Your Guide To The Great Book Of Amber Part 1: The Corwin Cycle

We here at The Quill to Live want to take you on a road trip of sorts. Today we will escort you through the book in the highly appropriate form of a road map to show you the sights, the pitfalls, the wonders, and the dangers of Roger Zelazny’s Great Book of Amber. The 1200+ page journey is well worth it, but first you should know what kind of snacks to bring, where to stop for gas, and whether any murderous hitchhikers might appear on the side of the road.

We’re here to guide you into Amber. We want you to be prepared for the journey ahead and ready to enjoy it as much as possible. 

This behemoth of a book tells its story through the eyes of two main characters over the course of ten books, so we’ll take you on two separate tours. Today, we cover books 1-5, known to Amber fans as The Corwin Cycle.

Hop on in.The Great Book of Amber by Roger Zelazny

Stop 1: The Road We Travel – The Plot of Amber

Early on in The Great Book of Amber, amnesiac protagonist Corwin embarks on his own inter-world road trip with his brother Random. The trek spans vibrantly imagined worlds, but it’s not purely a physical journey. Corwin, suffering from a loss of memory but addled by gut feelings about the people he encounters, uses the road trip to siphon information from Random. 

The trip turns out to be rather revealing of the strange magic that governs the universe in which these characters live. It exposes the tense family dynamics involving would-be usurpers and a battle for a powerful throne. By extension, the road trip unveils that Corwin is embedded in an intricate web of strange machinations set in place by his colorful cast of family members. Friends, foes, and the ever-beloved “somethings in-between” emerge. 

Though Amber uses “amnesiac protagonist” as a narrative launchpad, Zelazny quickly (and smartly) sheds that skin and welcomes Corwin back into the fold. His amnesia becomes such a burden that he simply reveals the truth to the two family members along for the ride, and it’s honestly impressive he was able to keep the illusion up for a significant stretch.

Let’s pull off to the side of the road for a second and talk about the capital-P Pattern. The Pattern is a powerful design that grants the entire universe order. It is very much a physical thing/place within Amber, but it’s also a force that fuels the magic of true Amberites. Most believe the true Pattern to be the one within the castle of Amber. Fitting, because children of Amber can walk the Pattern–a process that is intensely difficult and possibly deadly. There are a few possible outcomes for anyone who attempts to walk the Pattern. Here’s a helpful chart:

Person walking the PatternWhat happens when they set foot on the PatternFinal result at the end of the Pattern
Child of Amber (part of Amber’s bloodline)The Pattern presents them with increasingly difficult (and potentially fatal) mental and physical obstacles, which they must traverse or die.The Pattern grants them the ability to walk through Shadows and will transport them in that instant to any location they designate.
Anybody ElseThey die.RIP.

It’s also important to note that the Pattern exists in multiple forms throughout the universe. For example, in Rebma, Amber’s watery reflective counterpart, there exists a reflected version of the Pattern that obeys the same rules. You’ll encounter these versions of the Pattern just as often as their “real” counterpart. 

The pattern is the center of Amber as a world AND the story’s core mystery. You will encounter it in so many forms that it’s unclear what the Pattern is. In fact, it’s almost a misnomer because Zelazny is so inconsistent with its inner workings that there’s no recognizable lowercase-p pattern governing how the capital-p Pattern works. Got it? No? Me neither. Good. Back to our journey…

Corwin’s joyride slows to a halt in Rebma, where he walks the reflected Pattern. As Corwin completes the trial in Rebma, his memories (and sweet powers) return, an onslaught of recovered facts and forgotten quarrels that meet at a revelatory zenith: Corwin must ascend Amber’s throne.

Thus Corwin’s story begins in earnest. With his memories restored and powers returned, he sets out to better understand the shifting family dynamics of Amber’s throne-seeking royalty.

Stop 2: King Of Worlds – Amber Reigns Supreme

One of the most magical stops on this road trip is, of course, Amber itself. Roger Zelazny’s crowning achievement focuses on the “one true world,” Amber, the functional center of his fantasy universe. Most other worlds (more on those italics in part 2) exist as capital-S Shadows of Amber. They are reflections, altered versions of the “true” world. The evolving realms of Shadow count our Earth among their ranks, alongside medieval fantasy settings and realities so far-fetched and abstract that they’re hard for the mind to grasp. 

Feeling lost yet? Get used to it. You’ll embark on various romps through Amber and its shadow worlds. At first it’s easy because you’re just the passenger next to Corwin as he races through Shadow worlds. But once he separates from Random and begins to explore in earnest, even the most experienced cartographers would struggle to track his progress. It’s best to read Amber knowing that the titular “true” world serves as a grounding force. You will almost always be somewhere within Amber or its shadow. If the meandering path feels labyrinthine at times, take a deep breath and remember you’ll be back in Amber soon enough. All roads lead to Amber, goes the proverbial wisdom of the book’s lore. That should be your mantra as you read along.

Embark on your Amber-bound road trip expecting this vast web of worlds to be Zelazny’s magnum opus of worldbuilding. You may find yourself expecting a vividly-imagined collection of fantasy vignettes as you speed through otherworldly highways, but almost all of these roads lead to Amber. This larger universe serves not as a panorama of sites to see, but as a backdrop for a battle royale, quite literally. Oberon, Amber’s king, has passed away, and his many children take up arms in a battle for the throne. This is the core of The Great Book of Amber. Zelazny’s worlds–both imagined and reality-based–are often pit stops that propel the familial in-fighting. 

Although the Shadows can be a bit thin, they are still a powerful worldbuilding force that is one of Amber’s defining attractions. Amberites can traverse between Shadows, and there’s hardly a 20-page stretch in which someone doesn’t venture to another world. The settings are so varied and numerous that none can serve as a reader-grounding force. Instead, the narrative plays that role, and you must invest yourself in the twists and turns of the road that lies before you. Never get too comfortable in one place, because Zelazny will jerk you to another as soon as you’ve poured yourself a cup of tea warmed by a hearth full of dancing flames. 

There’s one snag here, though, and it’s Zelazny’s point-of-view selection. The first five books comprising the Corwin Cycle are fittingly narrated by…Corwin. He’s an apt choice as one of the Amberites with the strongest claim to the throne, and his amnesia during the book’s first stretch makes him an excellent worldbuilding device/narrative gift drop. But because the story is so focused on his travels, thoughts, and examinations, it’s easy to feel like there is incredible potential being unrealized. You may feel slightly lost when Corwin feels the same. You may feel the urge to take the evidence one step further when Corwin decides to move on. For better or worse, Corwin tethers himself to you, and you simply have to accept that you’re along for the ride. 

Even as Corwin travels through these different worlds, there are myriad subplots happening off the page. You’re tagging along as he winds his way to the throne. It’s like driving through a maelstrom of ideas, with hundreds billowing about. But you’ll only be able to catch those that latch onto Corwin. As a result, either  buy a ticket for the tour Corwin’s leading or stay home.

Zelazny’s Amber-adjacent Shadow worlds tell a tale of infinite potential but finite execution. It’s a fantasy-setting zoo. You receive a simulacrum of what a world could be, then a guide ushers you to the next exhibit, equally limited in its recreation of an entire ecosystem. 

Stop 3: The Court of Oberon – A Masquerade of Backstabbing

King Oberon’s death sparks a litany of claims to the throne, and all boil over into a conflict between Corwin and his brother Eric. We make no qualms about telling you this, because it’s fairly obvious from the outset. It also highlights an important stop on our journey through Amber: family intrigue. 

If you pine for a blockbuster display of political backstabbing and plotting that is reminiscent of  A Game of Thrones, Zelazny’s epic fantasy might scratch that itch. King Oberon had 20+ children, each varying wildly in how “legitimate” they are perceived to be. Quite frankly, the family of Amber is ridiculous. They resort to flights of fancy and intensely intricate schemes to get ahead, and none of them can trust any other family member for more than mere minutes. Again, here’s Zelazny giving you snippets of vibrant characters, though their goals and complete storylines are hidden in lowercase-s shadow. 

Zelazny has crafted a cast of characters that rivals the best modern fantasies on the market (all the more impressive considering the first installment published in 1972). Though you’ll encounter, admire, and promptly forget Amber’s many Shadows, Zelazny’s cast will stick with you. Come for the world, stay for the (sometimes literal, wink wink) backstabbing. Also, Ganelon. We love Ganelon.

Sure, Zelazny crafts excellent characters and pits them against one another. But the ball has to drop somewhere, which brings us to…

Stop 4: Patriarchy Pit Stop – Dealing With Sexism

We’re firm believers that you can read a text (or consume any media) with problematic themes and enjoy it. However, it’s essential to recognize those problems and learn from them. For this reason, we give you this word of caution that there are some clear sexist ideas in Amber, serving as a dark tunnel through which you must drive on this journey. 

This is the ultimate pitfall of Amber, the reason you may turn the car around. Zelazny’s story problematically favors men over women – so overtly that it’s impossible to miss. Multiple times throughout the Corwin Cycle, characters (including the women themselves) offhandedly mention that Oberon’s daughters simply aren’t fit to rule, despite the fact that they…demonstrably are. Nary a reason surfaces for these claims. During our reading of Amber, there were multiple points at which we stopped and thought “Actually, it might be better if Fiona ran things…”

Let’s be ultra-clear, however. There are strong female characters throughout The Great Book of Amber, and many spring to mind as favorites. We won’t say too much here because many of said women feature prominently in the latter half of the story. 

All this is to say that Amber is undeniably a fantasy of a different era, and the widespread sexism that ran rampant during Zelazny’s heyday (and still absolutely poisons our culture today) permeates many of the book’s pages. The problem improves noticeably as the books progress, but it is not wiped away. 

And for what it’s worth, we think most of Amber’s female leads are infinitely more fit to rule than the vast majority of Corwin’s dumb-as-rocks brothers. If you’re prepared to trudge through the problematic themes that ensue, there are still a few more things you should know. Let’s continue.

Stop 5: Big Book, Short Spurts – Handle Amber With Care

The Great Book of Amber feels constructed to be consumed in small pieces. We know, we know, them’s big words for two guys writing a guide about a 1200-page book. BUT (that’s a “but” as big as the book, FYI) Amber lends itself well to short spurts. The prose itself is light. So light, that you may breeze through 30 pages before you even realize how far the story has advanced. 

With that light and breezy effect, though, comes a challenge. Zelazny and, by extension, Corwin, might speed right past you with nary an invitation to eat their dust. Revelations beget new mysteries in Amber, and Corwin will hop from one to the next as if he’s 10 steps ahead of you in a multiverse-spanning game of hopscotch. 

This results in a need for intense focus. Zelazny isn’t overly flowery with his language. Amber is easy to read by most standards. But you could dub one line an easy throwaway, and it could come back to bite you. The Corwin Cycle in particular is a series filled to the brim with details. Page 30 may offer a reveal that only becomes important on page 300. As you’re readying yourself for a journey through Amber, make sure you’re amply fueled to connect the dots. 

Simply put, you need to be on your guard 100% of the time. There’s no napping until the next rest stop on this road trip. Because Amber reads breezily, it’s deceptive in its detail. Come into the story willing to track a vast amount of information and broad-strokes ideas without too intense a focus on one thing in particular. Bring the minivan; the smart car doesn’t have enough cargo space.

You might realize that you stopped for gas when you still had half a tank left, only to find a cheaper option just a few miles up the road. Zelazny seems to delight in sparking these foibles, which brings us to our penultimate stop on our Corwin Cycle road trip. 

Stop 6: The Portal of Imagination – Zelazny’s Catalyzing Text

If you’ve reached this point and are feeling confused…good. That’s exactly how you should feel. Amber has a goal. It’s brimming with ideas. But it requires effort on your part to let Zelazny drive from time to time. You are at times a passenger and at times the driver, and you don’t necessarily get to decide the shifts for yourself.

Corwin’s story is a journey through the mind of Zelazny in a raw unfiltered form. Polish level: low. Guardrails? Few and far between. For the unwitting reader, this means a wild and unstructured ride through imaginative stories and fantastical setpieces. This particular road trip offers some once-in-a-lifetime views and some awe-inspiring pit stops. But you’ll also drive from a cornfield to a mountain range to a deep, dark ocean within a few pages. The Corwin Cycle has underdeveloped plotlines. For every amazing stop-off, there’s an underdeveloped side plot or a painfully slow section. 

Simply put, Zelazny’s Corwin Cycle feels like he wrote it on the fly rather than meticulously planning every single detail. Writing on the fly is by no means a bad thing (Game of Thrones and Kingkiller Chronicle are two good examples of this), but it can result in a disconnected narrative. 

If you’re along for the ride, our advice is to let Zelazny take the wheel. Take note when he changes the tune on the radio or points out a landmark. Listen to the discussions between characters that he recounts to you. Do that, and you’ll feel like you’re riding with the top down on a fantasy highway at 100 mph. 

Stop 7: Center of the World – Corwin’s Last Stop

And here, we slow to a stop and rest for the night, hopefully in some Shadow realm packed with whimsical sights for you to enjoy. Our road trip through The Corwin Cycle showed you the dangers ahead and the wonders you might encounter along the way. Amber’s first five books are equal parts treacherous and jaw-dropping, and now you’re ready to fire up the engines and set out on your own.

As for us, we’re resting to prepare for the second leg of our Amber road trip in Part 2: The Merlin Cycle. 

Buckle up. 

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