Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Continued Chronicles of Amber 4: ‘Hall of Mirrors’, and The Start of Speculation

OK, so I left off our hero Corwin heading down a hall with Luke, and made it sound as though he and Luke would be in dire straits soon.

Well, that’s pretty much what happened. Luke notices the Hall of Mirrors, but does not know what it is. Corwin briefly explains it, then the two enter the hall. They encounter Luke’s mother Jasra, then Oberon … who asks Corwin to stab Luke. Turns out that now both Corwin and Luke cannot be harmed – except by Werewindle or Grayswandir. Both swords start singing, and the swords are able to cut where normal steel does nothing.

At Oberon’s bidding, Corwin reveals to Luke a secret of their swords:

“Back in the early days of creation, the gods had a series of rings their champions used in the stabilization of Shadow."
"I know of them," Luke said. "Merlin wears a spikard."
"Really," I said. "They each have the power to draw on many sources in many shadows. They're all different."
"So Merlin said."
"Ours were turned into swords, and so they remain."
"Oh?" Luke said. "What do you know?"
"What do you deduce from the fact that they can do you harm when another weapon cannot?"
"Looks as if they're somehow involved in our enchantment," I ventured.
"That's right," Oberon said. "In whatever conflict lies ahead—no matter what side you are on--you will need exotic protection against the oddball power of someone like Jurt."
"Jurt?" I said.
"Later," Luke told me. "I'll fill you in."

Note that Oberon specifically mentions Jurt. He then blesses both Corwin and Luke (important?) , who then proceed down the hall and meet Dara, who informs them that they have to fight each other, and she implies the fight is to the death. They then come across Eric, though he happens to be dead he is unaware of it, who laughs at the idea of Corwin dying – he ignores Luke, then they see Dierdre, who also happens to be dead, who clues us on in on the fact that none of the images in the mirrors really knows the truth of what will happen. They are then transported to “the killing ground”, where they arrive unconscious.

They wake up near a bonfire, and decide to investigate. They find about a dozen people, and speak to a man named Reis, who confirms that they have been ordered to witness the fight between Corwin and Luke, by two people wearing hoods, one of them probably a woman. The two are fed and then take places by the fire where, Corwin is told, “the cues will come to you”.

Corwin and Luke mean to give a mock show ending in no decision, but find themselves fighting for real, with some of the action out of their control. Corwin admits, “I grew somewhat afraid”.

As the fight continues, both men decide to allow a minor injury to themselves then end things at that point to prevent more serious possibilities. This too is not to be, as the swords take action pretty much on their own. Recognizing that he may not survive, Luke warns Corwin about the sorcerer he met in Flora’s room, and his appearance from a mirror. Luke also speculates “Could it be that for the first time Amber is starting to reflect Shadow, rather than the other way around?” Just at that moment, Roger writes, “Hello,” said a familiar voice. “The deed is done.” The two hooded figures turn out to be Fiona and Mandor, who arrive mid-fight to see what happens. Corwin warns Fiona that he will come after her, to which she replies “we are not as culpable as you may think” just as Corwin passes out from his wounds.

Corwin and Luke come to in the infirmary by Flora, and learn that no one else knows what has happened. Flora observes that the Hall of Mirrors has become a lot more active than when they were growing up. “Almost as if the place were waking up”. Flora goes on to suggest there is “another player in the game”, which she identifies as “the castle itself”.

So ends the last short story, and we can now move on to speculation about what it all means. To do so, I will for here leave aside the short fragment called “A Secret of Amber” and deal only with the other five stories, not least because there is so much in those stories that builds our setting and context.
To begin, I think the titles of these stories gives us a first impression. “Blue Horse, Dancing Mountain” not only re-inserts Corwin as a major character, but introduces us to Shask, his shape-shifting steed. It also allows Corwin to have a conversation while he is alone from other humanoids without literally talking to himself. The Dancing Mountains are also very important. For one thing, we see in “Hall of Mirrors” that the mountains were part of a spell placed on Corwin, but we also see there a game being played out between Dworkin and Suhuy, which appears to be for control of the universe. Telling that it takes place in a setting which is sometimes orderly and is yet also unpredictable. The very name ‘Dancing Mountain’ is a paradox which Zelazny clearly wants us to keep in mind as we read.

“The Salesman’s Tale” brings us up to speed on what happened when Luke faced off against the Pattern at the Prime Location. We find out that he only spilled tea, not blood, on the Pattern and did that as a diversion to make his escape. Luke also drew the Trumps of Doom for locations near to the Crystal Caves, so he could lure Merlin there in order to take him prisoner. This also confirms why Zelazny titled the first book of the Merlin Cycle “The Trumps of Doom”; the book was basically about a trap set for Amber in general and Merlin in particular, and the trumps drawn by Luke were a key part of that trap. The short story reminds us that many of the story’s characters are really themselves the most when they are in non-royal settings; Corwin as a warrior/mercenary on the Shadow Earth, with a vocation in songs and poems, Merlin as a software designer, and Luke as a salesman. Luke is a character or major and continuing significance to the plot, so his style and character are being emphasized here for good reason, including the fact that Luke contacts Vialle not only to fill her in on Merlin’s situation and the Courts, but also to advance his own position in Random’s court – no mean feat, since Random does not like or trust Luke/Rinaldo.

“The Shroudling and the Guisel” not only brings us up to speed on Merlin after the end of ‘Prince of Chaos’, but also expands our roster of players in the drama. Against Merlin, while at the end of ‘Prince of Chaos’ it seemed that Merlin had secured the Throne of Chaos, but in this story we find out there are six new contenders to deal with – plus a dark-horse entrant who plans on killing off the competition. We also find out, though, that Merlin has a most unusual patron, his old friend and sometime sweetheart Rhanda, who is of a race called Shroudlings. This new enemy not only plans to kill off his rivals to gain the throne, as a hobby he likes to kill Shroudlings. Shroudlings live in a dimension reachable only through mirrors – important, because it turns out Ghostwheel cannot enter that dimension, and also because the mystery sorcerer uses the mirrors as shortcuts and ambush avenues. The bad guy uses a monster known as a Guisel, which is terrifying and seems all but impossible to kill to Rhanda, but as we saw in the Merlin Cycle, Merlin is pretty good at killing near-mythic monsters. So too here, though Merlin has to ask for help from Kergma, a difficult-to-describe playmate of his youth who is, for this story’s purpose, a mathematical lifeform as well as a friend to Merlin, a personal computer in a very real sense. The plot encompassing friends from so many different dimensions begins to show the scope of Merlin’s capabilities, and for the first time he begins to look as if he might be up to the job.
“Coming to a Cord” reminds us of yet another of Merlin’s unusual friends, Frakir. And if we go back for a moment to consider Frakir’s role in ‘Knight of Shadow’, we can see hints of Frakir’s ability and intelligence. Like many of Merlin’s friends, Frakir at first appears to serve in only one or a limited capacity, but events prove the individual to be greater than their initial impression. Also, by now we have seen Merlin build contacts and support in a broad range of places, and in a strategic sense this makes him a lot more formidable, especially since some of them – like Frakir – are unknown to many of his enemies.

“Hall of Mirrors” is the last of Zelazny’s stories, and it opens a number of plot doors for us. The obvious point is Flora’s observation that the Castle itself is acting in its own interest, note also that if this is the case the Castle was acting against Corwin and Luke. This gains even more significance when we go back to that strange game between Dworkin and Suhuy in “Blue Horse, Dancing Mountain”; we are told about playing pieces which include a Fire Angel, a Wyvern, The Unicorn of Amber and the Castle of Amber, the Serpent of Chaos and the Chaos palace Thelbane, Mandor, Corwin, and a female figure we know only as a Chaos figure being manipulated by Dworkin. My point is that since Corwin is a playing piece, we might well expect Luke to be a piece as well, and the forced combat between Corwin and Luke indicates not only that Dworkin and Suhuy can manipulate the players, to at least some degree the pieces can act on players as well.

Next: Putting pieces together

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Continued Chronicles of Amber 3: ‘Coming to a Cord’, ‘Hall of Mirrors’

The last two short stories by Roger Zelazny had a lot of information which fills us in on many things, including the continuing conflict between the Pattern and the Logrus, Corwin’s role in the conflict, and the scale of sentience in Zelazny’s universe.

First, let’s look at ‘Coming to a Cord’. This story begins at the point at the end of ‘Knight of Shadows’, when Merlin discovers the spikard in Brand’s room that plays such an important role in ‘Prince of Chaos’. Keep in mind that point; that ring belonged to Brand, so we can consider it to be Brand’s estate, Luke’s property (as Brand’s son), or else we can call it Finder’s Keepers as Merlin has decided to apply the logic. At the end of ‘Knight of Shadows’, Merlin was even trying to think of a way to keep the ring and the sword Werewindle, but eventually concluded the sword belonged to Luke – or at least would be an appropriate gift for him. The ring is something that Luke may have a much more valid claim to than Merlin, yet Merlin never even mentions it to Luke until midway through ‘Prince of Chaos’, at which time Merlin clearly considers the ring to be his property. Hmm. We also see that Merlin is affected by a spell on or from the ring, and under that compulsion Merlin abandons Frakir and ties her to the bedpost of Brand’s bed. ‘Coming to a Cord’ picks up from that point, from Frakir’s point of view.

First off, we discover that the sentience granted to Frakir in its upgrade by the Logrus has continued; it was suppressed by shock when Merlin returned to normal spacetime conditions, but it has returned. Frakir is not happy to have been tied to the bedpost in Brand’s old quarters, but is surprisingly forgiving of Merlin. Also, Frakir informs us that the spell which took hold of Merlin was placed on the ring by Brand, a benevolent spell meant to help his son Rinaldo, whom we know as Luke for the most part. Frakir also confides to us that the swords Werewindle and Grayswandir are actually spikards which have been transformed into swords, which helps to explain their tremendous power and apparent sentience.

After freeing himself from the bedpost, Frakir searches for someone who can help her get in touch with Merlin. She finds her way to Flora’s room, and she agrees to help her. After unsuccessfully trying to reach Merlin through his trump, Flora and Frakir discuss the confrontation between the Pattern and the Logrus briefly, and Frakir decides to wait for a time in Flora’s room. When an intruder arrives – through the mirror – Flora is offended, then intrigued. We are not given a good description of the fellow, but the following exchange between Flora and this mystery character includes some interesting details:

"There are many legitimate ways by which you could have gained an introduction," she said.
"True, but that way might have led to horrible complications in my life."
"Oh, you're married."
"Worse than that," he said.
"What, then?"
"No time now. I can feel its approach," he said.
"What's approach?"
"The guisel," he said. "I sent one to slay another sorcerer, but he disposed of it and sent one of his own after me. Didn't know he was that good. I don't know how to dispose of the things, and it will be oozing through that mirror in a matter of minutes, to destroy us all most nastily. So, this place being Amber and all, is there some hero available who might be anxious to earn another merit badge?"
"I think not," she replied. "Sorry."
Just then the mirror began to darken.
"Oh, it's coming!" he cried.

At this point the Guisel which our mystery sorcerer has sent after Merlin, and he defeated and sent back, enters the room and the dialogue between our characters is cut off. What does he mean, do you suppose, by being ‘worse than married’, and it’s interesting that our mystery guy can send a guisel off to attack someone, but is unsure what to do in defending against one. A little later on, the story describes the sorcerer as a “strange little man”, which is information we can use to start building a profile on him.

We also get some more interesting details when Luke enters the room and draws Werewindle. The sorcerer notes the blade and once he finds it’s Werewindle, asks:

"Your father--who was he?"
"Brand--Prince of Amber."
"Of course," the sorcerer said, moving again toward the door. "You can destroy that thing with it. Command it to draw energy while you're using it. It has a virtually limitless supply to draw upon."
"Why?" Luke asked.
"Because it isn't really a sword."

Note the focus on Brand, and the details this guy knows about Werewindle. Just to make sure that we readers get it, Roger has Frakir climb onto Luke so she can give him more information about his blade. Frakir advises Luke that

“You might well be able to draw enough energy through Werewindle to destroy a world.”

Hmm. Considering that in the first book of the Merlin Cycle, we find out that Luke is trying to avenge Brand’s death on Amber, this may not be a good thing. And looky looky, with Corwin carrying Grayswandir and Luke carrying Werewindle, we see a bit of balance restored between Order and Chaos. Wonder if that is as important as it seems?

The fact that the sword can draw that much energy is also a bit alarming, since being able to draw that much power is very different from being able to control it, hmm?


But Frakir is not done schooling us on Werewindle. As Luke continues to hack away at the guisel, Frakir gives him another tidbit:

It's not just a sword, I said.
"What is it, then?"
Long before there was Werewindle, it was the spikard Rawg.
"Spikard? Like that strange ring Merlin picked up?"

Among other things, interesting that this spikard had a name. Does that mean some or all of the others also had/have names? And names imply personalities – is this something else which will come into play?

Definitely a story worth plugging into the overall picture. And before I go on to “Hall of Mirrors”, let’s stop for a minute and consider other things we know about the new main villain, as this guy appears to be.

In the short story “The Shroudling and The Guisel”, Merlin’s childhood friend Rhanda reveals not only her secret race and abilities, but also gives us information on the mystery sorcerer, who plans to kill off his rivals become King of Chaos:

"There is the hidden one," she said. "I do not know his name to tell you, though I know you saw him in Suhuy's pool. I know his appearance,
Chaotic and human. I know that even Mandor considers him a worthy antagonist
when it comes to scheming. Conversely, I believe Mandor is the main reason
he removed himself to our realm. He fears Mandor."

So, our new villain is a short sorcerer whom Merlin saw in Suhuy’s pool, who has discovered the dimension of the Shroudlings, has broad knowledge of magic but it’s incomplete, especially in practical knowledge. He does not know Merlin well enough to have anticipated his response to the guisel attack, and he seems to be clever yet foolish. For instance, if he knew he needed to counter Mandor, he might have considered paying less attention to Flora, and more attention to Fiona.

Things to chew on, quite a few. But on now to the last of the short stories, “Hall of Mirrors”.

After reading the first two sets of books, many readers might be a bit bored b a story about the hall of mirrors. Subconscious visions, blah blah blah, secret histories and images you won’t find in normal conversations, sure whatever … ahh, but Roger has a new version of the Hall of Mirrors. We saw a hint of this change in the Hall, when Merlin encountered it in the Courts of Chaos, far from Amber Castle where he would normally expect to find the hall. In this story, the location is predictable, but there are other twists.

“Hall of Mirrors” picks up with Corwin a bit after “Blue Horse, Dancing Mountain” left off. In that story, by the way, Dworkin and Suhuy had both agreed that the Hall of Mirrors would hold important messages for Corwin, but Suhuy doubted he would be able to get there in time. At the end of that story, Corwin was beginning a hellride to Amber.

Having crossed the ‘Shadow Divide’ between Chaos’ shadowlands and Amber’s, Corwin and his mount Shask were ambushed by six bandits (we also learned in this story that Merlin found Shask in the Courts’ stables). What makes the incident of special interest, is a couple items. First, when Corwin draws Grayswandir, it makes a ‘singing note’, which continues to sound throughout the battle, which is brief, because of the second point – Corwin is unable to harm the man he strikes with the sword, and in return his attackers cannot harm him either – his weapon passes through the bandit, and the bandit’s weapon goes straight through him as well. On the other hand, some errant shots by guys with bows kill each other after passing harmlessly through Corwin and Shask.

"We seem to have come into a strange situation," I observed

Master of the obvious, our Corwin.

Corwin figures out that he’s not insubstantial, not exactly. It’s just that he can’t be harmed or harm anyone under his present condition. Corwin eventually comes to believe that the Dancing Mountains somehow caused his situation. Shask opines that it was probably someone in Corwin’s family, who caused the condition.

Roger hints that Shask may play an important role in things to come. When Corwin mentions that he appreciates Shask’s help and asks how he can repay him, Shask answers,

“Wait. I've a feeling the Fates will take care of that."

The rest of the trip to Amber is uneventful, and Corwin makes his way to the palace and the kitchen, where he grabs some fruit, then asks for a bottle of win and a chicken to be sent to his rooms.

On his way up to his room, Corwin sees some damage being repaired from the battle between the Pattern and the Logrus in ‘Knight of Shadow’. The back way being blocked, Corwin goes around to the main stairs and runs into Luke. Luke mistakes Corwin for his pattern ghost, but soon enough they sort things out about who each is, and they discuss Corwin’s situation. They agree to discuss things over the chicken and win Corwin ordered.

But they never make it to Corwin’s apartment.

[ next; concluding “Hall of Mirrors” and some speculations ]

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Thief In Amber – Third Draft (Still Very Very Rough)

Some people are hard to kill. I don’t mean the moral decision to kill, but the difficulty in getting someone to die, who is stubbornly opposed to the idea. Some people are hard to kill because they are physically tough, some have one of those spirits that refuses to quit, and some are just plain durable.

So imagine how much more difficult it can be to kill someone, who is already dead but comes back anyway.

It was in the early days, before all the betrayals and family intrigues … OK, we always had those going on, but this was back in the days when we still imagined that we played by the rules. You couldn’t attempt to murder a sibling then, without at least feigning innocence, and alliance with genocidal maniacs was only allowed if the said monsters were friends of Oberon.

So, when word got out that someone or something was making its way through the halls of Castle Amber at night, killing members of the staff and generally hurting the castle’s reputation for fine dining and keeping folks safe from threats to their safety, the family decided it was time to take matters in hand. And, being expected to take the lead, I did so.

Oberon, as he commonly did, was traveling and away from Amber. Caine and Gerard were at sea and therefore also unavailable. Dierdre and Llewellen on a diplomatic mission for the Golden Circle, Brand, Random and Eric were out of the city for reasons not known to anyone else in the family, or if known not shared with me. That, of course, was also a reason for me to take charge; it would gall Eric no end if I could resolve things before he even heard about them … and give me no end of amusement if I could find a way to suggest he was somehow responsible for the problem. I was in those years when I was trying to show up everyone else, and convinced I looked good doing it. So it was that four princes and two princesses gathered for dinner, as we often did when we wanted to discuss issues of importance, and to imagine ourselves civilized.

The food was fine. The conversation, however, was wholly unsatisfying. It soon became apparent that none of us knew what was really going on, had any idea who or what was behind the attacks, and no one wanted to appear as helpless as we all felt.

After dinner, we all went to the library for drinks, and a second try at strategy. That fell apart as soon we chose our drinks. I watched as we chose different drinks, then different seats. Hell, we weren’t even looking at each other. I tried logic, first sitting with Benedict, who usually presented the best plan for dealing with any threat to Amber, but Benedict was even less talkative than usual. I followed with Julian, who was still angry with me for a prior disagreement, and he refused to even acknowledge my presence.

And so it went until I came to Fiona.

I knew something was about, when she smiled at my approach. Fiona and I never shared amusements or ideals, so a smile from her could only come at my cost. It also struck as strange that she seemed to be enjoying the present crisis. Was she its instigator, or if not, what was the source of her pleasure in this moment? I chose a drink, a seat, and a gambit.

“Hello Fiona”, I said. “You couldn’t just kill your enemies in a duel, like anyone else in the family?”

Fiona glared at me for a moment, then that smile returned as she realized – all too quickly – that I was just trying to draw her out.

“You play at things you do not understand, Corwin”, she answered. “As usual.

“I have no interest in your word games, and I must say I disapprove of your manners, and their lack.”

“I am not playing a game here” I protested, “but hunting the cause and source of our present threat. It is an elusive bird, truth, one which seems to be hidden by at least one of our princesses.”

Fiona smirked and replied, “Whereas wit is a bird that eludes the hand of rather too many princes.”

I shrugged. “Your disapproval concerns me even less than usual, Fi. All things considered.”

She tossed her head, red hair like a fall of flame. “Yet, perhaps it should. All things considered.”

I did things with my own eyebrows, emptied my glass, swung my boots down from the table, and headed for the door.

She chuckled, behind me.

I stopped, refrained from turning, and waited. Fiona could never resist showing the rest of us that she was a step ahead. Or pretending to be.

“You are wearing your blade,” she said. “Good.”

I went out, uttering no clever comments. With at least three murderous ghosts stalking Castle Amber, the time for such things was past.’

Hours passed, as I waited with blade drawn and senses wary, sitting in the hallway outside a row of rooms where I thought an appearance most likely by one or more of our homicidal specters.

I guessed wrong. The most dangerous thing to pass my way that night was an odor wafting from Julian’s room. I could pretend it was some feral scent from our nocturnal attackers, but I am sure it was simply the unwashed aroma of a pair of his dogs. In any case, I saw no spirits floating about, encountered no need to use my weapon, and generally felt like I was wasting my time.

Until I heard Flora scream. Down another hall, and far from my chosen station. Naturally. Or un-naturally. Whatever.

I felt damn foolish as I ran towards Flora’s room, hoping my missed guess would not be a costly mistake.

Fortunately, the volume of Flora’s shouts was not matched by actual peril. That is, Flora was not a passive screamer; when assailed by spirits coming at her, as she claimed, from within the walls, she not only cried for help but began throwing things at her attackers. It was hard to tell if any of them was some effective weapon, or the sheer volume of makeup, jewelry, hair care items and mirrors had thwarted their aggression. For all I knew, Flora had surprised them as much as they surprised her. There was no way to be sure. For the moment, we all relaxed in the discovery that our disembodied attackers seemed able to make mistakes, and we felt more confident that we ourselves were perhaps immune to their threat.

Then Bleys found Julian, more than half-dead in his quarters. Julian did not appear for breakfast, and Bleys was the first to check his rooms. I began to wonder why I had not heard anything from my vigilant post, and why Julian’s dogs had done nothing to defend him.

Also, for some reason Julian had not worn his armor the previous night. That cost him. He had been attacked from behind, as was evident by the burn marks on his back. He had fought off his attackers, but his arms, back, and legs were badly burned. I wished I could ask Julian what he had seen, and how he had fought off his assailants, but he was in a coma from his injuries, or the same thing for practical purposes. Benedict saw to his wounds and set a guard to door, with instructions to call him the instant Julian awoke – or anything appeared that might be the spirit murderers coming to finish the job.

I was not friendly with Julian, but an attack on family trumped personal arguments. Besides, just as I stood to gain from Eric’s humiliation if I could solve a mystery he was not around to handle, so too I would suffer my own humiliation if I could not resolve the problem right in front of me – and if a brother prince died on my watch, especially one I was not close to, I could count on Eric making me pay for it. And Father had made it clear that he counted fratricide as unforgivable. Failing to protect a brother was guilt by omission, and I knew that no defense I could present would clear me unless Julian lived. And I resolved the mystery and destroyed the threat.

I spoke to Benedict again, and – while cryptic – his comments included suggestions on where I might try my next vigil, and when I might expect to meet my foes.

It was very late, or rather early, before one of the walls opened in a place where it should not have done, and something that was both silver and shadow joined me.

Grayswandir felt good in my hand as I put down what I was finished drinking anyway, and waited.

Patience, they say, is a chiefly a virtue for statues, but I’d made more than my share of mistakes, thus far, and blood is hell to get out of good rugs.

Came a whisper, out of darkness. “Corwin, is it time?”

A fight for my life, I expected. Temporal confusion from the spooks, I have to admit, I did not see coming.

“No, go back to sleep”, I tried. OK, not a brilliant strategy, but I was tired and didn’t expect the question anyway.

There was a moment of silence, then the forms began to take shape. I expected something, I don’t know, human-like and perhaps demonic. These were, after all, undead spirits seeking to kill the living. Nor was I wrong.

Not exactly.

The attackers swirled into the room like sentient fog, and quickly surrounded me. I suddenly realized something was behind me, taking more substantial shape, and – I felt dread rush up my spine – preparing to strike me the same it had attacked Julian.

Something like lightning flashed, and surprised me. Mostly because the lightning came from inside the room … from Grayswandir.

I jumped to my feet, swinging up Grayswandir with one arm as I threw the book behind me into the – face? – of my posterior assailant. I heard the book smack into something, which swore as if hurt, and I pivoted, putting my back against the wall while swinging my sword into a guard position. Then I stopped.

That was a mistake.

The spirits, once the sword, stopped moving, resumed their attack, and I felt a crackle of something hot shoot past my head, striking the wall hard as if a crossbow bolt. Something else, like a burning lasso, wrapped my boots and tried to trip me. I hopped reflexively, brought my sword up again and swung it about me as if trying to burn cobwebs with a torch.

And shadows fled before me, and I was alone.

My book was on the floor, blackened. Damn. I watched lightning flicker and wondered if I would ever know what I fought, or why. Family politics seemed as tiresome as ever.

Three ghosts, Benedict had said, and had been on the brink of saying more ere his face had smoothed and he’d turned away.

Which meant he’d recognized the one he’d seen.

So had the lamplighter, before the ghost that slew him caught up with him and burned his skull bare, from within.

Coln had died, before that, and one of the cooks. Seven maids, or more by now, since.

Then they started on us. Flora had almost fallen to one, and then Julian. Almost.

We’re tough meat, we of Amber.’

Speaking of meat, I found myself famished. Deciding between preparing for a second round with the spooks, alerting the rest of the family to my attack, and getting an early breakfast, the stomach spoke with the greatest authority. Besides, I was somehow sure the attack for the night was done, and I needed to think through what had just happened before I spoke to anyone else. If one of us was behind the attacks, I had no intention of giving out thoughts on how to make sure I was properly killed next time.

I made my way to the kitchen and found it empty, as I hoped it would be. A half-dozen eggs, some cheese, ham and the appropriate spices produced a passable omelet, which I ate with coffee I made while I thought over the attack. I’m a good enough cook, but the quality of thoughts I considered diminished my appetite a bit.

I realized that I had to share my encounter, with at least one person. The attacks on Flora, then Julian so close afterwards showed that anyone could be next, and I had to help protect the innocent. If only I could be sure none among us was the guilty …

I decided on Benedict. He had shared the plan to catch out the spirits, so I already owed him a report on the attack for that reason. Also, he was the least likely to try a sneak attack on any of us – and if he had, his victims would not have survived. No, this was not Benedict’s trick, whatever it was.

I found him sitting with Julian. Julian remained still and lifeless, to all appearances. Enough to make his usual loquacity and stiff behavior seem positive ebullient. Benedict was not much more enthusiastic. I think I knew why. Julian was not so strong as some of us, but a prince of Amber should not be laid low so easily by anything. He seemed not to be resting, so much as lying helpless. That could be any one of us, even Benedict, and I could see that in Benedict’s thin, grim face.

“No Change, Corwin”, said Benedict, as I entered the bedroom.

“So I see”, I answered. “But I have news for you.”

I handed Benedict the scorched book from my encounter. He looked at it, then met my eyes with his own.

“You encountered them, then?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Yes, but unlike you, I did not recognize any of them” I said, watching for a reaction to my observation. But Benedict remained solemn and still, as was his usual mood, even in happier times.

I waited for him to speak, but Benedict simply held my gaze, and after a moment. I continued.

“Yes, I was attacked”, I said. “Where you said they would likely be, and only an hour or so after the time you predicted. Which makes me curious, of course, how you knew …?”

I somehow expected Benedict to smile at being prescient, but he remained solemn. I also expected him to provide more helpful information, but I was wrong on that count as well.

“What do you know about this, Corwin?” asked Benedict, his left hand casually resting on the hilt of a dagger he had on his belt. There was no menace in his tone, but Benedict was clear in his meaning.

“Of the attacks? Nothing to speak of, Benedict.” I replied. “I told you my thoughts the last time we spoke, and I am trying to free us from who or whatever is attacking us."

“Convenient, though”, remarked Benedict, “that you were the closest to Julian of us all, and yet you saw and heard nothing when he was attacked.”

“I know”, I protested, “and you know I would have arranged an alibi if I were going to attack Julian. Like, say, being away from Amber during the attacks?”

Benedict shook his head in irritation.

“Don’t start that stupid game again, of plots and intrigue, Corwin.”

“I won’t”, I replied, “as long as you agree to stop accusing me of being behind the attacks I’m trying to stop.”

Benedict sighed.

“All right”, he agreed. “But you were attacked, yourself, yet you have not yet told me about it.”

So I did. Including my reluctance to trust the full story to anyone in our family who might be the plotter behind the ghosts.

Benedict sighed again.

“I hate to agree with you on this, Corwin” he said, “but I sense that these attacks are part of something larger.

“And until we find a way to stop it, our danger will only grow.”

[ to be continued ]

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Continued Chronicles of Amber, 2: What the Short Stories Contribute – Revisited

This article is a reprint of one I originally published in January 2010. I am reprinting here now, for two reasons. First, I have discovered that some of my original thoughts, specifically the ones surrounding “A Secret of Amber’, were hasty and incorrect. I’d like to revisit that story from a new and, I hope, wiser perspective. Also, I realized that I never wrote a promised third article on the last two short stories by Roger Zelazny. To get the perspective correct, I am reprinting the first two articles – with some revisions – and then the third will hopefully make sense in the proper context.

WARNING – This essay contains spoilers from the first ten books of the Chronicles of Amber, and speculates on the intentions of the late writer Roger Zelazny, had he written a third cycle.

I finished the first part of these posts by discussing things learned in one of the short stories written by Roger Zelazny after publishing 'Prince of Chaos' in 1991. We can get a sense, I think, of where things were headed by considering what we find in those short stories.

For review, and for those who may not know about the short stories, Roger Zelazny wrote six short stories, or fragments of stories, after publishing his last novel in the Amber Chronicles. They were as follows:

A Secret of Amber” (co-written with Ed Greenwood, begun before 1994 but not published until March 2005, and never completed)
The Salesman’s Tale” (published February, 1994)
The Shroudling and the Guisel” (published October, 1994)
Blue Horse, Dancing Mountains” (published 1995)
Coming to a Cord” (published 1995)
Hall of Mirrors” (published March, 1996)

I can’t prove it, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the fragment story, ”A Secret of Amber”, started Roger thinking about another cycle, and the subsequent stories took more and more shape in that direction. As I wrote last time, the short stories introduced a new villain and chief conspirator, hinted at major and surprising changes in Merlin’s relationships with his friends and family, warned that the prime forces of Order and Chaos had no intention of behaving, and reintroduced Corwin’s role in the supernatural conflict, with Dworkin and Suhuy as star players for primal forces. To look at what we can glean from the short stories, I begin with the one first begun, yet ironically never finished.

A Secret of Amber” is a difficult work to find. Only a few paragraphs long, it can only found in Amberzine issue 12-15, and most fans will tell you not to buy the anthology just for the story, because there are no plot secrets revealed. Perhaps. Also, since this work was done in cooperation with Ed Greenwood, some may claim that this work is not even pure Zelazny. Again, perhaps. But we do find out a few things from the setting and characters. What happens in the story is a chat between Corwin and his sister Fiona, and it concerns attacks, as Corwin put it, by “at least three murderous ghosts”. When I first wrote about the story, I said that ‘no new information appears to be divulged’.


I went back and re-read “A Secret of Amber”. The story is problematic, not least because it started as an informal game between Roger Zelazny and Ed Greenwood. Also, there’s not much there from Roger. 348 words. 29 sentences. Two, maybe three scenes, depending on whether the last was new or continued the previous episode … it can be read either way. But when you look closely, there are some intriguing points from Zelazny, even in this short submission. The following are key items from the story:

‘She [Fiona]chuckled, behind me ... “You are wearing your blade,” she said. “Good.”

Hmm. While Corwin is hostile to Fiona, could it be important that she mentions his sword? And given the situation, why is she laughing about the situation?

Anyway, the next sentence is Corwin’s response, just so you know things are serious:

’I went out, uttering no clever comments. With at least three murderous ghosts stalking Castle Amber, the time for such things was past.’

Hmm. Three murderous ghosts? Corwin as Holmes? Certainly grabbed my interest.

Here’s the next key phrase from Roger in the story:

‘one of the walls opened in a place where it should not have done, and something that was both silver and shadow joined me.’

Two things come up from that passage. First off, we see that Castle Amber can be manipulated, and second, we note the first host referenced is ‘silver and shadow’, as if reflecting Corwin’s own silver and black colors.

This is also a clear indication about when the story took place. I originally thought that the story took place sometime after the novels. But by even the end of the first series, Corwin understood a great deal more about how chaotic Amber could be, than he appears to be in this story. Also, by the end of the first series, Corwin and Fiona are, if not friends, at least not hostile to each other, as appears to be the case in "A Secret of Amber". This is in the early years, then, before Corwin’s disappearance from Amber when Eric tried to kill him. We have the full set of siblings, then, to consider as actors, perhaps suspects.

We get another clue then, in Zelazny’s last passage in the story:

‘My book was on the floor, blackened. Damn. I watched lightning flicker and wondered if I would ever know what I fought, or why. Family politics seemed as tiresome as ever.

‘Three ghosts, Benedict had said, and had been on the brink of saying more ere his face had smoothed and he’d turned away.

‘Which meant he’d recognized the one he’d seen.

‘So had the lamplighter, before the ghost that slew him caught up with him and burned his skull bare, from within.

‘Coln had died, before that, and one of the cooks. Seven maids, or more by now, since.

‘Then they started on us. Flora had almost fallen to one, and then Julian. Almost’

OK, that’s several clues actually. The ghosts are human-formed, but not very human in form. Benedict and other victims recognized their attackers, even so, but for some reason are reluctant to talk about it. Politics somehow plays a role, even in murder. The ghosts kill by fire and lightning.

Oh, my. A lot here to think about, especially since this story gives us a look into how Roger thinks about Amber and the family.

Not a story to ignore, after all, but one to weigh in the full context of the whole set of chronicles. Including the five short stories.

Moving on now to those short stories.

In those short stories, we see Corwin on the road again. It seems he is headed back to Amber, but from where? At the end of “Prince of Chaos”, Merlin sent Corwin directly back to Amber. That seems to mean he gets a mission, apparently a very personal one. The nature and purpose of that mission is, I think, something we should talk about.

The first full short story is “The Salesman’s Tale", and focuses on the actions of Luke. Or King Rinaldo, but no, for here we must call him Luke, for his character tracks along the character we knew, hmm, pre-coronation.

In this story, Luke escapes from the Pattern as described in 'Prince of Chaos' - turns out when he cries "I spilled it!", he only meant his tea. Luke did that on purpose, to distract the Pattern while he got out fast. From there, Luke finds his way to Amber and meets with Vialle, Queen of Amber and wife of King Random, who is less than friendly with Luke. Along the way, Luke calls up the sword Werewindle to him, demonstrating sentience in the sword with all sorts of implications for Grayswandir and the spikards. Speaking of which, after discovering that Vialle has prophetic powers, Luke also learns about the 'guardians', a “self-exiled Prince of Amber and his sister” who have custody of the spikards, rings of tremendous power which first showed up in “Knight of Shadow” and were named in 'Prince of Chaos'. Vialle asks Luke to query Delwin as to ”whether his stewardship of the spikards remains intact”. We know, of course, from the novels that this is not so; Merlin has two of them now, and in ”Prince of Chaos” Bleys was wearing one. Of the nine spikards total, two became Werewindle and Grayswandir, and three more are accounted for by Merlin and Bleys, leaving only four that Delwin could control. And since Suhuy, Mandor, and Dara are aware of the spikards, the cat is well out of the bag, but Vialle could not know that at this point. A final significance of the story is pointed out by Vialle after Luke speaks with Delwin, that Delwin was intrigued by Brand being Luke’s father, but Jasra’s mention warned him off cold. We see a hint that there is something of a higher-level threat from Jasra, more than was obvious earlier, and by the way the last time we saw Jasra (in 'Knight of Shadows') she was less than completely amiable with Merlin, and by the way she now holds complete control of the Keep of the Four Worlds, or will once she returns from wherever Ghostwheel sent her at the start of 'Knight of Shadows'.

We change course now, and catch up with Merlin in ”The Shroudling and the Geisel”. In this story, Merlin wakes up to find himself in bed with Rhanda, his childhood friend whose parents thought him a vampire or demon. Oddly enough, Merlin now believes Rhanda is a vampire, but in this story he discovers that he is mistaken, as well. Rhanda, it turns out, is of a race known as Shroudlings, sort of high-principled ghouls who only eat “those the word might be better off without”. Shroudlings can enter normal space through mirrors; their world is on the other side and they seek to remain unknown as much as possible, not least because they seem to be dying off, in some part due to a beast known as a Guisel. Shroudlings also have the ability to prevent conscious notice and to remove memory of their appearance and actions in mortal realms. They can also ‘lock’ a mirror behind them to prevent beings from entering or leaving through a mirror. Rhanda, it turns out, regards Merlin as a ‘pet’, of whom she is fond.

Rhanda warns Merlin that Dara and Mandor continue to form schemes, that Julia is determined to play up feelings for Merlin in order to turn Jurt against him again. We learn that despite his front-runner status for the throne of Chaos, Merlin faces six other contenders now that he knows about, and Rhanda warns that there is one more that he does not know. Rhanda calls him ‘the hidden one’, and says “I do not know his name to tell you, though I know you saw him in Suhuy’s pool. I know his appearance, Chaotic and human. I know that even Mandor considers him a worthy antagonist” - though Rhanda also says this ‘hidden’ one fears Mandor. This is a prime clue we must consider later on.

The ‘hidden one’ has procured a guisel and has been using it to kill off rivals, apparently through the mirrorworld for surprise. In between human killings, it has apparently been killing Shroudlings, which seems to be another reason Rhanda seeks out Merlin. Merlin finds a way to come at it through another mirror, but is surprised by it anyway and what’s worse, he finds out that even the spikard has limited effect on it. Merlin calls on Ghostwheel, but discovers the mirrorworld is a place barred to it. Fortunately, Merlin is able to call up Kergma, a childhood friend and more to the point a chaos intellectual structure Zelazny calls “the living equation”. In the end, a combination of the spikard and the vorpal sword last seen in 'Sign of Chaos' at the Wonderland Bar are sufficient to defeat the guisel. In an imaginative mood, Merlin saves a last piece of the monster, renews it into a new creature and sends it back after the guy who was trying to kill him.

We return to Prince Corwin in ”Blue Horse, Dancing Mountains”. I found this story especially intriguing, for the following reasons. First, it reintroduced Corwin as a major character, and seemed to indicate a father-son team might be in the works. Next, it tied two of the stories together, as it foreshadowed ”Hall of Mirrors”, an irrational phenomenon of magic and psychology which appears to act independent of any power but its own, although in ”Prince of Chaos”, Merlin seemed to believe it was influenced by Suhuy, which carries its own implications. At first read, one may be confused by Corwin’s purpose and timing – Zelazny never mentions what Corwin was doing, that he had to flee Chaos on the strange steed Shask. This does not pick up where ‘Prince of Chaos’ ends, since at the end of that book, Merlin seemed to send Corwin from Chaos directly to Amber by way of his spikard. Therefore, Corwin appears to have returned to Chaos, and did something that required him to flee in great haste. Or else Merlin was only able to send Corwin part of the way … As the story tells it, Corwin “fled smoke ghosts across the Uplands of Artine. I slew the leader of the Kerts of Shern as her flock harried me from hightowered perches among the canyons of that place” . Sounds like we can rule out sightseeing or a simple vacation, especially since in the Merlin Cycle there were a number of references which implied peaceful conditions between Amber and Chaos, such as the fact that Mandor was free to return from Amber to Chaos, even following the disaster when the Pattern and Logrus clashed in the castle itself in 'Knight of Shadow'. We are not told what Corwin was doing in Chaos, but as it follows the visit by Luke to Vialle – who incidentally told Luke in that story that she was expecting Corwin to arrive back in Amber, and as a by-the-way Corwin was referenced by her talking sculptures as vital to addressing the crisis.

Soon after escaping from Chaos, Corwin finds himself making his way in a more leisurely manner, now somehow indicating no rush – whatever was important, it was time-sensitive in Chaos but apparently not time sensitive in the shadowlands. That changes during the first night out, though, as Corwin finds himself to a very strange variety of chess game between Dworkin and Suhuy – one in which the known universe comprises the pieces, with Amber Castle and the Unicorn on one end of the board, and Thelbane and the Serpent on the other. Pieces specifically named in the game include Mandor, Corwin, a Fire Angel, and a female being manipulated by Dworkin which surprises Suhuy, in that the woman is of Chaos. Dara? Or someone else?

The two masters also discuss a ‘hall of mirrors’ which is important to their contest – but only if he gets there in time; Suhuy wonders “without their clues, how effective will he be?” As if on cue, Corwin wakes his steed and rushes him to reach Amber in time.

next: “Coming to a Cord”, "Hall of Mirrors”, and some speculations. Yes, really, I will post them this time.