The Corwin cycle are the first five novels that Roger Zelazny wrote in the Amber cosmos. They focus on Corwin, a prince of the realm of Amber, and tell one complete epic fantasy story in which the universe is threatened with disintegration.
I read the Corwin cycle in an omnibus edition called The Great Book of Amber that also contains the second five-book cycle, featuring Merlin. The second cycle has mixed reviews so I haven’t started it yet. Unfortunately the edition I have contains numerous distracting typos where sometimes the intended word isn’t clear, so I would recommend tracking down the original paperbacks if you can.
The Corwin cycle is told from the first-person perspective of Corwin, a charming but flawed and unreliable narrator. After reading newer books that switch between many points of view, it’s refreshing to read a book that stays in one character’s head from the beginning, when Corwin wakes up an amnesiac in a private hospital bed, to the climax at the Courts of Chaos.
Corwin’s slacker attitude, his diction peppered with many “whatevers,” is a grounding balance to the fantastical and sometimes psychedelic action. It also feels very familiar to me from the genre work of my art comics peers and the dialogue in Adventure Time. In both Amber and these more contemporary efforts this distance between the fantastical, mythic events and the seemingly unaffected characters creates an ironic distance. Somehow this makes the whole thing feel more realistic. Perhaps because it’s closer to how I hear my inner dialogue as I experience my mundane reality. It worked for Bilbo and it works here for Corwin.
There was one flaw in Corwin’s personality that I found distateful – his misogyny (at one point he dismisses all his sisters as only “bitches”). One could argue that this reflects how Corwin is an unreliable narrator, as several of his sisters are quite significant to the plot, but I don’t remember a moment where these books pass the Bechdel Test.
Although I haven’t read much noir personally, these commenters note that Corwin’s tone (and the opening) is extremely reminiscent of Chandler. Does this make the series an early example of a genre mashup? This pairing is mined extensively in urban fantasy but less so in secondary world epic fantasy. Despite a start in New York state I wouldn’t really consider this an urban fantasy – the concerns are cosmic and our earth is but a figment of the firmament.
Refreshingly, Corwin, unlike so many other protagonists of epic fantasies, isn’t an orphan with no living relatives, but is instead a member of a sprawling, brawling family filled with intrigue, love, and hate. The family dynamics (and dysfunctions) feel real. Although in the end the final struggle is the semi-traditional Battle Between Order and Chaos (second cousin to the Battle Between Good and Evil), it begins with one family, the royalty of Amber, knifing each other and climbing their sibling’s corpses to the top. Zelazny really upends the fantasy trope of the disenfranchised rightful king here, which I’m grateful for. I get sick of the politics in fantasy novels – one king deposing another while the common people are ground down – at least here Zelazny shows how meaningless dynastic shifts can be.
Aspects of the Amber cosmos seem familiar to me from their reflection in Robert Jordan’s latter series The Wheel of Time – both feature immortal beings who love to play politics, joining and breaking alliances as they attempt to lie, backstab, and cheat their way to the top of the hierarchy; both feature teleportation through shadow worlds that can be influenced by desire; and both cosmoses are represented by a primordial Pattern. I wonder if Jordan read it?
Unsurprisingly, I enjoyed the unabashed psychedelia in the first five Amber novels the most. To travel, Corwin adds and subtracts elements from different worlds, slowly aligning the reality he’s perceiving with the reality that he desires. Zelazny used this to wonderful effect by condensing days of travel into several pages of evocative descriptions of the mixed-up landscapes that Corwin and his companions travel through. And these are not the only moments of pure imagination – I can’t forget the sublime moonlit visions of Tir-na Nog’th and the shapeshifting creatures of Chaos.
I’d only read Zelazny’s Lord of Light before this (and really dug it), but now I definitely want to read more by him. Do y’all have any recommendations?