It’s been perhaps 20 years since I first read Roger Zelazny’s “Nine Princes in Amber,” but I recently felt the urge to revisit the tale that I remember fondly.
I always have some misgivings going into a re-read. What if the book doesn’t hold up to your memory of it? What if, 20 years and a lot of reading later, you’re just not that interested in it anymore? I’m pleased to say I didn’t have to worry about either of those things with this book.
The story begins with a man waking up in a hospital bed after a car accident and slowly coming to the conclusion that he’s being held against his will. He’s being heavily sedated, and when the nurse comes with the next shot, he refuses it. He fights his way into the office of the facility’s administrator and gains some vital information about the sister who is paying for his “care.” He heads to her home, where he begins a big bluff to try to figure out who he is and how he ended up in his current condition.
As the memories return, of course, he realizes that he’s Prince Corwin of Amber – a magical kingdom that is the only true reality. Earth and all the other worlds are merely shadows. He’s one of many siblings, all with an eye on the throne, and it will be a bloody and bitter battle for the one who finally gains it.
I always found “Nine Princes in Amber” interesting in a few ways. For one thing, at just over 100 pages, it would be practically impossible to get published in today’s fantasy climate. (In fact, you can't buy them as separate books anymore, but must by the 10-volume omnibus.) For all its brevity, though, I don’t really feel that it’s missing much. Granted, it’s more of a serial than a full novel – a small part of a bigger story – but a whole lot happens in the book’s 130-something pages. It moves fast, but I rarely get the idea that Zelazny is glossing over things. His writing style is sparse, but still descriptive. He doesn’t need to take two pages to describe a leaf falling like some of today’s fantasists to put you right in the middle of the scene.
And, yes, I thought 20 years ago and still do that there’s a little bit of deus ex machina in Corwin’s escape from his brother Eric, but you could also make the argument that Zelazny had been setting that scene up since early in the story, too. It’s not enough to spoil a fine tale.
All in all, I enjoyed the re-read just as much as my original journey to Amber a couple of decades ago. There’s still something magical and, perhaps, poetic about the story. It will be interesting to see if the other installments match my memory.