Monday, March 19, 2018

The Guns of Avalon #3

Fantasy February and Magical March!
Roger Zelazny’s Amber:
The Guns of Avalon #3

Zelazny’s fantasy masterpiece in comic form

"Part 3”
Written – Roger Zelazny
Adapted – Terry Bisson
Illustrated – Christopher Schenck
Inks – Andrew Pepoy and John Nyberg
Letterer – Todd Klein
Editor – Ken Grobe
Executive Editor – Byron Preiss
Editor-in-Chief – Howard Zimmerman
January 1996

Another unexpected delight from the Crapbox, one of my favorite author’s greatest works in comic book form. I can’t tell you how excited I am for this one.

I fell in love with Roger Zelazny’s writing in early high school when I chanced upon his book Creatures of Light and Darkness at the public library. In it Zelazny took characters from the Egyptian mythology and set them against each other in a futuristic, high-technology society. He wrote it in present tense, constructed an entire chapter in poetry and made the concluding chapter into the script of a play. The book wasn’t even supposed to be published, but Samuel R. Delany heard about it from Zelazny and forced a Doubleday editor to demand Zelazny give him the manuscript.

The book is beautiful and created a lifelong love of Zelazny.

The second five book series of Amber novels had barely seen print when I dove in to the first book. I had waited to collect them until after I graduated from college as a sort of “gift” for my degree. I also didn’t read novels while doing my coursework. I found it grueling to look at a book for pleasure after the hours spent studying textbooks all day. But as soon as college was finished…

I devoured the first chronicles of Amber. Five books starting with a bang in Nine Princes in Amber, a novel title that sounds like someone dipped nine royals in tree sap. That’s not it though. It’s around 250 pages of the best rock’em-sock’em fantasy ever made, and if you are going to read this review (spoilers!) then you’ll need to know the plot of the first book.

Seems what we call our universe is one dimension of many billions, each one a reflection of a place called Amber. Amber is a pure dimension and in the center of it sits a castle that is ruled by a man named Oberon. Oberon had many sons and daughters, their number being the “Nine” of the title. Each of these are allowed to walk a special magical “Pattern” in a room of Castle Amber that allows them to shift between dimensions at will. This is called walking through shadow, as all other universes are considered shadows of Amber. The linchpin at the other end of all these dimensional shadows is a place of darkness called the Courts of Chaos. In the first series of books they seek war with Amber by perverting shadows into places of darkness and danger.
But the thrust of the first two books deals with infighting among the nine princes over succession to the Throne of Amber. King Oberon disappears and is believed dead. His son Eric assumes the throne. None of this is told to us until a third of the way through the first book though because we are dealing with Prince Corwin, who wakes up from a coma in a hospital in New York with amnesia. The setting is slowly explained to us as Corwin escapes from Eric’s guards, discovers each of the Princes can be reached and teleported to via a special package of magical cards called Trumps, is attacked by unknown assailants from the Courts of Chaos, learns from his brother Bleys about Amber/his brother taking the throne in his absence, walks the pattern to jumpstart his memory, and then makes a desperate attack up the face of the mountain Kolvir that Castle Amber sits on to unseat his brother and take the kingdom for himself…

…only for him to (spoilers! I told you there’d be spoilers!) FAIL UTTERLY, be clamped in irons, blinded, and imprisoned in an isolated tower by the end of the book.

I can tell you that never before have I clamped on to a novel and been unable to put it down until the end like I did Nine Princes in Amber. Those last chapters are compelling reading.

We start the next book (The Guns of Avalon) with Corwin escaping and being healed of his blindness. He decides on a new tactic. Gunpowder doesn’t work in Amber, making all warring there a matter of sword and arrows. However, Corwin discovered a powder called jeweler’s rouge in one of the shadows he visited that burns the same way as gunpowder. In this next novel we learn things about shadow walking that makes it seem less like the Princes move from dimension to dimension, and more like they can create dimensions at will that are tailored exactly to their specifications. And what I’m holding in my hands is the graphic novelization of the last third of that book.

Sadly, only the first two books in the five-book first chronicles were ever serialized as graphic novels. That means this is the last Amber comic to be produced. It ends as the novel ends, on an astonishing cliffhanger that will force you to rush out and pick up the next book in sequence. If you feel that impulse after reading this review, my advice it to just pick up all the Amber books (they can be had in a huge collected edition or online). They are around 300 or so pages each and if you are hungry for fantasy action, can be devoured in an evening or two. And they are amazing.

As for this graphic novelization: The book is well-drawn and lengthy. The square-bound volume has a page count that exceeds 45 and it attempts to pack in as much of the good stuff from Zelazny’s dialogue and narration as possible. I think it is a faithful adaptation, but true Amber scholars may find quibbles they feel necessary to argue over.

We start our tale after a lengthy intro that tells us that Corwin has just secured a huge wagonload of the jeweler’s rouge from the shadow world of Avalon and is rushing through shadow with it. Corwin and his right-hand man Ganelon encountered a couple of wrinkles obtaining the powder. Most important being that the shadow where it exists is presently ruled by Corwin’s long-lost brother Benedict. Benedict is the most formidable swordsman and tactician in all of Amber, but he won’t throw in with Corwin.

Appears Benedict and all creation have troubles of their own. Dark patches have appeared in each of the shadow worlds, areas of blackness where weird demons and soulless men return. Ganelon joined with Corwin in hopes he could save his realm from one such patch. Benedict has been fighting one in the shadow-Earth he inhabits, at the cost of one of his forearms. The black circles seem to be linked to the Courts of Chaos and the dark creatures that dwell there.

In addition to taking the jeweler's rouge from under Benedict’s nose, the pair have another reason to be sneaking away: Corwin wooed and slept with Dara, Benedict’s great-granddaughter (time runs differently in shadow world-travel so this isn’t as icky as it sounds). Dara, being of royal blood, is interested in walking the Pattern in Amber and gaining the knowledge of shadow walking. Corwin trades her information on the Pattern for Dara’s knowledge about three of his brothers, all loyal to Eric, having visited Benedict recently. After learning this info, Corwin gathers Ganelon with the wagonload of rouge and flees his brother’s hospitality.

So here we have Corwin making his way across a shadow-world’s desert, trying desperately to cover his tracks so his brother Benedict won’t find them.

While traveling, Corwin can’t keep his mind off Dara, whom he compares to other lovers he has taken in recent days. Dara is different from those women in some way that makes Corwin believe he loves her. The fact that she’s Benedict’s great-granddaughter complicates matters, though.

Note the “hadn’t felt that way in centuries!” line. The nine princes are essentially immortal, only dying if killed in accident or battle. As part of the perfect realm they are immune to disease and ills of the body. When my friend Frank tried to explain his view on the series, he likened them to Gods, as their physical perfection and ability to shadow walk until they found a realm containing whatever they wanted or needed being similar to the power to create anything they wished. It was a viewpoint I’ve come to share. This is a mythological tale of warring gods that Zelazny has created, and a damn fine one at that.

But our gods have their challenges too, like this element of the landscape that Corwin finds: a black road that appears to be moving through the shadow worlds.

It’s then that Corwin gets disturbed by someone trying to contact him via his Trump, the magical cards that allow the princes to talk to each other through shadow. Knowing that to allow that would give away info as to their position, Corwin blocks the contact, but at a cost in concentrating on their own shadow walk.

As the pair stops the horses, a scream splits the air from somewhere inside the shadow. Corwin leaps off the wagon to investigate, plunging into the very real danger of the black road.

He comes upon a masked woman tied to a stake being menaced by demons of Chaos…

…Corwin rescues this unknown damsel from her fate…

…only for her to make a bold announcement before he can unmask her.

After which she vanishes, and Corwin discovers Ganelon has been caught by killer vines while trying to follow his lord into the dangerous dark place.

He rescues his companion and they return to the wagon. Seeing no way around, Corwin urges the horse into the black road in hopes of finding a way through it to an unaffected shadow world.

After a harrowing shadow walk they arrive at a safe “normal” world, only to find that safe is a very relative term.

Which culminates in two pages of furious shadow walking as the pair try to dodge onto a path through shadow that Benedict can’t follow. It culminates in their exit from a cave where they rest the horses. While surveying the landscape, they note the black road has reappeared in this shadow. They believe they have lost Benedict, which is fair trade-off. However, the figure emerging from the cave behind them means otherwise.

Deciding they can flee no farther, Corwin has Ganelon hide the wagon while he prepares to face his brother in combat. It’s a fight Corwin will most certainly loose, even with the advantage he has over the one-armed swordsman. Ganelon asks what he should do if Corwin doesn’t win.

Corwin tells him to surrender and ask Benedict to take him back home, showing that he values Ganelon’s life and loyalty. Bits like this really sold me on Zelazny’s books. The way the author conveyed that Corwin was a person of honor and compassion through actions and not words are what made Zelazny such a treasure.

No time for all that: Benedict has arrived.

However, what he is upset about appears not to be Corwin sleeping with Dara, but for some unknown murder he attests Corwin has committed.

Corwin uses the tangling reeds of the black road to his advantage; a tactic Benedict doesn’t expect. Yet Corwin does not kill his brother, merely knocking him out with the flat of his blade.

He then ties his brother up and contacts Gerard using Trumps he finds on Benedict’s person. He tells his brother where Benedict can be found, not trusting the shifting black road to stay put. Out of concern for Benedict, Corwin puts himself and his bold attempt at taking the throne by force at risk. Gerard tells him he shouldn’t attack Amber again. His reasoning…

…is that the black road is growing extremely powerful. AND dangerous. 

But Corwin is determined in his task. Their next stop is a shadow Earth that contains people who would fight and die for Corwin, a place he hand picked to pull his army from. After a few pages of finagling with the jeweler’s rouge and arms merchants who can manipulated it into bullets, Corwin contacts Gerard once more to check on the status of Benedict…

Because Corwin appears to be sincere, Gerard shares what he knows about Benedict’s murder accusation.

Gerard asserts he doesn’t know who this Dara person is that Corwin keeps mentioning and again asks that he NOT attack Amber owing to what may be happening with the Black Road (now said in capital letters!)

Corwin takes time to visit his old house in this dimension, left abandoned all these many decades. I LOVE these asides that Zelazny puts in. ”Nobody steals your books but your friends…”

And hidden behind a painting is this message from his brother Eric, asking Corwin to side with him against the chaos creatures from the black road or to at least delay attacking him until that matter is settled. 

Corwin, of course, declines.

He amasses his army, arms them, and shadow walks them close enough to Amber for the munitions to become active.

They encounter and kill a scouting party, ill-prepared to face off against troops carrying automatic weapons. But as they approach Castle Amber’s grounds, things other than brother Julian’s scouting parties begin attacking Corwin’s troops.

The strange creatures from the courts of chaos have used the Black Road to come within striking distance of Castle Amber itself. Now Corwin has a choice: to attack the weakened and under siege forces of his hated brother Eric or to join with the other princes against their common enemy from the Courts of Chaos.

As his brother wields the powers of Amber’s Jewel of Judgment against his otherworldly foes, Corwin ponders.

And then delivers one of the most powerful lines in the entire book. “I could not hate thee, Eric, so much, loved I not Amber more!” 

With that they prepare to take the field, until…

…Dara shows up, having followed through shadow. She is unable to walk it herself because she has not walked the Pattern yet.

And walking the Pattern appears to be the only thing on Dara’s mind.

Armed to the teeth, Corwin’s forces tear through the invading Chaos creatures and their riders who are from the Courts as well. Their appearance single-handedly turns the tide of battle in Eric’s favor.

As the battle ends, Dara rushes past her uncle and lover (ew, that’s not sentence anyone likes to type) and heads into the Castle. Corwin confronts Eric…

However, that confrontation is bitter in Corwin’s mouth. Eric has been fatally wounded in battle. While Eric passes rulership to his brother, he does so with much venom in his words.

Taking the jewel, he seeks out Benedict to bury the hatchet over Dara and the murders which he did not commit. Benedict’s words stun Corwin with a sudden realization.

Quickly, Corwin uses a Trump to contact his brother Random who is inside Castle Amber. Random pulls Corwin through the Trump’s link…

...and the pair rush to head off Dara before she can walk the Pattern…

They arrive too late. Dara, revealed as a member of the Courts of Chaos, stands in the center of the Pattern having completed her walk and covered in the glow of its incredible power. She makes a damning proclamation and then, using her new power to walk shadows, disappears.

This leaves Corwin no options. He must seek out Dara at the far end of the Black Road and end her threat to Amber, no matter what his feelings for her might be.

And that’s the way these books end, on cliffhangers that make picking up the next book in the series impossible to resist. Zelazny knew how to make an epic fantasy series and these books are MUST reading. Go find them!

And if you like, pick up the graphic novels of Nine Princes in Amber and the Guns of Avalon too. They aren’t bad, the art is sort of low-rent Mignola, but it works with the favor of the stores.

I enjoyed this, and anything that gets Amber in the hands of more fans is a GREAT thing. If only we had a Peter Jackson-type that would champion a movie series before I’m put in the ground. That would be a dream come true.

As an afterward, the person adapting the book, Terry Bisson, put in a page of In Memoriam to Roger Zelazny, who had passed a month prior. I think the most telling line is that Zelazny “talked about new things in new ways.” That more than anything sums up Amber.

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