This is a tough plot to summarize. There are nine immortal princes with limited magical powers, and they come from a city called Amber. (There are four or five sisters, too, but the women never matter in fantasy novels, do they? Sigh.) Amber is the only real city on the only real world, but many other worlds exist in Shadow. Here, I’ll let the main character Corwin explain:
“Amber casts an infinity of shadows. A child of Amber may walk among them, and such was my heritage. You may call them parallel worlds if you wish, alternate universes if you would, the products of a deranged mind if you care to. I call them shadows, as do all who possess the power to walk among them. We select a possibility and we walk until we reach it. So, in a sense, we create it.”
Corwin has been living on the Shadow that is our Earth for a few centuries, with a mysterious case of amnesia. He knows he’s not your average human, but he doesn’t know who he is. After a car accident jolts some clues loose in his brain, he goes on a quest to find out who he is and where he’s from, and remembering oh yeah, I was just in the middle of starting a war with my brother to take the throne of Amber. It’s a very complicated family, with all the brothers (and the sisters who bother to show up) either choosing sides or deciding to take the kingship themselves. None of them are written very sympathetically, but their lives span so much time and so many worlds that you kind of understand how cavalier they are about everything. For example, Corwin recalls one battle for the throne where he and a brother go into another Shadow world, recruit a race of what sounds like red Ewoks who think the princes are gods, and take the whole population of them into another Shadow to serve as cannon fodder for a war they’re pretty sure they’re going to lose anyway. Not exactly heroic, but to this family, all other worlds are basically imaginary, so they don’t see it as wiping out a whole group of beings, but as a large-scale game of toy soldiers.
However, Corwin’s long convalescence on Earth teaches him humanity. He makes friends with Lancelot in an Avalon Shadow (time is as fluid as the rest of reality), Sigmund Freud on the Earth Shadow, and other less-famous allies. He starts thinking maybe other folks have a right to survive. He regains his memory, recruits some sympathetic siblings, and starts the journey to Amber, where his wicked brother Eric has named himself King after their father’s long-ago disappearance.
And this is all just skimming the surface. There are long detours into other Shadows, repercussions of family curses, philosophical musings on the family’s ability to walk in Shadow (no one but the royal family can do it), an underwater mirror image city of Amber called Rebma, magical Tarot cards that let the siblings talk to each other, five years in a dungeon, and heaps of weirdness.
It’s mostly good weirdness. I definitely wasn’t bored, even when I was confused. Sometimes I rooted for Corwin to win, and sometimes I wondered why the citizens of Amber didn’t just revolt and get rid of all these jerk princes. It took me a while to get used to Corwin. He throws in random “thees” and “thous” and sometimes talks like a Renaissance Festival worker, and other times sounds like he should be working at a disco (the book was written in 1970). I think it’s meant to show the breadth of his lifetime and experience, but yikes. For example: “And his eyes were wide with amaze and his voice heavy with that which men call sarcasm, and I can’t think of a better word, as he replied…” I mean…what?
I thought I’d need a break from Amber by the time I got through the final battle, but the second book was in my to-read stack and I’ve already started it. The first one took me a while to get into, but now I have to know what happens.