As every year passes, I become more convinced Roger Zelazny died way too soon.
I first encountered his work when I was fourteen, thanks to a friend who thrust Nine Princes in Amber into my hands and swore it was one of the best books he’d ever read.
Unfortunately, my brain does not enjoy trying to fit a trilogy and two quintilogies (is that a word?) in at the same time, so I eventually abandoned Nine Princes after chapter two and didn’t pick it up again for months.
Funny thing, though. I couldn’t stop thinking about it; and when I picked up the book again I started from scratch and was hooked. An amnesiac prince whose bloodline allows him to walk through any reality he can conceive of has to overthrow his brother for the throne of Amber, the one true reality. Plus, he swears, smokes, makes offhand references to literature, philosophy, politics and history like a boss, all with a sharp sense of humour? I’m there.
I actually read the series slowly the first time, thinking about each book for a long time after I read it.
The concepts Roger Zelazny brought into his sci-fi and fantasy books were sometimes beyond me (was I going to really appreciate an aside about Van Gogh or musings about Freud at fourteen? Not really), but the story, characters, and world were so different from standard fantasy tropes you always had to turn the page to see what he was going to throw at you next.
Also, his books were short! While the norm for fantasy series in the 1980s was for each volume to be 400 – 500 pages a volume, Zelazny’s often rounded out at 200 or fewer. One of his best, The Courts of Chaos, is almost short enough to be a novella. He was a man of few words, then; but he made them all count.
Since Zelazny was still alive as I hoovered up his Amber series, I kept rereading it as each new book came out. Through high school and university. Gaining new understanding of the context behind off-the-cuff remarks, scenes and character motives I thought I knew inside out. The series was one I turned to after two nasty breakups… maybe, like Corwin, I wanted to walk through the shadows and find myself a new reality.
Born in Cleveland Ohio in 1937, Roger Zelazny was a prolific writer by the time he was 17, selling “Mr. Fuller’s Revolt” to Literary Cavalcade in 1954. (This is a story that by rights, I really should have read, but I haven’t been able to find a copy). He studied at both Western Reserve University and later Columbia University, where he received an M.A. in Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama. He won prizes in poetry, served in the U.S. National Guard, and was involved in a serious car accident. (I imagine the last of these, especially, added context for the car crash that sets in motion the plot of Nine Princes in Amber.)
His father died in 1964, and Zelazny later went on to great success, winning the Hugo award for his novel Lord of Light in 1968. He won a Nebula Award and another Hugo for “Home is the Hangman.” In the 1970s and ’80s he wrote the Amber novels while still publishing many other books (such as Roadmarks). He cowrote Deus Irae with Philip K. Dick, and his influence on other writers, including Neil Gaiman and Steven Brust, was great. Despite that, his books are (sadly) very hard to find nowadays.
As an aside, Zelazny can be fairly criticized for rewriting a similar character in many stories — a flawed superhuman (or supremely talented) man who must unravel a mystery and outwit forces of chaos in order to establish a new order or reality. In his defence, when he does it really well (as in Amber or Donnerjack), he’s better than anyone else.
I’ve had the privilege to see, meet, or talk to some of my favourite authors in person, including Brust, Mordecai Richler, Guy Gavriel Kay, Michael Rowe, and others. But Zelazny, who died in 1995, was one I never got to meet. Even though I haven’t read all of his work, his stories and novels still bang around in my mind, and I wish he were still around to write a few more.
There are things I wish I could say to Roger Zelazny, if he were still alive. Here are a few of them.
You made me question reality
Seriously. I think this is one reason I didn’t rocket through all the Amber books right away after Nine Princes in Amber when I read it in the autumn of grade nine. What if everything around me is not real? How would I know? What would happen if I could walk through different realities just by deciding to?
The fact this is also a perfect metaphor for reading, or in fact for making choices in your life that matter, escaped me when I was fourteen, by the way.
You made the ordinary seem wondrous and the wondrous seem ordinary
The scent of chestnut blossoms along the Champs-Elysées in 1905 Paris can somehow make me feel as if I understand the end of the world in The Courts of Chaos. The workaday vastness of cyberspace in Donnerjack still dwarfs the actual Internet. And when genetic manipulation allows German Shepherds to speak — yes, I think they’d talk exactly the way you wrote Sigmund’s dialogue in “He Who Shapes.”
You taught me how to reread
Every time I came back to one of your books after a year or two away, I realized I’d learned something that made me appreciate the story in a different way. When I reread the Amber books in grade twelve, I got so many more of the literary and historical references then that I realized I’d only grasped a tiny part of the story the first time around. And you had a lot of true things to say about large, Machiavellian families, too.
This happened every time I came back to them, by the way. I slowly realized that though your words didn’t change, maybe I did — and I was enjoying the books on much deeper levels. I started looking for this in all my favourite books. Some stood up to it (hello Tolkien, and Guy Gavriel Kay); others did not (goodbye, Dragonlance Chronicles… gah).
You broke rules I’m only starting to understand, and you made it work somehow
No seriously, how the hell did you publish parts of Sign of the Unicorn serially first and still make it fit into a five-book epic? In Doorways in the Sand I can sort of see it, but it took me four chapters before I realized each one was basically a standalone story as well.
I still haven’t made it through Lord of Light
I know. I KNOW. It’s embarrassing to admit it, especially when Steven Brust has been extolling its virtues for years. Maybe this year will be the year I do it.
That Corwin can inscribe a new universe but not reach his father in time to reconcile with him is heartbreaking
I’m no psychologist, but the fact that you lost your father in 1962, before you made a career creating so many worlds of your own, is not lost on me.
Roger Zelazny, you make me want to write great books
If folks like Gaiman and Brust wanted to continue your Amber series, that sets a high bar indeed. (They didn’t of course, based on your express verbal wish that no one do that.)
The fact you conjured such engrossing stories without writing novels as thick as phone books helps me cut out everything I don’t need from my own work. And I learned to love the power of first person-narrative from you, even if I think in the later Amber books Merlin sounds an awful lot like Corwin did in the earlier ones…
One day I may write a closing line as good as yours, but I doubt it.
“Goodbye and hello, as always.”
What about you? Who is an author, living or dead, you wish you could talk to — and what would you say?
Author’s note: this originally appeared as a guest post on the now-inactive Insatiable Booksluts site, back in 2013. I’ve been thinking of doing a few more posts like this, so I thought I’d also make it available on my own blog.