Thursday, February 16, 2012

The number 9

The year was 1970.  The book was Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny.
Okay, the title is enough to make one pause and consider… wha…?  Nine Princes?  Why not ten or five?  What would any number of princes be doing in Amber?  Wait, amber is a hard substance, a petrified resin or tree sap or something, right?  How did nine princes get trapped in…?
So, of course a peek inside the covers might reveal a little something…
It was starting to end…
What a way to start a tale, this was not the ending.  You find he’s awakening from a coma, has amnesia and... is that paranoia… or is it survival mechanisms kicking in.  Before I was finished the first page I had to know what happens to this character.  By page 10 (paperback) you finally learn what his name is, this first person POV character that you’re reading.  And then you learn his sister’s name.  The character knows a lot; history, weapons and geography, but nothing of people seems familiar to him.
It’s a mystery.
Then slowly (even though the cover notified you) you find this is full of strangeness and surreal twists and, oh my, fantasy.   (Of course back then it was covered under Science Fiction and Fantasy – the two were inseparable to the masses – but why were devotees stuck with the combo?) (Yes, that’s rhetorical)  In any case the book, the writing, the author, pulls you into the tale, takes you along for the ride and you realize that the ride is a rather interesting one.  Okay, understatement… the ride was intense.
How does he get his memory back, how does he fool the people around him, playing a game of knowing when he has no clue, to lead them on to gain more clues to who he is until he really does start knowing.  It’s clever.
I don’t know how it was back in the 70’s (even though I was there) with media but nowadays every TV series has the main character take a trip down amnesia way.  Someone wakes up in a movie and they don’t remember who they are… how many times have you seen that?  In the Resident Evil movies it’s happened twice.  Jason Bourne, once was enough.  We, as we’re used-to-it types, are used to it and accept it and then go on…  It’s the whole thing of suspended disbelief so that we tolerate the inconsistencies of a plot, or it's the unique ability of an author to toss us straight into a story to see if we can swim with the character.
All of that being said we believe Roger when his character doesn’t have a memory and we’re really interested in finding out, not so much what his name is but who he is. 
There are a lot of stories out there about dysfunctional families but the Princes and Princesses of Amber are the iconic versions, taking the cake.  Then there are the Trumps, the decks of cards that have magical properties that… well, they’re really cool.  In case you haven’t read the book I don’t want to give anything away.
I will tell you that the book is the first of a series and the series is worth reading.  The last few books of that series are not so memorable but it is something of a soap opera by then, and who doesn't love soaps?
Yes, it was one of the books that inspired me… at the time it inspired me to read.  When I was into writing, it and the memory of the series, inspired me to care about the details, about how the details, as in a mystery novel, add up to the story, guiding the eye, the mind, and coming to a conclusion that only the reader can find.
In this book not all of the details were so important to the mystery, but they were important to the story, the tone of it, the atmosphere and voice.  It was compelling.
The number 9 has shown up a few times in recent years without having anything to do with Princes.  One was a rag doll and the other… something I can’t exactly place right now.
In any case Nine Princes in Amber is a good read.  It may be dated, stylistically, but I don't really think so.  Like the other books of my past it holds a place in my imagination and works with me when I write.