I discussed in my last post on fantasy books what I considered to be, in literary terms, the best work written in the genre. However, I understand that answer might seem like an overly technical one – too clinical for something with a good degree of subjectivity to it. So, to be perfectly subjective, today we are going to ask what my favourite fantasy series is. That’s a difficult question on its own, but if had to ever take just one collection down from my shelf, it would probably be the Chronicles of Amber, by Roger Zelazny, particularly the five books that make up the “Corwin Cycle.”
It’s difficult to discuss just what the series is about without revealing important details of the plot, so this will be a fairly short review. Essentially, the Corwin Cycle is about Corwin himself, a man who awakes in a hospital after an accident with a severe case of amnesia. It soon becomes clear to him that he is not a regular accident victim, and he must use guile and bluster to fake his way through encounters with his scheming family to relearn his heritage and his identity.
The setting of Amber encompasses the entire universe, from its shining core to the chaotic wilderness of its very edge. The reader is dropped into all this with no context, with only Corwin as narrator to explain things – and he, of course, may be biased. This is the greatest strength of Amber, as Corwin is one of the most intriguing and enjoyable narrators I can recall within the fantasy genre. He is a character who mixes wit, humour and nobility with melancholy, ambition and a touch of arrogance.
The books do feel like you are letting a very interesting character tell you their story and are one of the breeziest reads I can recall in the genre, dancing along from witticism to anecdote. I’ve always been impressed with writers who can do more with less and Zelazny is an absolute master at this. Equally impressive is how effective he is at making memorable characters. Other members of Corwin’s family play key roles in the plot, and we only really see them through Corwin’s eyes. Many of these family members we don’t see much of at all, and yet each of them is vividly distinct and memorable. The plot is intrinsically about these characters – there is no grand prophecy or fate. The horrors and triumphs are all because of action and reaction by the cast, our narrator included.
Most impressive of all is how much emotion, meaning and thought is packed into the wild ride. Corwin and his family are nobility – though it may be better to term them the nobility. Of course, princes and princesses have long been a staple of fantasy, from the earliest days of fairy tales up through Tolkien and on to our current obsession with A Song of Ice and Fire. A common theme throughout these stories is of the “rightful heir” – that there is someone who best deserves the throne, the crown and the power they entail.
Corwin very much starts off as a character in this vein, with an implication of even greater cruelty in his forgotten past. He is in many ways a god among men, and it is understandable how his desire for the greatest power of all could be intoxicating. And yet, over the course of the story, something strange happens. It seems that even gods have room for maturation. Corwin begins to understand that responsibility is perhaps the greater virtue than power – that there is more value in creation than in taking.
Too often I feel that media that deals with people in power turns towards cloying pity for the competition that such power engenders, and glorification of the accumulation of said power, with perhaps some hollow platitudes about corruption tacked on at the end. The Chronicles of Amber is such a tale in reverse, about a character who begins with great power being denied it, and then learning that empathy and responsibility are, in the end, more meaningful attributes. Truly grand in the scope of its imagination and utterly engaging to read, The Chronicles of Amber arrives with no limitations on what it believes fantasy can be, and leaves you wanting to reread it as soon as you are finished. I’d highly recommend taking a look at anything Zelazny does, and Amber stands out as my personal favourite work of fantasy fiction.