Amnesiac Carl Corey awakes in a private hospital, and soon senses he is not like other men. He eventually recovers his identity as Corwin, lost Prince of Amber: a member of the royal family who have walked the magical Pattern and gained the power to walk among the infinite shadow universes that echo the one true reality of Amber. But as Corwin reunites with his brothers and sisters, both friend and foe, and makes his own claim for the throne left vacant by his father, it soon becomes clear much more is at stake: a traitor wishes to destroy Amber and everything it stands for...
Long ago, in my university days, I was introduced to the world of Roger Zelazny's Amber - as I suspect many were - through the roleplaying game. Amber Diceless Roleplaying is something of a touchstone, an indie game before there were really any other sort; as the name suggests, it uses no dice, with the game master deciding all outcomes based on the narration of the players. Famously it also involved an auction, in which the players - portraying a new generation of the royal family of Amber - bid points to rank themselves in four attributes.
This all seemed to work pretty well, but reading the game book it was clear that it was all based incredibly closely on how the author - and indeed Zelazny - felt things worked in the fictional world of Amber. Now, more than a decade later, I've finally read the series that inspired the game.
I'm going to do all five of these in one go, since they form one big story, and they're all pretty short novels. They're written in an odd style; Amber and its denizens are very much cut from the cloth of medieval fantasy, with castles and doublets and swords, but Corwin - who tells the entire story in the first person - often uses modern vernacular (well, modern for the 1970s). This works just fine in the beginning, since for the first half of Nine Princes in Amber Corwin has no memory of his true identity and has just spent centuries on the shadow that is our Earth, but once he regains his memories and identity it puts him at odds with the rest of the world he inhabits. It'd also be fine if it was a character decision, but it's just a stylistic one; he acts as you would expect a Machiavellian prince to act, but then describes those actions in the same way someone would in Starsky and Hutch. It's a little off-putting; hearing characters like Random, Oberon and Merlin spoken about in what one imagines to be a New York accent seems kind of weird.
As a protagonist, Corwin is more-or-less an anti-hero; he starts off ambitious and scheming, seeking the throne for its own right, but even then his time on Earth seems to have softened him a little. Like most of his brothers and sisters, he's also presented as much larger than life; he is superhumanly strong (but at a pulp fiction level rather than superheroic: he can lift a car, not throw a battleship) and a masterful fighter and tactician (he can best any mortal in combat), though his main attribute is just being tough: he survives and recovers from incredible hardships. He and his siblings are also constantly comparing themselves to each other, which makes the ranking system and attribute auction from the roleplaying game seem like a logical conclusion rather than a bit of genius game design.
Of the five books, the first three are the strongest; though many of the truths and secrets behind the story are not revealed until the last two, they lack the pace and interest of the beginning. Zelazny never spells things out to his readers; this is fantasy, a magical universe whose rules are known but not necessarily understood. You pay attention, picking up how things work initially through Corwin's re-learning of his world, and then through his education in how it came to be, something previously kept hidden. With so many brothers and sisters, all larger than life and with important (if sometimes small) roles to play, it was tempting at times to refer to the RPG for guidance, but using Corwin's voice was a smart move on Zelazny's part, since he always reminds us who's who through his opinions.
It's a clever, fun, and not too deep but deep enough story; I enjoyed it but wasn't swept away in it, though it's easy to see how people became obsessive enough to turn it into a very true-to-the-source roleplaying game. It does show its age a bit - mostly in the language, but also no-one ever uses a computer or a mobile phone, which seems odd given the Amberites can find anything they can imagine in shadow - but that's easily forgivable. Most fans agree the follow-up series, involving Corwin's son Merlin, is much inferior, but I'd be willing to give it a shot some time.