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Book cover art by Tim White.
Review © 2001 by Thomas M. Wagner.

One of the genre's most enduring and beloved multi-book sagas (at least in its early volumes), Roger Zelazny's Amber novels are old-fashioned entertainment that have influenced a number of today's most popular fantasists (Steven Brust being one guy in particular I can think of) and continue to entertain to this day. There's no point in pretending this is great literature any more than, say, Edgar Rice Burroughs, but it captures the quintessence of pulp escapism with just about as much purity. It's fast-paced, gobs of fun, and requires about as many brain cells as an old Johnny Weismuller movie.

The first novel of the series, which would eventually span ten volumes (but all of which together perhaps have no greater a cumulative word-count than a single Terry Goodkind book), introduces us to Corwin, the long-lost heir to the throne of Amber, the "true" Earth beneath which all other worlds, including our own, belong to the realm of Shadow. Exiled to our world years before by his brother Eric, Corwin's tale begins in a hospital where he awakens with total amnesia and is forced to piece his identity and destiny together with only the scantiest of clues. Reacquainted with two siblings, his sister Flora and brother Random, Corwin learns, gradually, of his true identity even as Eric, fearing his return to Amber, is sending thugs and killers after him. Corwin and Random return — through magical means that Zelazny disdains to explain fully so as, one assumes, not to rob the story of its poetry — to Amber. There Corwin's memory is restored through an ordeal involving a magical Pattern, and the fight against Eric is quickly joined after that.

The plot moves so swiftly and packs in so many exciting chase and swashbuckling scenes that it's easy to overlook just how nicely structured it is. It is, in a sense, an almost perfect juvenile novel, though it can be enjoyed by all ages still eager to experience a sense of wonder at its most fundamental (and of course, the occasional non-graphic sex scene means the book isn't literally a juvie after all). Zelazny's mythos is conceived in impressive detail and yet despite the story's fast pace he doesn't rush the telling. The novel's hook is that we are as lost and confused as Corwin is in the early chapters of Nine Princes, and thus we have as strong a stake as he does in the outcome.

As a fantasist, Zelazny is capable of moments of pure imaginative magic. Passages detailing the surreal adventure from our world to Amber, and to the undersea city of Rebma, are simply breathtaking. Yes, there are elements of this tale that are dated, that will bring a little chuckle every now and again (particularly its "thee/thou/thy" dialogue, where Corwin will say something like "Pray tell me, what of my brother Random?" and then follow it up with "My memory is so screwed up."). But the little anachronistic elements simply add to the pulpy appeal of the adventure.

Nine Princes in Amber, over 30 years after its publication, remains a delightful and guileless little adventure that is sure to charm readers everywhere. Followed by The Guns of Avalon. In 1999, all ten Amber novels were published together in one whopping huge trade-paperback omnibus edition titled The Great Book of Amber.