Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Seven No-Trump

Never tell me I that I don't follow through on what I've promised to do.

Some five years ago, I wrote a post for Lloyd of Gamebooks which served as a brief introduction to Roger Zelazny's Amber books and, more generally, the setting around those books. This was an introduction to a coming review of a gamebook set within that Amber universe, Seven No-Trump, by Neil Randall.

I've read through the whole series of Amber novels a couple of times since I wrote that post. I finished rereading them again quite recently. My passionate love for the series reignited, I hungrily began to seek out more Amber stories.

This is how, some years after I found the book, I came to read Seven No-Trump.

The premise of the Crossroads series of gamebooks is quite rare - each book takes place within an established literary fantasy universe, giving the reader the chance to play through as characters within that universe. I've played only a handful of these books; they tend to be extremely story-heavy, with the player often reading through several pages of text before arriving at a choice. The books are well out of print these days; they were first published in the 1980s and, to my knowledge, never republished since. Given that this series involves stories in a number of intellectual properties by established authors, I'd be very curious to know what sort of deals were struck in order to write these books. This is a reminder that the popularity around gamebooks in the 80s was a potent publishing force, for sure.

As mentioned, Seven No-Trump is one of two books in the Crossroads series that take place within Zelazny's Amber universe, both written by Neil Randall. In this book, the player takes the role of Random, brother to Corwin and the various other princes of Amber, shortly after he becomes King of Amber, as detailed in the fifth book of Zelazny's series, The Courts of Chaos.

Seven No-Trump conforms to the story-heavy format established by other Crossroads books - and, viewed as an Amber short story, it really gets things right. In Zelazny's third Amber book, Sign of the Unicorn, we get a chapter in Random's voice; that voice is developed to the full here. Random is flippant, yet appreciative of the gravity of his new role as king; he acts with a bravado that belies the frequent self-questioning and self-doubt of his inner monologue. He is, quite simply, written as a credible, interesting character. It's rare in a gamebook - in those gamebooks outside of the Crossroads series, at any rate - to see so much space dedicated to expressing a character's voice, and his inner thoughts. Readers of Zelazny's Amber series already know Random, and the guy is presented as a somewhat amiable delinquent in those books. And yet, even without knowing those books, the reader has enough space here to get to know, and grow to like, Random.

From the perspective of an Amber fan, and viewing this book as an entry into Amber canon - or, at least, canon-ish Amber - it is a great gulp of water after a long drought. Some of its key players are those Amberites who don't receive much direct attention in the Corwin or Merlin chronicles - Caine and Llewella, notably - and having the chance to get to know them a little better is delightful. Seeing Brand in action again is a fucking joy. Benedict is somewhat underused here; even so, seeing him on the page once more is like chancing across an old friend after a decade apart.

And, perhaps best of all, the story is engaging, and thought-provoking. We are not falling into typical fantasy tropes, here; rather, the story concerns the impact of art upon those who view it, and whether the realities we can imagine are true realities, with their own lives, their own inner existences. It is, for sure, one of the more profound gamebooks that I've read.

Yet Seven No-Trump has flaws, too. Its story is excellent, and yet as a game it is poor. Choices are infrequent, and it's rarely difficult to choose the 'best' option - I successfully completed the game first time through, by the by. The game mechanics are very Dungeons & Dragons in tone - Random essentially has the six familiar D&D stats, which fall on a range of 3 to 18 (you don't get to roll stats; Random is assigned his scores at the start of the game). And yet these mechanics don't convey particularly well the abilities that are evident in Zelazny's books. In game terms, Random's Strength and Constitution scores are unexceptional for a 'normal' human being - and yet, in the books, we've seen him lift a car that's stuck in mud, or tirelessly duel his brother Corwin for a whole day. I can see that the Crossroads books want to maintain a consistent set of game mechanics, but they just don't really work, here.

Moreover, for those who know the Amber books well, there are a number of inconsistencies where Seven No-Trump doesn't quite match up with the Zelazny novels. As far as I can see from the book's foreword and afterword, Seven No-Trump was written sometime between the publication of the sixth and seventh Amber novels. Certainly, it takes place after Random becomes king at the end of the Corwin saga. And yet many details are glossed over. In the novels, Random is married to Vialle; here, she is never mentioned. Likewise, Random's son Martin is absent, and unmentioned. More jarringly, Brand is alive, with no information concerning his return from the great Abyss that lies beyond the Courts of Chaos. When Random encounters Brand once more, his attempted murder of Martin has apparently been forgotten.

Yes, okay, Seven No-Trump has been written for readers who might not necessarily know Zelazny's books, and venturing into such areas might derail the narrative somewhat. Still, knowing the books well, you have to work to put such details out of your mind. Might Seven No-Trump take place in some sort of 'alternate Amber', where the rules of reality are not quite in sync with those established elsewhere? Or is the book's author merely cutting some narrative corners? Why even take the time to decide, really?

Let's summarise, then. As a novella, Seven No-Trump is fantastic. As a game, and a piece of interactive fiction, it just barely meets the minimum criteria. I came to the book seeking an engaging Amber tale, and I loved it.

Neil Randall wrote another Crossroads gamebook set in Zelazny's Amber universe, The Black Road War. I'll write up a review of that as soon as I'm able - sometime around the year 2024, maybe.

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