up to the Corwin cycle. As it has been a couple of years since I’ve read that first cycle, it’s hard to compare the two in a detailed manner. I also can’t rule out that my tastes have shifted a bit, resulting in me simply liking these books a bit less than I would have if I’d just continued with the second series right after the first. Still, I don’t think this is a big determining factor in my dislike. I can put my finger on why I didn’t like The Second Chronicles quite easily, and as I remember it, the first books didn’t really suffer from these weaknesses. (I plan to reread the Corwin cycle, so I’ll report back on this issue somewhere in the future.)
Why didn’t this cycle click with me?
Maybe the biggest failure of these books is that the sense of wonder and discovery that permeated the first novels is totally gone. That’s a big negative for any fantasy book. In the Corwin cycle, the readers discovered the magical world of Amber and its shadows together with the protagonist, who suffered from memory loss. Merlin however generally understands the world, as do we. Zelazny tries to tackle this by piling up tons of new stuff, but ends up writing a pastiche of his own creation. It’s just plot twist after plot twist in The Second Chronicles, and that gets tiresome and confusing very quickly.
The second book – or chapter, so you will, as the individual books are generally about 150 pages long – nearly made me give up because of this, but I pushed on. The third book was decent enough, but halfway the fourth book it just was plot twist, new character, new magical artifact, old character presumed dead turns out to be alive, plot twist, shifting alliances, plot twist again all over, until the end. At times, it seems as if Zelazny just made things up along the way, without having much of an overarching storyline in mind. In that respect the book is very much a page turner: a small plot problem/mystery is introduced, Merlin tackles that, but a new problem emerges (generally because some new character just appears out of thin air attacking, or announcing this or that).
The magic of the first books is totally demystified. There still is some cool stuff, but overall it’s just too much – minor spoilers ahead – …a talking magical computer that has nearly unlimited power (also over the Pattern), the Pattern that starts talking too, “Pattern-ghost” characters, the Logrus pattern, Merlin using his chaos magic to “reverse travel the shadows” just to get a beer, a sublayer to reality in which both patterns can’t reach, a cave that serves as a kind of safe house for magic, a talking cord, etc., etc. – end –
Another severe problem is the lack of interesting characters. The Corwin cycle focussed heavily on the scheming of the royal family governing Amber. Corwin’s brothers and sisters all had a distinct personality, but not much remains of them in this part: a lot of them died along the way, and the surviving ones seem cardboard copies of their former selves. The only character that seems to have a certain kind of gravitas is Mandor, one of Merlin’s relatives from the Courts of Chaos. The plot of the Merlin cycle is simply too all over the place to allow for a decent focus on characters. Just as the central story doesn’t become clear for a very long time, it seems Zelazny hadn’t thought of an emotional blueprint for the overall story either. On top of that, characters behave erratically. Of course Amberites are a bit crazy in the first books too, but here it’s taken to the next level. Since I don’t want to spoil too much, I won’t go into it any further.
Finally, there’s the way this story is told: nearly all through expositionary dialogue. Or some character explains a new plot twist to Merlin, or Merlin guesses out loud what the twist is all about, and either way Merlin always summarizes the plot-so-far to the reader and/or yet another character in the next chapter. There are heaps and heaps of dialogue like this, and still the only plot device Zelazny uses to keep what’s happening mysterious is characters telling other characters:
a) “there is not enough time to fully explain” this or that plot element to you right now (after which they still eat together, or travel together, or do whatever activity for a couple of hours together)
b) “I cannot tell you about” this or that plot element because I am sworn to secrecy / you knowing it would harm your own cause / you knowing it would harm my own cause / I need to investigate the matter some more myself and I don’t even want to hear your opinion on the matter
It’s baffling really, a baffling tragedy.
In short, while the first couple of pages still held some promise, The Second Chronicles Of Amber quickly deteriorate into pulpiness. I continued because of love and hope: love for that wondrous first cycle; and hope that it would turn around again. It did at times, but not a lot, and never for long.
Ultimately, in retrospect, these 680 pages were a waste of my time. I’d even advise against reading them. But do start Nine Princes Of Amber, if you haven’t.