John Betancourt, The Dawn of Amber (ibooks, 2002)

Roger Zelazny’s Amber series is a well-known and loved set of ten books detailing the lives, loves and adventures of Corwin, Prince of the one true world, Amber, and his son, Merlin, Prince of Chaos. Despite the breadth and depth of the series, Zelazny left as many historical and cosmological questions about Amber and Chaos unanswered as those he wrapped up. Alas, with his untimely death a few years ago, those questions have remained officially unanswered. Until now, that is. The Zelazny estate has granted John Betancourt -- author, editor and founder of Wildside Press -- permission to write a prequel trilogy, of which Dawn of Amber is the first.

Betancourt has some mighty large shoes to fill, and he seems to be aware of it throughout the book. He strives to set a snappy pace with dialogue and action that clearly pays homage to Zelazny’s own style. The volume is in fact a quick, pleasant read. Unfortunately, it is not a terribly satisfying read. The story opens promisingly, with young soldier Oberon in bed with a favoured wench, exhausted from a day of fighting the hell-creatures that besiege his homeland. Sounds exactly like what we’d expect of Amber’s future liege. Oberon’s moment of bliss isn’t to be, though, as he’s dragged from bed by his long lost "uncle," Dworkin. Dworkin informs Oberon that his life is in mortal danger and pulls him into an impromptu battle with the hell-creatures and then abruptly into Shadow, away from all that Oberon has known.

Oberon, ignorant to this point about his heritage, finds himself thrust into an unsettling cross-Shadow carriage hell-ride, accompanied by Dworkin’s daughter Freda, a scryer of cards. She reveals to him that Dworkin has sired a number of children, some of them now dead. However, it isn’t until Dworkin, Oberon and Freda arrive at Dworkin’s "base camp," the shadow Juniper, that Oberon realizes Dworkin is his father, and Freda is his sibling ... as are all those other offspring of Dworkin’s.

Once in Juniper, Oberon is forced to reckon with sibling rivalry, family politics, courtly life and a massive assault by the hell-creatures against Dworkin’s castle (clearly with inside help – a traitor in the family!). All in a matter of a couple of days. And here is where Betancourt stumbles somewhat. Given an opportunity to make Dworkin’s family uniquely his own, he’s modeled them too closely on Zelazny’s younger generation. Freda is much like Fiona; Aber, the resident Trump artist, is an affable, if more cowardly version of Random; Blaise reminds us of Bleys (obviously) and Flora (half the staff’s in her employ, and she’s sleeping with the other half, according to Aber). The scenes in Juniper would have been more interesting with a less familiar, smaller, and more distinct cast of characters.

Betancourt has set the stage for the Pattern and Amber’s future founding, as well as the eventually mad Dworkin (who spends a lot of time puttering around in his work room, even now). How Betancourt’s handling of the nascent Pattern and the Jewel of Judgement fares remains to be seen -- their origins were but a couple of brief pages in this book, alas. Oberon himself, though, is perhaps the greatest disappointment in this volume. His development from simple Shadow soldier to full participant in family intrigue is too rapid. It would have been preferable to have Oberon’s time in Juniper drawn out longer, so that his transition from being simply a stellar soldier to a clever participant in family politics would seem less abrupt. Perhaps we’re meant to believe it’s in his genes, but a bit more exposition or dialog would have fleshed him out more.

The book closes with Dworkin scattering his remaining progeny throughout Shadow, to save them from the forces of Chaos which seek to destroy them all. Only Dworkin, Aber and Oberon remain, prepared to take a more proactive stance ... by heading to the Courts of Chaos themselves. A great set-up for book Two, which will presumably elaborate more about the plot against those of Dworkin’s blood, and bring readers closer to understanding how Amber came to be.

[April Gutierrez]