Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Book Review - The Great Book of Amber

The Great Book of Amber: The Complete Amber Chronicles, 1-10 (Chronicles of Amber) The Great Book of Amber: The Complete Amber Chronicles, 1-10 by Roger Zelazny

Well, it took about two months, but I finished the "Great Book of Amber." I feel a little better knowing that it was technically TEN books in one, but only moderately better. It was partially due to things going on in the "real world", but for some reason this book was a fairly slow read for me.

My initial reactions after the first "book" were that:
1) I enjoyed the world/characters
2) I thought the author was very imaginative and had some cool ideas
3) I didn't like the narrative voice
4) The copy-editing was awful (numerous typos/grammar errors)

After having finished the entire saga, I would say that those reactions stand but I would expand them a bit and add a couple of other comments.

The world itself was very intriguing...the concept of a "true" reality and everything else is a "shadow" of that reality is cool. It's not a new idea per se (I've had soooo many discussions in similar veins in many of my English classes as we talk about meaning and ideas...discussing Plato's concept of the "real" or "true" ideal thing and everything else is just a reflection that helps to understand or draw near to the ideal). But it was still cool.

It was both comforting and annoying to have so much of the story based in our "own shadow Earth." It was good to have a foothold that was familiar and relatable. Still, it seemed that by relying on our "own" Earth so much and using it as the comparisons for Amber, it almost made Amber become the shadow and Earth become the ideal. This was never presented as the case, and was often spoken of in the contrary, but the overarching presence of Earth in terms of plot usage and in terms of the characters comparing points in Amber to memories on Earth made the distinction difficult at times.

In terms of character development, I really liked Corwin being an amnesiac to begin with so that I was learning everything with him. It also helped set the tone of knowledge development for the rest of the stories since lack of knowledge was an underlying plot driver...since the 'amnesiatic reader' was already in place, it was easy to continue that mode and provide lots of questions and expository monologue.

By the end of book 10, I felt like I'd read Dickens' Bleak House or some other novel with a ridiculous amount of characters each with their own individual plot threads drawn out to indeterminate conclusions. All of these were seen from a singular point of view and loaded with the narrator's own insight and bias, which made the multiple characters' threads all that much more difficult.

I loved the characters and many of them were well developed and rather unique. A lot of them were composites of one another and blended together at times. This was especially true of their voices which were indistinguishable.

While I can see a lot of external influences creating various plot elements and concepts (such as Plato's ideal as mentioned above), I applaud the author for a very imaginative world with dynamic characters and a very intriguing plot line. While the novel itself is likely wholly classified as "Fantasy" on a large level, I could almost see it sub-classified as "mystery"/"suspense" or possibly "political thriller."

Because of the "amnesiac reader" syndrome, the plot arc was able to change many times through the ~1200 pages and still maintain a good flow. The overarching plot remained largely unchanged from a general sense...in that the plot was that of a power struggle...the players seeking the power changed over the course of the novel, mainly as the scope of the power changed. First it was a struggle for intellectual power, then for a throne, then for vindictive power, then a struggle for knowledge or freedom from persecution (not quite sure how to classify Merlin's first stories as power struggles), then for power over enemies, then larger power struggles between the powers of the universe.

The overall plot was actually fairly simple. Where it got complicated was in the delivery of the plot as well as the wide range of subplots within the adventure.

I rather enjoyed a lot of the subplots and the deviations from the main plot mainly because they helped maintain momentum which was vital because frankly I felt the story really dragging at many points. In looking back, I suspect that the main plotline could be followed through effectively in about 1/3 of the real estate used (so ~400 pages instead of ~1200).

The subplots helped maintain my interest level as a reader while also providing small nuggets of information that was vital or at least intriguing with relation to the main plot.

My biggest complaint in terms of the wide variety of subplots was that there were SO MANY individual plot threads partially developed. I would have HATED to have read these as 10 individual books published every year or two. Each "book" ends only resolving a portion of the plot lines it introduced or followed (and sometimes completely ignored points introduced in previous books).

The easiest break point is to call books 1-5 the "first story" and books 6-10 the "second story", but that too is oversimplification since at the end of book 5 you have a ton of plot points that are unresolved and never brought up again in 6-10 and at the end of book 10 you have numerous plot points just dropped for good. Since there are literally dozens of plot lines explored through each "book", this is a ton of information that the reader is invested in but never achieves resolution for.

I've spoken briefly to the delivery of the plot. It was effective initially because of Corwin's state of being. It was intriguing throughout the entire story because it kept the reader as much in the dark as the main protagonist trying to figure out the mystery/conspiracy. My main complaint with the delivery method is due to the narrative voice which is one of my initial observations and complaints so it deserves its own section.

Narrative Voice
I've already commented that I found that even though there are dozens and dozens of characters, most of them had nearly indistinguishable voices. That in itself was confusing at times. Add to that the sections with full pages of dialogue with no identifiers. Numerous times I had to back up to near the beginning of a dialogue and then count from the first identifier...HOPING that the author stuck with a normal pattern (which was a very optimistic hope, since he very frequently diverted from convention with regards to spoken word...sometimes within multiple speakers within what page/paragraph formatting would designate for a single speaker...for example: "What do you mean?" Eric asked to which I replied "Nothing". It's not awful...and not as bad as no identifiers, but was still troubling).

In addition to the same voice throughout everything, the voice itself annoyed me at times. I understand that Corwin and later Merlin (the primary narrators) spent a lot of time on "our Earth", but it still felt that there was far too much of what felt like earth-specific jargon. This sort of goes to the first point. If I write off Corwin and Merlin (and perhaps also Fiona and some of the others who loved earth) as just really liking Earth...that's one thing. To then take those same conversational nuances to other characters, many of whom never ventured from Amber or the Courts of Chaos or wherever else they lived...that's stretching it too far. My biggest pet peeve was the "Whatever" usage.

My other complaint with the narrative voice doesn't have to do with the dialogue voice, but rather with the narrative presentation itself.

"All my life", I've been taught "show, don't tell". Perhaps this novel is the case study that first coined that phrase. Pulling a number out of my butt, I would say that this novel is 80% tell vs 20% show. The plot delivery is nearly always handled through expository monologues either from the narrator himself or as presented by a supporting character.

I acknowledge that the novel is done in first person and that as such he "has to" tell us what's going on. My point is that he can "tell" without "telling"....describe the action, describe the scene, describe the emotions...describe rather than explain.

I really did enjoy the creativity and imagination used throughout the story. I also really had fun with the political intrigue and conspiracies at a universe level. It was very entertaining in that aspect.

However, the "tell" vs. "show" presentation made this novel almost a chore to get through at times. It truly felt a tedious read on numerous occasions and I almost gave up on it. When I finally reached the end and found so many plot threads unresolved, I almost wished I had given up rather than push to the end hoping for a solid resolution.

Still, enough was resolved that I can't hate myself for finishing it.

My suggestion might be to hope for an abridged version or perhaps a movie. In lieu of that, go for it. The story itself and the ideas it might get you thinking about are definitely worth pushing through even the boring segments.

3 stars

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