I first read the Chronicles of Amber series back when I was in High School and had the time to juggle multiple series of fantasy books simultaneously. It was then that I ready Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books as well. Of the three series, Tolkien and Roger Zelazny’s works were contained in omnibuses that I owned and Anthony’s books were being purchased, borrowed, or checked out as was convenient. Of the three Zelazny’s works were the most readily accessible in terms of language and presentation–where as Anthony’s books have a particular vibe and unnatural rhythm and Tolkien reads like some kind of ancient bible by design, Zelazny has a more accessible feel.
Getting into the actual recording of Nine Princes in Amber, the 1970 tome the set off the series, the one I was able to procure was thoroughly enjoyable for a number of reasons. Sunset Productions did a great job in producing an audiobook with enough background effects and scoring to make it feel like a radio play for one; but the better reason this recording shines is because this version, recorded in 1990, is read by Roger Zelazny himself. While Zelazny wasn’t a fantastic actor, nor a particularly talented audio reader such as George Guidall is–he was apt–his depth of knowledge of the characters, scenarios, and world he created resonates in the reading. Hearing a storyteller tell his own story, rather than a paid actor, often makes a huge difference in the impact of an audiobook.
The story begins with our protagonist Corwin in a state of amnesia and operating under an assumed name. As he works his way through the hospital he is committed to, he gathers precious little information about his identity and proceeds to find out how and why he was in a horrible accent that has left him without his memories. From the beginning his wit and aloofness are immediately endearing for a fantasy novel protagonist–he’s swaggering intelligence make it easy to escape and place yourself in his shoes. Corwin actually reads more like a hard boiled detective more than nobility–except at certain times when protocol requires it. That effect is amplified in a positive way by the reader. Zelazny’s voice easily plays into what could be Corwin’s as well, and the fact that the book is written in a first person narrative make it all the easier to forgive Zelazny’s lack of voice acting when portraying different characters.
Additionally, the convention of amnesia, though cliche, works well in advancing the reader (or listener) into the world of Amber as it is slowly discovered. Corwin’s exploration of incredibly and increasingly fantastical elements of the worlds of shadow allow us to become acclimated for about half the book before he regains himself. Zelazny in this regard doesn’t give too much away too quickly to establish this world…it slowly fades in as more magic is added. Our questions about the order of “shadow” (parallel worlds or possible worlds) and “Amber” (the one true world from which all other possible worlds derive) are not completely answered–even until the series ends–but are well dispatched and we are deftly given at least nominal answers that have some thought and consistency to them.
The book’s action is faced paced and exciting and certain conventions allow the story to rely on sword and sorcery despite the existence of advanced modern technology (at least modern for the 1970s). There are sword fights, battles of wits; failures and successes all around. The dry humor and seeming candor of the narrator drive things forward and the cut-throat “honor and love” of the royal blood of Amber leaves you guessing about who is really ready to murder whom.
I won’t spoil too much of it, but if you’re looking for an exciting fantasy story full of intrigue, magic, humor, and a struggle for the crown between two formidable foes give Nine Princes in Amber, and indeed the entire Chronicles of Amber a whirl. If you’re looking for an audio book experience…none compares to a reading from the author. Zelazny’s depth of understanding of the world he crafted shines through in this reading and gives you an escape into this perilous reality.