Audiobook Review: The Chronicles of Amber Books 6-10: The Merlin Cycle by Roger Zelazny

3 12 2012

When I discovered that Audible was releasing the entire 10 book Chronicles of Amber series, I knew I would have to start hording some credits, and take advantage of a some sales in order to re-experience nearly 60 hours of one of my favorite Fantasy series in audio form. While I considered reviewing each book separately, I decided that due to the nature of this series, full of twists and cliffhangers, I had to listen to each cycle of stories together, instead of one at a time. The overall series is broken into two cycles, the first being the Corwin Cycle, which I reviewed earlier this year. The Corwin Cycle is a wonderful mind bending Fantasy experience, and I loved listening to each audiobook back to back. Yet, I was a little hesitant about the next 5 books, which follow the adventures of Merlin, Corwin’s son. When I originally read this series, I found myself a bit let down by the latter 5 books. Yet, this series of novels was narrated by Wil Wheaton, so, I decided to give it a chance.

When I first read The Merlin Cycle, I had many issues with the overall tale, yet most of it came down to one issue, I found Merlin incredibly naive. Now, in the Corwin Cycle, there is some of this naiveté, but there are reasons essential to the story that make Corwin this way. In the Merlin Cycle, I found that the naiveté was a part of his character, in general. Now that I have experienced this series again, I come away with a new perspective on Merlin that totally enhanced my impression of the series. What I believed to be naiveté in Merlin, I see was more a sense of strict focus. Merlin came at things from an entirely different perspective than his father. There are many reasons for this. The is an essential difference, with Merlin being of Amber and Chaos, but I think most of it comes from his earth bound education. Merlin, in his Earth Shadow persona, if a computer designer, and approaches things in a more analytical, yet dispassionate manner. Also, not being raised with the potential for the Throne, gave him a less paranoid nature. Understanding this allowed me to enjoy the sporty more finding a new beauty to Amber, Chaos, and the Shadow worlds through this shifted perspective.

One of my favorite aspects of the Merlin Cycle is the totally craziness of the plot.  Zelazny layers conspiracy on top of conspiracy on top of a struggle between the very nature of the universe itself. As the plot progresses from one book to the next, nothing stays static. You very worst enemy from one book becomes you greatest enemy, and visa versa. Any assumptions you may have made about the very nature of Amber, Chaos or Shadow is stripped away. In many ways the physics of the universe that Zelazny creates become even greater characters then the players on the board. It’s mind numbingly complex, yet Zelazny manages to keep it all together in a plot that works. I have always been disappointed that a third cycle was never completed. While the overall story is wrapped up well in Prince of Chaos, it leaves so much left to be explored. I know there were some shorts written by Zelazny and a prequel series written by another author, but I have been scared top give them a try. For now, I think I will stay with what I have read, occasionally letting my mind wander through shadow for what could have been.

Narration:

After experiencing Alessandro Juliani’s wonderful narration, Wil Wheaton had the much more difficult job of making Merlin’s story just as engaging. Wheaton is a skilled first person narrator, bringing humanity to the characters he portrays. When paired with the right protagonist, his readings come alive. In The Merlin Cycle Wheaton gave me a new perspective on Merlin. I think imagining Merlin more as a geekish character as opposed to his more Alpha male father really opened the story up for me. Wheaton found the right mixture of humor and angst in Merlin and actually made me like the character much more than I did when reading the print version. There is an almost old school quest style video game feel to some of the books within The Merlin Cycle, and it works to have an iconic voice leading you through it. There are some small issues with the production. One of them is the vast number of characters who appear throughout both segments of the series and the fact that many of these characters are very similar, being they are all part of the same family. Wheaton uses subtle changes in his characterizations. He doesn’t have the wide array of character voices as some narrators, and this makes some moments of dialogue a bit confusing, particularly when jumping between Merlin’s fist person inner dialogue and another character talking in the first person. There was quite a few moments where I had to figure out exactly who was saying what, and whether is was spoken or thought that I was taken out of the story for just a bit. Yet, this is more then made up for my by Wheaton’s impeccable sense of pace that gives the story a real feel, while moving it forward. While I loved The Corwin Cycle, and enjoyed Alessandro Juliani’s narration, this was expected. What surprised me was that a combination of me being a bit older and the excellent narration by Wil Wheaton made me enjoy the Merlin Cycle more that I did when originally reading them.

Trumps of Doom by Roger Zelazny

Read by Wil Wheaton

Audible Frontiers

Length: 5 Hrs 34 Min

In Trumps of Doom we meet up with Merlin, son of Corwin, living on the shadow earth, working as a Computer Engineer in California. Despite his status as a son of both Amber and Chaos, he’s living a relatively normal life, except for one thing. Every year on April 30th, someone tries to kill him. Determined to find out the mysteries behind these attacks, Merlin is lured to an ex-girlfriends house, who he finds dead at the hands of a strange creature. As he investigates this further, he discovers that people know more about him than he expected, including his real name. Betrayed, and not knowing who to trust, Merlin must head back to Amber, with his troubles following behind. Trumps of Doom starts this series off with a bang. Its sets the deck for the series introducing us to new enemies, and allies, while building on the foundation set in the Corwin books.

Grade: B+

Blood of Amber by Roger Zelazny

Read by Wil Wheaton

Audible Frontiers

Length: 6 Hrs 37 Min

While Blood of Amber suffers a bit from the problems many second books in Fantasy series seem to have, it also pushes the mythology of the series in an interesting new direction. Here Merlin is unsure of who to trust, with several key people seeming forgetting their past encounters with him. While dealing with this, Amber and Merlin get a history lesson of a near Shadow Kingdom where the past indiscretions of the Princes of Amber in the past contribute a lot to the current issues facing them today. This novel tends to be heavy on the exposition with Zelazny creating interesting ways to dump info on the readers. This causes the pace to suffer, but asks a lot of questions whose answers will be vital to the rest of the series. Despite any problems, Blood of Amber is full of stunning imagery and ends with one of the most creative cliffhangers of the series.

Grade: B

Sign of Chaos by Roger Zelazny

Read by Wil Wheaton

Audible Frontiers

Length: 5 Hrs 53 Min

Signs of Chaos is the transitional novel of the series, tying up most of the human based conflicts. Amber is embroiled in a diplomatic and military conflict with one of the Shadow worlds, and Merlin must join up with past enemies to find a way out of the situation. While this is happening, Merlin finds that he may be a pawn in a battle for the balance of the universe itself. Yet, before he can deal with this, he must defeat and reveal the masked sorcerer who has been plaguing his every step. As an uneasy alliance forms, new characters reveal there nature, and old rivalries turn deadly, and Merlin finds that with each problem solved, new ones spring up in it place. The novel leads to a great confrontation, a splendid magical battle and a shocking reveal, and changes the scope of the entire series.

Grade: B

Knight of Shadows by Roger Zelazny

Read by Wil Wheaton

Audible Frontiers

Length: 6 Hrs 3 MIn

Knight of Shadows is my favorite novel of the series. It has strange, steam of consciousness style that has Merlin involved against his will in a quest style mission through the essence of shadow itself. Here, the very nature of everything is challenges, with the inanimate taking on personality, forces revealing their sentience, and the images of the players of the game becoming mere tools in a battle between Order and Chaos. It is perhaps the most lyrical and darkly beautiful tale of the series, where nothing that is shown can be trusted. As Merlin is being manipulated in taking sides, with his choices having the potential to change everything, each decision he makes has epic consequences. Merlin must find a way to change the rules of the game, and take control of his fate, knowing that he will conflict with the greatest powers in the universe.

Grade: A-

Prince of Chaos by Roger Zelazny

Read by Wil Wheaton

Audible Frontiers

Length: 6 Hrs

Not only does Prince of Chaos bring together the wildly converging plot into a satisfactory ending, but it gives us the best look at the Court of Chaos. You can just tell how much fun Zelazny is having playing with the very nature of the expected physics of the world, shaking them around in the heart of Chaos. Merlin is now returned to the place of his upbringing, only to discover that the elaborate game of thrones has left him in with a possible claim to the Throne. Yet, he also discovered a conspiracy to turn him into a puppet leader. With his greatest enemies, now allies, and those he believed he could trust plotting against him, Merlin must decide whether or not he wants the offered power. While being pushed by family, friends, and perhaps even god himself, Merlin must rely on the tools he has, an artifact of power, the erratic AI he created and the few people he trusts to overcome the plot against him and keep the universe in balance. Prince of Chaos is a wonderful conclusion to this great series that ties up all the ends delivers a stunning final battle, and left me wanting more.

Grade: A-

In Conclusion:

I really enjoyed listening to this series, and was quite glad I decided to do it in two chunks. Both narrators working on this series gave excellent performances, and the productions were top notch. Fans of fantasy series who want to relive one of the classics and those who have yet to visit Amber, I totally recommend giving this a listen. It’s quite a commitment in time and credits, but it is one worth taking.

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Audiobook Review: The Chronicles of Amber Books 1-5: The Corwin Cycle

19 08 2012

 

It was about 10 years ago when I first started to become a more significant fantasy fan. Before that time, most of my Fantasy reads were either books I grew up with like The Hobbit and Chronicles of Narnia, or through cross genre series like Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. After Completing the Final book of that series, I was hungry for more Epic Fantasy series. I read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, and George R. R. Martin’s  A Song of Ice and Fire. Then, looking for my next Fantasy fix, I found a book called, The Great Book of Amber. It was the omnibus version of Zelazny’s The Chronicles of Amber. Unlike the original fans of the series, I got to sit gown with this clunker and read it like it was one big book.

From the first moment of Nine Princes of Amber, where we find a strange man with no memories breaking out of medical facility, I was fully engaged. Corwin was such a brilliant character, unreliable and mysterious, full of flaws but compelling. He made a great hero for this tale. As we begin to meet Corwin’s strange family and get pulled into the lands of shadow and Amber, you literally had no idea what may happen next. The concept of the Shadow worlds is brilliant. You can call it multiple universes, but that doesn’t even really capture complexity and beauty of what Zelazny set up. All worlds are the Shadows of Amber, the true world, and in Shadow, anything you can imagine existing exists. In order for those who have the ability to travel through the shadows, they move in an almost Imagination Osmosis, where they imagine aspects of worlds, trying to bring them more and more into synch with where they are trying to go. As complex as this system could get, Zelazny does it simply. He doesn’t bother trying to explain the how’s and whys of the process, he just has his characters do it. It’s simple and effective.

In essence, The Corwin Cycle is an elaborate Game of Thrones scenario with one incredibly complex family struggling for control over the one true world. What makes Corwin’s place in the struggle even more complex is that he knows he’s entitled to his shot at the throne, but his fractured memories never allows him the ability to fully comprehend all the intricacies of the struggles. He has nothing to go on when deciding who he should trust other that his instincts when he thinks about his individual siblings. Even when his overall memories are restored, he is missing key bits of information from around the time of the accident that preceded the start if the series. This makes him the most unreliable character to both the readers and to himself.

Zelazny does so much with this tale, yet, does it in an accessible style that opens it up to both hardcore and casual fantasy fans. Reliving this tale in audio was definitely a good decision. There were so many wonderful moments that truly comes alive in this tale.

Narration:

Alessandro Juliani gives a wonderful performance. Early on, I think the pacing was a bit off, and maybe a bit rushed, but he got control of it pretty quickly and it was impeccable after that moment. His characterizations were well done. He did have a tendency to Anglicize many of the peripheral characters, unless they were specifically given ethnicity. This wasn’t entirely a problem but it may have been nice to see a bit more diversity in his characterizations. One thing he did well with his characters was transform them as the story dictates. I struggled with his voicing of Random at first, finding it a bit cartoonish and infantile. Yet, he rounded it out with more depth as the story progressed, following the development of the character. This come from a true understanding of the text and I applaud Juliani for it. The funny thing was, I could actually see Juliani, or a buffed up version of him, as Corwin, and that helped the overall feel of the novel. I think Audible made excellent choices in their narrators for this series, and once I can scrounge up the credits I am looking forward to Wil Wheaton’s narration of the Merlin Cycle.

 

Nine Princes of Amber by Roger Zelazny (Chronicles of Amber, Book 1)

Read by Alessandro Juliani

Audible Frontiers

Length: 5 Hours 31 Min

Grade: A

Nine Princess of Amber is the opening of the series and quickly sets the mood. One of the benefits of starting this series with Corwin not knowing who he is, or anything about Amber or the shadow is that we get to experience it with him. Nine Princes of Amber may be the most visually stunning, epic  edition of the series. Corwin’s battle into Amber up the Kolvir mountain is probably the moment of the series that has forever been engraved into my brain. Of all the novels, it’s focus is more on the external action than the intricate interaction between siblings, and because of this, it is probably the moment of purest fun.

The Guns of Avalon by Roger Zelazny (Chronicles of Amber, Book 2)

Read by Alessandro Juliani

Audible Frontiers

Length: 6 Hrs 29 Min

Grade: A

The Guns of Avalon is probably my favorite book of the series because of one fact, it takes place almost entirely in Shadow. In Guns of Avalon Corwin returns to a version of a land he once ruled over in order to find a valuable weapon that will help him win the Throne. Along the way, he meets versions of old friends and enemies and discovers a dark force that may threaten Amber, the one true world. Even worst, this new darkness wreaking havoc in the shadow may very well have been caused by Corwin himself.

The Sign of the Unicorn by Roger Zelazny (Chronicles of Amber, Book 3)

Read by Alessandro Juliani

Audible Frontiers

Length: 5 Hrs 35 Min

Grade: A-

Sign of the Unicorn transitions the series from being mostly about the battle for the Throne of Amber to the threat of The Court of Chaos. The majority of this novel takes place within the walls of Amber and concentrates on the just exactly how Corwin lost him memory and what the true nature of Chaos is. A lot of the conspiracy and machinations of his siblings is brought to light, and there is a huge focus on discovering who is working with Chaos and committing other heinous acts of betrayal. While it’s full of huge reveals, and complicated plotting, it is the slowest, most introspective novel of the series.

The Hand of Oberon by Roger Zelazny (Chronicles of Amber, Book 4)

Read by Alessandro Juliani

Audible Frontiers

Length: 5 Hrs 20 Min

Grade: A-

After the ending of Sign of the Unicorn, and its game changing cliffhanger, Corwin must discover the cause of the black road that is giving Chaos access to Amber. In order to do this, Corwin must return to our Earth, where he spent centuries in exile, unaware of who he was, to retrieve a powerful tool he had been forced to leave behind earlier. The Hand of Oberon answers almost all of the big questions of the series, and reveals the true nemesis. Corwin also learns a shocking secret about one of his closest friends and advisors that leads to the best implemented twist of the series.

The Courts of Chaos by Roger Zelazny (Chronicles of Amber, Book 5)

Read by Alessandro Juliani

Audible Frontiers

Length: 4 Hrs 44 Min

Grade: A-

In Courts of Chaos, Corwin discovers how to save Amber against the encroachment of Chaos. The solution is practically suicidal and before Corwin realizes, another has stripped him of the opportunity, taking it upon themselves. Now, Corwin must travel from Amber to The Courts of Chaos, following the Black Road through Shadow where he encounters strange creatures, fulfills prophecies and truly discovers what it will take to prevent the destruction of all existence. While this trip seems a bit of a gimmick to fill out the space between the brilliant beginning and conclusion of the novel, it’s dream like quality gives it a unique place within the series and takes us back into the heart of Shadow. The series ends with hope in the face of despair.

 

In Conclusion:

The Corwin Cycle of the Chronicles of Amber remain one of my favorite fantasy series of all time. Rich in characters and full of adventure, it is unlike what many expect out of epic fantasy today. The Worlds Zelazny has created are as vast as our imagination, yet written so tremendously accessibly that even readers who struggle with the often overused verbosity of modern Fantasy will be able to enjoy this work. Zelazny uses his precise intricate prose only to accentuate his tale making him one of my favorite all time storytellers.