030 — What wonderful worlds are actually just shadows of sex with a unicorn?

One of my favorite fantasy series. I’m including it in the history posts because, well, it’s important (I think) to the history of fantasy. But it’s not as obviously important as the early stuff we usually talk about. Either way – Roger Zelazny’s The Chronicles of Amber.

Actually I’m only going to do half of it – it’s ten short novels in total, so there’s plenty more after I finish up, but it follows two distinct arcs (with two distinct protagonists), so there. Corwin wakes up in a hospital/hospice with casts on legs that aren’t apparently injured, and finds the nurses want to drug him against his will. He breaks loose as he realizes he can’t remember anything about himself. He tracks down the person who was paying the bills at the hospice, Flora, and finds she’s his sister. While getting reacquainted their brother Random arrives chased by “things out of Shadow.” Things get weird from there.

The background is that Corwin is actually a prince of Amber, the one real world – every dimension, every world, including ours, is a shadow reflection of Amber. Our stories come from the exploits of the royal family. They are the center of things. And Corwin was fucked over by his brother Eric – there are a lot of siblings, I’m skipping several actually – and left in our world to live out his life, amnesiac, wandering around as a soldier for hire. Eric left him during the Plague Years. They’re immortal unless someone kills them – they don’t really age or die of sickness. So Corwin survived, and the books begin to chronicle his story of revenge and trying to win the throne from Eric – he took it when their dad, Oberon, disappeared.

OK, confused yet? The plotting of the story is very good, in that a lot of weird shit happens a lot of the time but Corwin’s drive to win the throne and, more importantly, kill Eric keep things simple, even as Corwin reevaluates if he really wants the throne.

OK, end of book one, Eric captures Corwin in his attempt, uses hot pokers to blind him, and puts him in prison. The family’s magical health lets Corwin regenerate his eyes over the course of about five years, and he escapes with a bigger and better plan to take Amber. Few books later, he succeeds, but the curse he uttered upon his blinding fucked up the kingdom. Creatures from Chaos have been able to get in along a dark road that Corwin encountered over the course of his adventures after breaking out. So he, now king, has to help fix what he did.

That’s book two. I haven’t even talked about Dara, who fences Corwin in the middle of the woods, tricks him into thinking she’s the ward of his brother Benedict, and then sleeps with him – she’s really from the Courts of Chaos and she needs a child of both Chaos and Amber to take the throne when they invade.

Also, Ganelon, Corwin’s companion for his time from prison break to taking the kingdom, is actually his dad Oberon in disguise. This was because he heard Corwin talk about his old home in shadows, heard him talk about the real Ganelon, and in wandering around found him. The real Ganelon tried to rob Oberon – this did not go well, and Oberon was free to transform himself and pretend to be the reformed Ganelon, help the people against the black road, and meet Corwin by chance as Corwin passed through.

OK, that’s plot plot plot. What you can take away from this is that there’s plenty of shit going down, and a lot of it sounds like royal backbiting from European history. Exciting. Let me talk about the reasons I think it’s important. First, the idea of Shadows. Multiple dimensions or universes are mainstays of science fiction but not quite of fantasy. Usually there are very few worlds in the fantastic universe of an author. I think there are more than two in Narnia, but I might be wrong about that – specifically, I seem to recall that The Magician’s Nephew happens in a third place and the fruits of the story are taken to Narnia – but again, I’m not sure, it’s been a very long time since I read those.

So for the Amber books to have this idea is cool on its own, but it helps to start what I call, inelegantly, fantasy dealing with SF ideas. How would an idea work fully fleshed out but without physics behind it, with magic behind it instead? Most works that do this are science fantasy, but Amber is pretty solidly straight fantasy – for the most part. There’s one thing in the second half that might blur that line.

What’s so important about this is that the implication about many worlds, many dimensions, is different – there is one base reality, or two maybe; The Shadows happened because of stuff in the backstory that happened to Corwin’s ancestors. There’s a unicorn involved, and a crazy hunchback, and they might have gotten it on out in the pure Chaos-stuff.

The other big reason I want to talk about these books is their use of Chaos. Like Moorcock’s novels, they posit that Chaos is not inherently bad, as traditional fantasy does. They, too, have a yin-yang thing going. Specifically, in Amber, that the Amber family, representing order, has a chaotic home life, while the royal families of Chaos are staid and traditional, with orderly duels and the like. In fact, failure to observe duel etiquette is what gets Corwin in trouble near book’s end.

Why does this matter? Well, for a genre that (arguably) started with the Gothic, it made sense for fantasy to be based in the idea of order. The good guys are police, in a sense, they want to keep the world working properly. The bad guys might want to take over the world and control it all themselves, but somehow their troops are the disorderly ones with the misshapen armor (and maybe bodies). With Moorcock and Zelazny, as well as their contemporaries, writers began to explore what good and evil might be outside the order/chaos binary. Among other things, this led pretty directly to the dual binaries of Dungeons of Dragons, where a character can be good, neutral, evil – and will also have to be, simultaneously, chaotic, neutral, or lawful. I believe Gygax was pretty open about his idea coming from Moorcock’s work (some of Moorcock’s stuff appeared in the first monster and deity compendiums). So it has shaped a great deal of what we think about when we think about fantasy – at least, a certain portion.

Also, I really like it. You should read it.


1 thought on “030 — What wonderful worlds are actually just shadows of sex with a unicorn?

  1. Pingback: Wondrous Windows

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