Nine Princes in Amber (1970)
Spine Front Cover Book Details
Roger Zelazny
Publication Date 1996
Format Leather-bound (215 x 145 mm)
Publisher The Easton Press
Genre Fantasy
Product Details
Series Masterpieces of Fantasy
No. of Pages 188
Paper Type Acid-neutral paper
First Edition No
Personal Details
URL This book on
Rating 10
No. of Reviews 69
Frontispiece/Illustrator Ron Walotsky
Original Details
Original Publisher Doubleday
Original Publication Year 1970
"Nine Princes" begins the Chronicles of Amber, perhaps the most utterly fun series in Sci-fi/Fantasy.

As it begins, the narrator Corwin - Prince of the magical realm of Amber - wakes up in a hospital with amnesia after an apparent murder attempt, aware only that it was probably a member of his own family who tried to do him in. Leaving the hospital with intentions to interrogate the sister who admitted him, he meets wild child youngest brother Random. Initially keeping his condition close to the vest, Corwin learns that his father and brother Brand are missing, throwing the family power struggle - involving the family's nine princes and to a lesser extent their sisters - into chaos. With little other choice, Corwin decides to trust Random and put his life into his hands. It turns out to be a lucky gamble - he's run into the right brother first, and Random points him to a magical means of restoring his memory, promising (and more importantly actually intending) to stick with him. Through the next four books Corwin - sometimes solo and sometimes with major and minor assists from Random (who becomes the story's "safe place") - begins the long process of finding out what happened to his father and Brand and who wants him dead. On the way, he discovers that some of his siblings were exactly what he thought them, others were better or worse than he believed, some have changed and some he never even really knew at all.

The series is always suspenseful, often darkly funny, and sometimes even surprisingly moving. A second series followed, but it in no way compared to the original first five novels.

This is one of the greats. Buy the next four books too, or you'll regret the wait in between.

As a way of introducing the books that will make up Easton Press's Masterpieces of Fantasy, these pages and the ones that fol low will discuss various aspects of the genre of fiction that we call fantasy. Questions will be addressed that might reasonably arise when a series called "Masterpieces of Fantasy" is offered to subscribers. What is fantasy? How do we recognize it? How do we distinguish it from other kinds of non-realistic fiction? How does it affect its read ers and how are these effects achieved? By what criteria do we recognize excellence in the genre? How does the work at hand qualify as a "masterpiece?"

Some subscribers maybe attracted only to the enjoyment of the reading itself, or the collecting, and find discussions of it at best a waste of time and at worst a detraction to their pleasure in reading. If that is the case, they may skip the discussion, if they have not already done so, and, if they wish, come back to the information about the book and its author after they have finished the book.

But I believe that collectors have a deeper involvement than ordinary readers, and that they want to think about what makes a particular kind of fiction important to them. If that is true, they may enjoy discussions about what makes fantasy what it is.

A scholar named Darko Suvin once suggested that a genre is a set of collective expectations created in readers by their previous reading experience. We recognize genres, that is, just as we recognize food or people or places, because we have encountered them before. That recognition sets up expectations that, as readers, we see fulfilled or frustrated, or, in some cases, expanded or altered in ways that we find surprising and often pleasurable. By such means do genres grow, and by such means do genre works distinguish them selves from one another.

Another scholar, Brian Attebery, has suggested that a genre may be thought of as a gigantic single volume; the more a person has read in that volume the more he or she will get from further reading in it. An introduction to a genre work, then, may be considered a substitute for greater experience in the genre or a reminder to readers of their previous experience; it identifies the characteristics that the work shares with other works in the genre and suggests how the work at hand distinguishes itself from the rest.

What is this genre called fantasy? How do we recognize it?

The process starts at an early age when we begin to distinguish between statements of fact, or those believed by their speakers to be fact, and statements of fiction, or those clearly not fact and intended to be recognized as such. "All poets are liars," Aristotle wrote.

Further discrimination divides fiction between that intended to represent the real world, or "the way things are," and that which takes the reader into unreal worlds, where "things are not as we know them to be." As children we encounter fairy tales and quickly learn that "once upon a time" is prelude to an encounter with princes and princesses and fairy godmothers and witches that now do not exist and, indeed, never existed in this fashion.

"Once upon a time" is a ritual beginning that creates a world of expectations. It is our open sesame to the worlds of make believe and what if. Expectations are our guide to reading a work. We read genres in different frames of mind; indeed, if we are to read them correctly (that is, to get out of them everything they have to offer), we must learn how to read them; we must learn the protocols that open them for our enjoyment.

A good author helps by including instructions. Unobtrusively, of course. "Once upon a time," for instance, tells us to read the story as a fairy tale. When we enter another world through a rabbit hole or a looking glass or a cupboard or a whirlwind or a witch's curse or a magic broomstick or a star to wish upon, the author is telling us by this fanciful translation to the unknown to leave the everyday world behind, with its practical considerations and skeptical questions. Different rules apply. Be open to strangeness. Hold on to your seats for a wild ride of imagination.

So, to conclude this first brief essay on the other side of the mirror, let me suggest that our initial response to fantasy is intuitive. Damon Knight once said that science fiction was what we meant when we pointed at it. That may be the best definition of fantasy as well: we recognize it when we see it. What we see and how we recognize it is a subject for later discussion. Take Nine Princes in Amber, for instance.

ROGER ZELAZNY was born in Cleveland in 1937 and died, tragically early, in 1995. Although he earned his greatest fame and fortune from fantasy, that part of his distinguished career began relatively late. After a start as a poet in college, he turned to science fiction and published his first story, "Passion Play," in 1962. He soon was earning award nominations. In his poetic hands, the skillful use of language and development of character began to match the genre's exciting ideas. Within a year Zelazny got a Hugo nomination and within four years won a Hugo for This Immortal. The same year he won two Nebula Awards for "He Who Shapes" and "The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth." Two years later, in 1967, he published what he, and many others, considered his best novel, Lord of Light.

In 1969 he published three novels - Creatures of Light and Dark ness, Isle of the Dead, and Damnation Alley - gave up a job with the Social Security Administration, and became a full-time writer. Eight years later Damnation Alley was adapted as a feature film. He published another personal favorite, Doorways in the Sand, in 1976 and won both the Nebula and the Hugo Award the same year for "Home Is the Hangman." He won two later Hugo Awards for short fiction.

Even though Zelazny published exclusively in the science-fiction field for his first eight years, much of that work was based on mythology and exotic religions and internal conflicts. Moreover, his interests in Jungian psychology and internal realities should have suggested his metamorphosis into a fiction based on something other than the explainable. Nevertheless, it came as a surprise to many when Zelazny published Nine Princes in Amber in 1970.

The fantasy novel was an immediate success, much more than his earlier science-fiction novels; Nine Princes in Amber and its sequels gave Zelazny financial independence and led to his incorporation as The Amber Corporation. Eventually he would write ten Am ber novels. Five of them feature Corwin and have been assembled as The Chronicles of Amber; the other novels in that sequence are The Guns ofAvalon (1972), Sign of the Unicorn (1975), The Hand of Oberon (1976), and The Courts of Chaos (1978). Five more feature Corwin's son Merlin: Trumps of Doom (1985), Blood of Amber (1986), Sign of Chaos (1987), Knight of Shadows (1989), and Prince of Chaos (1991). A Rhapsody in Amber (1981) and Roger Zelazny's Visual Guide to Castle Amber (1988, with Neil Randall) are associated publications.

By the time of his death, Zelazny had published 36 novels, 16 collections of short stories, and three volumes of poetry, and edited two anthologies. He completed a novel just three days before he died, and left a novel manuscript unfinished.

Nine Princes in Amber begins realistically enough with an accident victim in a hospital bed, but we soon realize that the patient is keenly suspicious of his attendants and displays unusual powers of strength, martial skills, and self-healing. The hero experiences the loss of memory that is frequently encountered in fantasy, but he dis plays an uncanny ability to track down those who might be able to help him recover his past and to conceal his condition in the process. His powers are not simply superhuman - they are magical.

He is, in fact, a Prince of Amber. Amber, we later discover, is the "one true world" and everything else, including the reality with which we readers are familiar, belongs to shadow. Zelazny plays off the reader's expectation that the fantasy world will be subordinate to the real world in which the reader lives. "Amber had always been and always would be, and every other city, everywhere, every other city that existed was but a reflection of the shadow of some phase of Amber."

Nine Princes in Amber can be characterized as high fantasy, which offers a fully realized alternate reality, as opposed to low fantasy, in which the supernatural element enters the real world. Zelazny's novel exhibits some of the characteristics of high fantasy, heightened color, for instance, and sometimes heightened diction. Readers turn to high fantasy to experience brighter scenes and more intense emotional experiences. Virtually every high fantasy narrative offers at least one scene of mind-bending, sense-distorting drama such as the scene in which Corwin walks the Pattern, an experience enhanced by the knowledge that failure is death and only a Prince of Amber can walk the Pattern and live.

There is more, of course, to Nine Princes in Amber, just as there is more to the Masterpieces of Fantasy, and more discussion of fantasy to come. Welcome to the other side of the mirror.

James Gunn
Lawrence, Kansas