Author: Roger Zelazny
Published: 1970, Doubleday
Genre: Science Fiction / Fantasy
Nine Princes in Amber is a classic SF/F novel, and the first of the Chronicles of Amber series, which eventually grew to include ten books and six short stories. Like many SF/F classics, it is not very good. In its time it was a brilliant idea, a way to bring sword and sorcery fantasy out of the middle ages and into the 'real world'. It contains many interesting ideas, but these ideas have been so overused (and by better writers than Zelazny was at that time), that it now seems both hackneyed and poorly written. It is still a fun read and it will pull you in, but don't expect anything too great. This is an unpolished novel by an amateur writer.
The story centers around Corey, who wakes up in a hospital with no idea of who he is, where he is, or what happened to him. In the great tradition of rugged survivalist he-men, he escapes and extorts enough information and money from the hospital staff to start his search for answers. Although he barely has a clue what's going on, he slowly learns that he is a part of a large and machiavellian family with very special abilities, and that there is some sort of important contest going on. He learns that his family has the ability to travel dimensions, and that the Earth that he is on now (our Earth, circa 1970), is not the 'real' Earth, but only a shadow of the true world, Amber. Although he remains generally clueless as to the details of what's happening, he still manages to bluff his way into a contest for multiverse domination. (If you want more spoilers, there is a complete summary at the end of this writeup.)
The story is an odd mix of many elements. There is a lot of traditional fantasy violence, swordplay, and adventuring, but also a wonderful amount of plotting and scheming. Being written in the 70s, the stilted Edwardian language is randomly interspersed with phrases like "I dig it" or "dunno". Despite a cast of 14 characters who are all basically exactly the same, the story remains interesting and engaging. At the same time, you often wonder where the editor was when this book was heading toward the presses.
The world(s) of the Amber books are actually an early version multiple-worlds trope that we are now quite familiar with. There is one true world, and it casts 'shadows' of itself in infinite variations. While I don't know who first popularized multiple-worlds in science fiction writing, it wasn't Zelazny; however, I believe that he was the first to make it an established part of fantasy (/msg me if you know of a counterexample).
Other notable hooks that made the series so popular include the Trumps, which were a deck of cards that contain pictures of each of the members of the House of Amber. By concentrating on the appropriate picture one could talk to that person, or even teleport to them. The members of the head family of Amber are immortal, and can only be killed through violence; they do not age, and they heal from even the most severe wound in a fraction of the time that it would take a mortal. Oh, and they are all willing to backstab anyone they can reach at a moments notice.
The next book in the series is The Guns of Avalon
Spoilers! The text below is full of major spoilers! Not just some, the whole damn book's worth!
Corwin wakes in the hospital, aware that he has been hurt badly, but remembering nothing of the accident or who he is. He finds that he is well enough to walk, but that the hospital staff do not want him to leave. He leaves anyway, taking a wad of money from the office safe. Before leaving he discovers that he was committed by his sister; he has no memory of her, but the hospital does have her address. When he arrives at her house, she greets him in a friendly yet suspicious manner, welcoming him into her home and asking him what his plans are. He bluffs and evades his way through her questions, convincing her that he is in full possession of his memory, and that he may be a force to be reckoned with in the coming fracas. Of course, he has no idea what the coming fracas might be.
Corwin finds a set of cards - the Trumps -- in his sister's desk, and this jogs his memory as to the names and faces of his family members. In short order one of his brothers shows up, a wild and unpredictable guy named Random. Random is being chased by otherworldly creatures, which the three of them manage to fight off. The next day, Corwin manages to bluff Random so well that Random suggests that they get on with Corwin's (completely non-existent) plan right this very moment.
They start off on their journey, and Random obligingly shifts them both through the various universes until they approach Amber. In the outlying woodlands they find a patrol that has captured one of Corwin's sisters, who had been trying to escape from Amber due to the brutal rule of yet another sibling, Eric (oh, by the way, Dad died). They rescue her, and Corwin suddenly decides to explain to both of them that he has no idea what is going on. They are surprised, but still support the idea of him taking over the throne rather than Eric.
They suggest that he needs to walk The Pattern in order to regain his powers and memories. The pattern is a magical path that is located in the basement of the castle of Amber, but conveniently, there is a 'copy' in an underwater city, Remba, located just around the corner from here. It will work just fine, but they will have to hurry because sister's rescue has alerted Eric to their presence, and he's sending out troops after them. The queen of Remba is important enough that Eric will not attack them there, but Random is persona non grata, having impregnated the queen's daughter and run off, after which she committed suicide. They enter anyway. Random is arrested and condemned to marry a blind girl. Corwin walks the pattern, regains his memory, and uses the magical properties of the pattern to transport directly to the palace in Amber.
Somewhere in here Corwin plays around with the trumps and finds that his father and at least one of his missing brothers are still alive, but are in difficult to locate places.
Corwin attacks Eric, and would have won except that the guards came to Eric's rescue too quickly. He uses a trump to travel to his Brother Bleys, who is the biggest challenge to Eric's rule. Together Corwin and Bleys mount an army hundreds of thousands strong, composed of odd looking creatures from various dimensions. After a bit of political maneuvering and backstabbing, they march on Amber. Eric's defenses are strong, and after many battles, storms, and ambushes, a few thousand troops actually are able to make it into the city. During the final battle Bleys is thrown off of a cliff, but Corwin throws him a pack of trumps as he falls, so we don't know if he may have survived.
Corwin is captured, blinded, and locked in the dungeon as Eric is crowned king. After four years in the dungeon Corwin's eyes grow back, and he is coincidentally discovered by Dworkin (the crazy and missing-presumed-dead court magician), who transports him to safety. Corwin runs off to plot his revenge. The end. For now.