Your Guide To The Great Book Of Amber Part 2: The Merlin Cycle

Welcome to part 2 of The Quill to Live’s roadmap to Amber, a guide to reading The Great Book of Amber by Roger Zelazny. If you are just joining us for the first time, we highly encourage you to take a look at part 1, which covers the first five installments of The Great Book of Amber, the Corwin Cycle. Today we will guide you through the sights and terrors of the second half of the series, named the Merlin Cycle. Despite the fact that this series is often sold as one large unit, the second half of the story takes us through very different terrain with a different focus. If the Corwin Cycle was a tour guide randomly pointing out the window to show you cool things in the landscape, the Merlin Cycle is a person regaling you with the full history of everything you travel past, for better or worse. Which you like better is going to depend on how you like to travel.

But, both have positive and negative qualities, and both have sights that are worth the trip. So once again, we’re here to guide you into Amber. We want you to be prepared for the second part of the journey ahead and ready to enjoy it as much as possible. Today, we cover books 6-10, known to Amber fans as The Merlin Cycle.

Get back in losers, we’re dying on the pattern.

Stop 1: The Courts of Chaos – The Plot of Amber Part 2

The second set of Amber books tells the story of Merlin, which is where the series gets its pseudonym – the Merlin Cycle. Merlin is Corwin’s son, who is our protagonist from the first five books if you haven’t been paying attention. Merlin lives on our Earth, which as we all know is actually a shadow of Amber. The first thing we learn about Merlin is a strange fun fact – every year on the same date, someone is trying to kill him. Such a fun and harmless ritual, Merlin even somewhat starts to look forward to these murder attempt. But it’s all fun and games until someone actually succeeds and there is a murder. On one of these murderversaries, Merlin finds his ex-girlfriend dead in her apartment. If you find yourself slightly perturbed by the mention of an “ex-girlfriend” in this trippy fantasy universe, you are not the only one, but roll with it.

Shortly after finding the body, an old friend of Merlin’s, Luke, resurfaces and intimates that he has some knowledge of this mystery. As Merlin attempts to discover his would-be murder, he is ensconsed, like his father, in the various machinations of Amber. Part of this mystery is that his father, Corbin, has been missing since the events at the end of the last cycle and Merlin would like to know where he is. However, this plotline surprisingly takes a somewhat backseat to the murderversary quest. While trying to solve the mystery, we learn that Merlin is actually only half ‘Amber-ese’ and actually also has the bloodline of Chaos – the Yang to Amber’s Yin – running in his veins. We get to spend some time really digging into the clockwork that makes Zelazny’s world run. Various plots and schemes unfold, including one centered in the ‘Keep of the Four Worlds’ which is purported to be a very important place that everyone but the reader has known about forever. As usual, noone is who they say, especially Luke. Merlin, being both of Chaos and of Amber, finds himself in the center of an eternal battle between the two forces. 

Stop 2: Zelazny-tecture – The Worldbuilding of Part 2

One of the more noticeable changes in scenery between the two cycles is worldbuilding style. While the Corwin Cycle has a certain scrappy quality to it, its emphasis is much more on whimsy than on rigid structure. The locations Zelazny takes us to in part 1 are all to explicitly serve the plot and they tend to feel like a video game with bad rendering – everything around the protagonist feels real, but look into the distance and things start to get pixelated quickly.

However, in the Merlin Cycle, we get a much more well-defined setting. The number of places the story jumps to decreases (slightly), but in exchange they feel like actual places that exist outside the character’s needs. In theory, this more concrete grounding should have appealed to us more (given our reading preferences), but there is definitely something lost from the series as a whole. A lot of what makes this story interesting is its ephemeral nature. No, the places we visit in the first cycle aren’t well defined, and that can be frustrating. But it serves to paint a picture of a universe with Amber at its center. By tying down the worldbuilding with more concrete places, the second cycle feels less inherently “amber-y” somehow.

Stop 3: The Pools of Seeing – A More Clearly Defined Protagonist

An interesting and divisive shift in the second Amber cycle is the change in density of our protagonist. As we mentioned in the first half of this guide, Corwin is a blank slate of a character designed so that the reader can insert themselves. Corwin has a vague generic description, no strong character identities other than his core of “win the throne,” and is a perfect platform through which to see Amber for the first time. It makes the Corwin Cycle more akin to an experience, a portal to a new world. On the other hand, the Merlin Cycle is much more of a story.

Merlin is an actual character with definition. He has gumption, drive, and an agenda. Zelazny does the work to flesh him out as a character and this makes the second cycle less of a fun playscape for the reader and more of an actual narrative about a person’s life. There are pros and cons to this, but in this instance, I think it is generally positive. Five books was enough time to tear about Amber exploring and it’s nice to read a set of books in the setting that feel like they have more to say than “I just can’t wait to be king.” That being said, even though Merlin has a lot more personality than Corwin doesn’t mean he is a work of art – the bar was on the ground. Merlin feels very much like the classic fantasy academic who doesn’t get out and about much. He also feels like he has a little more complexity given his dual citizenship in both Amber and Chaos. His strange parentage feels like it gives him a lot of insight and unique perspective through circumstance, and its a nice way to elevate a character’s importance in the story without pushing how “cool and badass” he is. At the same time, Merlin feels like the perfect character for this story, but don’t expect him to stick in your mind long after you finish the series.

Stop 4: The Tavern of Camaraderie and Animosity  – Fate Of The One Over Fate Of The Many

The Corwin Cycle is the story of a throne, and the impact it has on the future. It is a story that is always about big stakes and a large cast of characters that we view at a distance to see how they affect the fate of the world. The Merlin Cycle is about Merlin and his pals.

There is a distinctly more human focus in the Merlin Cycle. The stakes are still large, but it’s much more a personal story about a small cast of characters — good and bad — than one about a cosmic throne that dictates reality for trillions of worlds. It almost feels like Zelazny made the conflict in the first cycle too big and all-encompassing and found that the only place that he had left to go was inward. Generally, I think the story benefits from a more human element. It puts things in perspective and makes them much more relatable, despite the fact that Corwin was a blank slate for the reader to insert themselves. The only problem is that some of the character motivations of the cast can feel a bit pedantic and petty in the greater scheme of things – especially when you just got finished reading about a fight for godhood. After that, reading about how you are sad that your relationship is having communication issues can be a bit of a backward step. 

It’s not all bad, though. The cast of the Merlin Cycle (thought still quite large) shrinks compared to its predecessor. As the focus narrows, you’ll be treated to some exciting character moments. Merlin’s journey is one of discovery, and even the people he knows best have secrets locked away in their depths. The back half of Amber as a result feels less like a full game of chess and more like a series of quickfire fencing bouts. Merlin has time to interact with everyone, and he has his own mysteries to solve in relation to his cadre. 

Regardless, I think it is generally a net positive change and would have like to see more humanizing in the Corwin Cycle. 

Stop 5: The Enigma – Leaning Into Mystery

It could be said that the major question that permeates all of the Corwin Cycle is How? How does the magic work? How is Corwin going to take the throne? How will he find the willpower to survive this latest trial? But the question that suffuses the Merlin Cycle is Why? Why are these things happening? Why is someone trying to kill Merlin? Why has his father disappeared? The shift goes from exploration to mystery and it changes the very nature of the story.

The fact that the Merlin Cycle is couched in mystery serves to further distance it from its more whimsical predecessor. In order to solve puzzles and crimes, you need to have hard facts that you can rely on, tangible pieces of a puzzle that don’t shift when you look away from them. As a result, Zelazy starts to lay the groundwork for a much more rigid and clearly defined world, which, as we mentioned in the earlier section, is a bit weird to put at the end of your ten-book series. And yet, the mystery sections work surprisingly well. Understanding how Amber works is really fun and it is a great stepping stone into some fairly captivating whodunnits. The mystery also serves well to tie the two cycles more cleanly together and make them feel much more synchronized. It was a surprising but excellent idea that differentiates the Merlin Cycle while also bridging the two cycles at the same time.

Stop 6: The Final Stretch – The Pacing of Part 2

An aspect that does feel like a net positive change between the cycles is the pacing. Part one suffers from a very erratic sense of pace. Some of the books involve non-stop action, and others involve Corwin describing what the wall of his jail cell looks like for fifty pages. This is the nature of a series that was written in installments, as Zelazny didn’t plan out and pace the narrative. Instead, he just shepherded it in the direction he wanted.

The Merlin Cycle conversely feels like a set of stories that Zelazny sat down and planned out. The books are much more even and continuous than the first half of the series. This does have the surprising effect of making them slightly less memorable in our opinion. While the first cycle has its ups and downs, the downs fade from the mind while the ups remain clear and vivid. The Merlin Cycle is more difficult to remember with its flatter, more gradual slope. I am sure at the time the change wasn’t easy to notice. These books came out of the course of many years and the shift is gradual. But, to someone reading all of the books in a block the differences in style is very rapid in appearance.

Stop 7: The Visitor Center – Our Final Thoughts on Amber

The Amber Chronicles are a complicated beast to tackle and a little difficult to recommend. There are definitely interesting historical aspects of the series that left their mark on the development of both the fantasy and science fiction genres. It also feels quite unique, with its ephemeral writing style, ten short story installments, and creative mix of science fiction and fantasy. For a series that began publication in 1970, it feels surprisingly ahead of its time.

And yet, though it feels ahead of 1970 it also doesn’t quite live up to some modern classics. There are definite issues to address in the story writing, and some of the more unique characteristics of the storytelling didn’t catch on for the obvious reason of not working that well. 

Nowadays, The Great Book Of Amber is published as a massive single volume. Sure, it’s a convenient purchase, and $30 gets you some otherwordly bang for your buck. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best way to consume Amber. As you start your venture into the one true world, remember that Zelazny wrote it by the seat of his pants, and nobody will fault you for reading it in the same way. 

At the end of the day, though, Amber is an intensely personal trip. The tome is packed with so many fantasy tidbits that almost any reader will find something to enjoy. Enter Amber with an open mind and a wide net, and you’ll come out the other end better for it. 

And, once you’re done, head back here and let us know what you thought. Thanks for joining us on this journey, and happy reading.

5 thoughts on “Your Guide To The Great Book Of Amber Part 2: The Merlin Cycle

  1. I read each book separately during my grad school days to balance out my finance studies, and am a better man for it. I am sure this is exactly why the Ivy’s created their interlibrary loan system (thanks, Cornell!). I agree with you that the story of Amber is a hectic, messy, and worthwhile one, and for me locating each slim volume within the archives of our great universities, securing a copy, and anxiously awaiting its arrival seemed apropos of the experience and added to my enjoyment. Thanks so much for the trip down memory lane.

  2. I didn’t come away from the Merlin series feeling like it was planned. Especially after the last two books in the installment. I’ve read that Zelazny was known for writing by the seat of his pants, and that feels definitely true as the power levels creep up through the Merlin books and Merlin bounces around from Wonderland to Undershadow.

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