Book Review: Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny

The next book on my reading list for my Reading’s in the Genre: Fantasy Classics to get my MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University is Nine Princes in Amber (Fantasy 254 pages) by Roger Zelazny. While this book started with a lot of good tension and was a very fast read, I found myself angry with the story for a variety of reasons, the top two being the main character’s portrayal of women and views on war.

It really felt to me as though the women of this story were place-holders and not real characters. I’ve never heard of the “sexy lamp test” as an alternative to the Bechdel test, but it seems exactly true of this book. Though, I kind of think that the sexy lamp might have had more interaction if it had been in this book than the “female characters” did. I put the term in quotes because I don’t feel as though they were actual people or characters and that the only thing about them that would classify them as female was how much of a sex-object they were for Corwin.

I was really uncomfortable with how Corwin sexualized the women of his family. When he pulled out the Trump cards and each of his brothers received long, detailed descriptions and then all four of the “female characters” received one paragraph that combined ALL of them, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was going to be a very male-centric book. Considering my book was copyrighted in 1970, this didn’t really surprise me. That whole paragraph annoyed me: “I returned to the cards, and there was Flora in a gown green as the sea, just as I’d remembered her the previous evening; and then there was a black-haired girl with the same blue eyes, and her hair hung long and she was dressed all in black, with a girdle of silver about her waist. My eyes filled with tears, why I don’t know. Her name was Deirdre. Then there was Fiona, with hair like Bleys or Brand, my eyes, and a complexion like mother of pearl. I hated her the second I turned over the card. Next was Llewella, whose hair matched her jade-colored eyes, dressed in shimmering gray and green with a lavender belt, and looking moist and sad. For some reason, I knew she was not like the rest of us. But she, too, was my sister.” (page 43). Seriously? Who thinks that describing a woman as looking “moist and sad” is useful, respectful, or descriptive at all?

Another thing about the descriptions of all the Trumps is that the female cards, while lumped into one paragraph, only contained parts about what each one looked like physically, while the male Trumps all had sentences like, “There was a quality of both strength and weakness, questing and abandonment about him,” (page 42) or “the devil himself danced behind his eyes,” (page 41) or “blue eyes containing neither passion nor compassion,” (page 39) all of which are personality characteristics, as though the males are real people while the females are placeholders.

Then there’s Moire, the ruler of Remba. The first description of her on page 115 is also purely physical: “A woman sat upon the throne in the glassite room I almost recalled, and her hair was green, though streaked with silver, and her eyes were round as moons of jade and her brows rose like the wings of olive gulls. Her mouth was small, her chin was small; her cheeks were high and wide and rounded. A circlet of white gold crossed her brow and there was a crystal necklace about her neck. At its tip there flashed a sapphire between her sweet bare breasts, whose nipples were also a pale green. She wore scaled trunks of blue and a silver belt, and she held a scepter of pink coral in her right hand and had a ring upon every finger, and each ring had a stone of a different blue within it.” Nowhere in this entire paragraph does it say that her eyes held the command of rule or that she griped her scepter with hands that indicated she cared greatly for her people. This entire paragraph is devoted solely to making her a sexual object for Corwin later. There really isn’t any reason or motivation for Moire to seduce Corwin. And the best way Moire can think of to help a blind woman in her court is for her to gain status by marrying a member of the Royal Family? And just for one year. Really? That makes Vialle just another object and not a real person. I did wonder about Vialle’s role in the story or her views on her own story because she petitioned to spend her days in prison with Random. That speaks to me of either true love or true abuse, but her story isn’t really mentioned, even though it’s more fascinating to me than whether or not Corwin eventually wins the throne.

I’d have to say that each of the females in Nine Princes in Amber actually IS replaceable with a sexy lamp, as both would be described in the same way, and would serve the same purpose in this story.

I don’t know that this book really does justice to actual war, but there are a few places where it might sort of try to bring in the pain, passion, and power of war. I’d also have to say that I really didn’t like the way Nine Princes in Amber dealt with the ideas of conflict and war because no one ever seems to try a non-violent solution to the conflict.

Right from the beginning, Corwin, as the protagonist and narrator of this story, is supposed to be the victim and the hero. He wakes up in a hospital, not knowing who or where he is, and his first thoughts are of escape and freedom. He succeeds in accomplishing both, but he flees into the hands of someone working for the opposition. His conflict is personal, and feels like it’s based solely on him and what he wants. On page 42, where Corwin realizes the Trumps are all family, he gets individual impressions of each of them and he acknowledges that he has issues with Eric. This is the first time in the story where we see solid background information. And nowhere throughout the entire rest of the story does Corwin ever seem to think about finding some sort of solution to the conflict in his life other than conquering and being the one solely in charge.

Corwin’s need to be the one in charge makes it so that he expends the lives of hundreds of thousands of people while he tries to force his way back to the city of Amber. There were a couple of times throughout the book that I thought for a fleeting moment that Corwin might actually be one of those few rulers who would care about the lives of the people under his care, but that really isn’t the case. So why am I talking about all of this, when this topic is giant war?

The sections with the war from Corwin and Bleys towards Eric and Amber made me dislike Corwin more and more with every page because he obviously didn’t care about the lives of the people he expended. Oh, sure, there are a few parts where it seems like he might care, but the truth is that Corwin is selfish and self-centered and doesn’t really care about anyone or anyone other than himself. From page 164 through page 165, there is a giant paragraph that lists the numbers of the people killed during the first portion of Bleys’ assault. The grand total? 50,527. That’s 50,527 individual people with families, lives, and dreams that are washed away before the real battle even starts. And Corwin is all proud of himself because his opening part in the war only lost him 186 ships. That’s whole ships with their crews. But he doesn’t talk about them. All those believers who follow Bleys and Corwin are cannon fodder and cattle and have no value to Bleys or Corwin. The people are a means to an ends, not really people who should be cared for, nurtured, or protected, like a true and good ruler would. A true and good ruler would never carelessly spend the lives of their people. A good ruler would plan strategies and find ways to minimize the loss of life of people under their command using whatever methods necessary.

Bleys and Corwin gather this massive army and decide without any hesitations to conduct a full, frontal assault on a force with a superior defensive position. Corwin does try to bribe Caine and Gerard. Caine betrays the deal and what Gerard says on page 175 makes him a character I might have actually liked and cared about if he had been in the story more: ‘”I only agreed to let you by,” he said. “That is why I withdrew to the south. I couldn’t reach you in time if I wanted to. I did not agree to help you kill our brother.”’ Gerard, at least, works to save the lives of his crew by not engaging them in the battle, and also says that he didn’t agree with killing their brother. He might be the only character who I felt might not have killed without reason. Pages 154 all the way to 204 contain the vast majority of the battle and is a running tally of how the number of deaths caused by Bleys, Corwin, and Eric. Those people who died trying to assault Amber were listed basically just as numbers on a sheet and that makes me sad and it also made me dislike Corwin.

Since Corwin speaks directly to the readers several times and I think that his few half-hearted attempts to save lives are only written in for the benefit of the audience and not because he actually cares about those under his command/control. Some examples of this are: “I was willing to die fighting, but it was senseless for all these men to go down with me,” (page 176) or “Their deaths would serve no purpose,” (page 178) or “I’d probably have surrendered, to save my remaining troops, who had served me far too well” (page 204). These all felt insincere and half-hearted to me. As though he was just saying the words so he would be cast into a better light. If he had genuinely cared, he would not have let a quarter of a million (page 154), 250,000 people, die just because they weren’t smart enough to think up an actual strategy in THREE MONTHS. And that’s just the people on the side of Bleys and Corwin that died, not counting the people on Eric’s side that died. The key tip off for me that none of the Princes of Amber cared a thing about the lives they wasted was when Corwin said, “I wore my left arm in a black sling and considered those who were about to die.” (page 151).

From my perspective, Corwin’s view on war was academic, at best. He used people and sent them to their deaths for no reason, and he didn’t even care. From what I can tell based on Corwin’s situation and thoughts at the end of the book, there were no consequences to the protagonist from the war. The souls of the dead did not haunt him during his captivity. He didn’t remember any of their faces, or compose songs about their service and their sacrifice. He spent his idle time in the dungeons thinking only of himself and how to take the throne.

In my opinion, he wastes the lives of those who would serve him and doesn’t deserve the throne.

So overall, the book started as a fast and entertaining read, but I found myself disliking the main character more and more as the story progressed. I’d say this book is a low two on my rating scale as I am unlikely to ever read it again and I am thankful that I borrowed it from the library instead of buying it myself.

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About C.A. Jacobs

Just another crazy person, masquerading as a writer.
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