Through the eyes of the first person…

Recently, I began reading the Chronicles of Amber series by Roger Zelazny to my son. I’ve had The Great Book of Amber, which collects all ten novels in the series (though not the short stories) for many years, and this series has stuck with me since my initial read of it.

Zelazny published the first of the Amber novels, Nine Princes in Amber, in 1970, and the last novel, Prince of Chaos, was published in 1991. The series has had major influence on the fantasy genre since it was released, and Roger Zelazny is known as one of the great storytellers of our time. George R.R. Martin credited the Amber books—and Zelazny himself—as a major influence on his own career.

At this point, my son and I have just started the third book in the series, Sign of the Unicorn. They are not particularly long books, especially compared to the 500+ page epic fantasy novels that are published these days. But that makes them easy reads and the story always keeps moving.

The Viewpoint of One

Those who have read the Amber novels know that they are all written in the first person, with Corwin narrating the first five novels and Merlin narrating the last five. This is notable because there are few long fantasy series being published these days with first-person narration. You certainly couldn’t have a Game of Thrones or Malazan Book of the Fallen series told in first person simply due to the sheer number of viewpoint characters in each of those series.

Bernard Cornwell uses first-person narration to great effect in his Warlord Chronicles series and the epic Saxon Chronicles (also known as The Last Kingdom stories due to the television series). I can’t say if he uses that same narrative approach in his other books, as those are the only two series that I’ve read (and loved). But there’s no doubt about the popularity of Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles books around the world. They are at the top of the historical fiction genre.

And, of course, there is the Black Company books, by Glen Cook. Another great series that epitomizes the military fantasy sub-genre, the Black Company stories are told by the company’s historian, Croaker.

What all these series have in common are the way the voice of the narrator becomes an essential part of the story. The Corwin stories in the Amber Chronicles simply wouldn’t have worked if it they been written in the third-person. Corwin’s voice, his choice of words, what he chooses to tell the reader and what he withholds, all combine to bring the story to life in ways a third-person narration couldn’t possibly do.

What you learn about Corwin’s siblings only comes from his own point of view, and you cannot separate what he tells you from how you feel about them. Was Eric really evil? He certainly seems so at times, and yet the reader never sees Corwin’s hated brother through any other eyes. And so the reader’s experience is filtered through a single viewpoint, a single frame of reference, and this impacts the story directly.

When writing The Tower of Dust, I originally planned the novel to be in the third person. In fact, there’s a draft of the first couple of chapters on my computer written in that way. But by the time I had reached the beginning of Chapter Three, I was struggling with the prose. I kept slipping into Borolt Zale’s voice unintentionally. Finally, I went back and rewrote those early chapters in first person and everything fit into place.

For my other novels, though, I found that third person worked much better. Those novels have multiple viewpoint characters, and that was necessary for me to be able to tell the stories I wanted to tell. Having them be in first person would have changed them too much from what was in my head.

But when reading the Amber stories to my son, I’m really enjoying Corwin’s voice. There’s a rhythm to the prose that makes the story flow off the tongue. There are no awkward phrases or unusual word patterns that take me out of the story. Instead, I’m able to put myself into the mind of Corwin and tell the tale as I imagine he is telling it to his own son (which is actually what’s supposed to be happening as you read the story).

Conclusion

I’m glad I picked the Amber series as the next one to read after the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy. My son loves the books so far, and he’s bugging me to read more to him every day. He can’t wait to find out what is going to happen, now that Corwin has returned to Amber and the attacks on the city are growing more numerous and deadly.

Despite the first-person narration and the style of the prose, the books don’t feel dated at all. They hold up well despite the 47 years since the first was published. Corwin is a great protagonist, flawed in many ways but with a charm that is undeniable. You can’t help but root for him, even as his own arrogance gets him into trouble again and again.

What do you think of the Amber Chronicles? What other fantasy series have you read that were told in the first-person? And how did it contribute (or detract) from the stories themselves? Tell us about it in the comments.

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