"Amber is the one real world, casting infinite reflections of itself - Shadow worlds that can be manipulated by those of royal Amberite blood. The CHRONICLES begin in a hospital on the Shadow Earth, where a man is recovering from a freak auto accident. Since he is also suffering from amnesia, and has been for some time, he has no idea that he's Prince Corwin of Amber - until his memory receives a succession of jolts: He meets a sister who speaks in riddles of plots and counterplots... and a brother who abruptly involves him in a life-and-death battle against pursuers from a fearful Shadow world. He discovers a deck of tarot-like cards, with himself, his sister, and strangers whom he guesses to be other relatives, pictures on their faces. Then comes the most shattering jolt of all... Corwin's confrontation with an intricate design created by a master manipulator of reality - the Pattern. As Corwin sets foot upon that coldly glowing inscription, memories come flooding back to him... more and more with each step. And finally, knowing his true identity, he acknowledges his true ambition - and resolves that the crown of Amber will be his. But unknown to Corwin, there are dark forces massing against Amber ... and before too long he will discover just how great a burden a king's crown can be...."
At first glance, one can see several tropes at play here: the amnesiac-turned-hero, the dark forces, the man-who-would-be-king, etc. However, the story is in the hands of Roger Zelazny who is one of the best writers that the fantasy genre has ever known. Witty dialogue, great characterization, and thrilling plots keep the pages turning through all TEN volumes of this brilliant series. The series can be had individually but has also been released in a one-volume edition called The Great Book of Amber and two-volumes called the First and Second Chronicles of Amber respectively.
You are introduced immediately to Corwin, the main character. The prose is first-person and Corwin is a funny, witty, smart, savvy character that the reader will want to follow around. He reminds me of someone like Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade, using his keen intellect to try to get the other characters to reveal themselves and not betray his amnesia. Zelazny does a lot to make you intrigued by Corwin with phrases like "...I was garbled all in white, the color of Moby Dick and vanilla ice cream." and '"?" thought I.'
As you can see, Zelazny is very funny.
He also knows how to keep the pages turning. Since Corwin is an amnesiac and you are getting his perspective, the world is revealed to you as it is revealed to him and what a world it is! Essentially, Amber is the one true world and there are countless other worlds (called Shadows) which are just reflections of Amber. Corwin is a Prince of Amber, one of the few who can travel between the Shadows. This sets up ten novels of magic, political intrigue, castles, and characters who may not be who they seem.
As I said before, there are two series here. The First Chronicles of Amber deals with Corwin while the Second Chronicles introduces his son Merlin. Not content to simply rehash what made the First Chronicles so successful, Corwin's son Merlin is a very different character than his father and the saga of the Second Chronicles is his own. Readers will, as I did, relish the opportunity to stay just a little longer in the world that Zelazny has created. On top of that, there are an additional six Amber short stories available. If you like witty and interesting characters, edge-of-your-seat plots, action, magic, and Shakespearean allusions this is the series for you. The Chronicles of Amber is one of those series of novels that will stay with you for the rest of your reading life.
Does It Hold Up to the End?
It probably won't surprise you to learn that the answer to this question is 'yes'. Of course, that is not to say that each of the ten volumes in this series is as good as the last. Sadly, that is not so. The First Chronicles of Amber are probably five of the best fantasy novels ever written. The Second Chronicles are flawed and problematic novels written by one of the best novelists in the genre but they are still flawed and problematic.
Merlin is a less compelling character than Corwin. The Raymond Chandler meets Tolkien vibe of the First Chronicles is absent and in its place Zelazny has the stakes perhaps stacked a little too high. The worst that the Second Chronicles is capable of still allows for more time spent exploring the City of Amber and the magic and wonder that Zelazny has dreamed up. To put it into perspective, if I were to assign number ratings to these series out of 5, the First Chronicles would be a sure 5/5 while the Second would be a 4/5. There is a noticeable difference in quality but Zelazny is still one of the best.
If you have not, go and buy these books as quickly as you can. Read them, savor them. Reread them next year. Let them rest for a while and read them again. The Chronicles of Amber, like any great books, change with you while retaining the things that you always loved about them in the first place.