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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Chaos and Amber by John Gregory Betancourt. New York: ibooks, inc. 2003. ISBN: 0-7434-7494-5

A few blog entries ago I wrote about my predilection for unique fantasy scenarios that do not duplicate Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. One of my favorite examples (in addition to Fred Saberhagen's various Books of Swords) is Roger Zelazny's Amber series. It is difficult to describe the concept, but imagine if you will a universe in which our paltry Earth is but a shadow of the true reality which is the place known as Amber.

In Amber, the sky is bluer, the grass greener, the air fresher and cleaner, the women lovelier, the men stronger and handsomer, and everything is in fact, just a little bit more like regular Dr. Pepper. (More like regular Dr. Pepper than WHAT? is my rhetorical question.) Sideways to Amber, and just a few turns away, if you know how to travel obliquely through the parallel universes, are many shadows, some of which, like Earth, are even mildly interesting to the sons and daughters of Amber, who alone, hold the power to travel the slip-sliding paths of alternate realities.

Zelazny (1937-1995) wrote ten Amber novels in two sets of five each:
  • The First Chronicles of Amber
    • Nine Princes in Amber
    • The Guns of Avalon
    • Sign of the Unicorn
    • The Hand of Oberon
    • The Courts of Chaos

  • The Second Chronicles of Amber
    • Trumps of Doom
    • Blood of Amber
    • Sign of Chaos
    • Knight of Shadows
    • Prince of Chaos
You're probably noticing about now that Chaos and Amber isn't on this list, and that John Betancourt isn't Roger Zelazny. Right on both counts! Someone in control of the Zelazny estate has apparently decided that commissioning another writer to write more Amber novels would be a good way to make some money. Undoubtedly that is true. Which doesn't necessarily make it a good idea. This title is the second in the series of these books, the first being Dawn of Amber (2002), and another, To Rule in Amber, is supposed to be coming sometime this year, in September, actually.

It was my opinion that Zelazny himself had more than worn out his welcome in Amber by the time he got to the end of his second pentology (is that the word?). The first few tales were genuinely original, enchantingly fresh and charmingly adventurous. But as the series spun out, it eventually appeared that even Zelazny had not had the chance to think through the entire mythos of Amber, and was desperately making it up as he went along, no doubt surprised by the depth and enthusiasm of the response generated by these tales.

And if this was true for Zelazny himself, how much more so for any cheap imitator who comes along later. At least, that was my opinion when I read Dawn of Amber. Now I'm not quite so sure. I have to admit that Betancourt seems to be getting his feet more firmly planted under himself, and that Chaos and Amber was quite readable and entertaining. I'm not yet convinced that anyone has the right to go meddling around in the ancient history of what happened BEFORE Amber itself came into being, which is where we are in this series, but the book passes the test of being a good read.

Still, I don't recommend starting here, or even with Dawn of Amber. Go back and start with the original series, and read at least the first pentalogy (anyone prefer that spelling? write me a comment). And if you find yourself still craving more, why, tackle the second pentathon. (No, I think pentathon would be some kind of a footrace, perhaps). And if you're STILL craving more Amber stories after all that, well then, try these.

On the other hand, if you've already been there and done that, consider giving Chaos and Amber a look. I was pleasantly surprised. I can't resist pointing out, however, that there isn't any real reason for putting the word Amber in the title other than for marketing purposes. Amber as we know and love it doesn't even exist during the events portrayed in this book.


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