Classic Review: Sailor on the Seas of Fate by Michael Moorcock

Classic Review is a feature where I pull a book that is over 20 years old from my collection and re-read it, then review it…

sailor

Format: paperback, first DAW printing, 1976

Pages:  160

Reading Time: about 2.5 hours

 

Michael Moorcock’s White Wolf’s Son is sitting in my queue, and it will be the last Elric story that I read. Before I get there, however, I’m skimming through the earlier books in the Elric saga to build up to the finale, and this review covers book two, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, from an old DAW printing I have featuring another fantastic Michael Whelan cover. For my review of the first book of the series, Elric of Melnibone, see this post. Chronologically, though The Fortress of the Pearl was written later, events in that book pre-date those in this book, but I’ve chosen to skip that one for now. As most Elric stories appeared in various issues of Science Fantasy magazine in the 1960s in no particular order, the DAW release was an attempt to order the stories chronologically, with the chapbook “the Jade Man’s Eyes” from 1973 rewritten and renamed Sailing to the Past and tacked on to the end of The Sailor on the Seas of Fate. I found a couple of really good reviews of The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, one from Karin L Kross of Tor.com and one from Tim Scheidler of Fantasy Literature. Karin’s review of this book is one of the best I’ve seen, and she makes some really good points:

The Sailor on the Seas of Fate has never really been my favorite Elric book. Where The Fortress of the Pearl stands quite well on its own and in the continuity, Sailor is a little more awkward; it’s as if you can see more of the welding marks in its insertion into Elric’s continuity between the origin story of Elric of Melniboné and his downfall of The Weird of the White Wolf; where that book actually feels like a cohesive work, despite being composed of short stories published months, even years apart, Sailor feels disjointed, its structure forced. However, even a comparatively underwhelming Elric book has more going for it than your usual high fantasy offering.

Karin reveals some information that I was not aware of: “The tale here originally appeared as a chapbook called “The Jade Man’s Eyes” (which was, as Richard Grey notes in “One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock,” printed in green ink). This story fit into Elric’s continuity after the events of The Sleeping Sorceress (two books down the line from this one) and Elric’s sidekick was a fellow we’ll meet in the next installment of this reread, Moonglum of Elwher. More about him when we get there. In putting together The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, Moorcock substantially reworked “The Jade Man’s Eyes,” replacing Moonglum with Smiorgan Baldhead, and having Elric picked up at sea by the explorer Duke Avam Astran, rather than being peeled off the streets of a city.

Karen also goes on to say: “The essential bleakness of the original chapbook is definitely present in this rework, though it feels a little odd at this placement in the continuity. Much is made of Elric’s dependence on Stormbringer, as well as the sword’s unfortunate tendency to overreach its wielder’s intended targets—and at this point in the series, neither of these tropes has yet become as central as they eventually will. The original “Jade Man’s Eyes” is perhaps a somewhat stronger story, particularly as Elric’s characterization is more consistent with the stories that take place later in his personal chronology. That being said, it’s possible to read “Sailing to the Past” as the point where Elric’s worldview starts to truly darken, transforming him to the nihilistic figure we’ll see in the next volume.

 

Tim adds this: “As always, Moorcock’s prose is great and Elric never fails to feel interesting as protagonist. The eerie, strange tone of the proceedings actually gives the novel a kind of dreamy allure: it’s not what readers of traditional sword and sorcery might expect, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s a very well-done novel in many ways, especially going into it directly after Elric of Melnibone so that one has become acclimated to Moorcock’s “style over structure” method in a comparatively gentler text. On the other hand, it’s hard to deny that for casual readers who really couldn’t be bothered about the multiverse or what-have-you and expect instead to see some sort of motion in the world Moorcock constructed in the first novel, this sequel may be a baffling disappointment. None of the other Melnibonéans we were introduced to in Elric of Melniboné have anything to do with The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, and indeed Elric’s meeting with Count Smiorgan is about the only impact Sailor has on the overarching plot of the series.

It may really have been a bit early to bring in the Eternal Champion idea, in all honesty: had Moorcock built to it over time a bit more, it probably wouldn’t have seemed so jarring here. Asking the reader to grow used to one world and one set of circumstances for the protagonist only to turn that on its head by dragging him out of that world entirely is probably a little demanding — and thus risky — in the second book.

 

The reason I chose these particular comments is because they affirm a lot of my own thoughts that I contemplated after I re-read the book. The three separate stories – Sailing to the Future, Sailing to the Present, Sailing to the Past – are so disjointed, that they have a feeling of being unrelated short stories thrown together to make up a single book, and at first it seems that only the “sailing strange waters” ties the stories together. Thematically there is an Eternal Champion Construct story, a medieval romance story, and a Black-Sword-Does-What-It-Wants story, and all jar against each other in a distinct lack of continuity. In the re-read, I remembered Sailing to the Future perfectly, most likely because the story is repeated later in Corum and Hawkmoon novels. I had forgotten Sailing to the Present completely, with no recollection of that story whatsoever. The tale I was most looking forward to was Sailing to the Past, as I remembered the ending to be important, but did not recall the events leading up to that ending. As Elric seeks answers to his past, he chooses a path that will come back to haunt him in his future. This is where Sailing to the Past becomes essential in establishing events in subsequent books.

By the third story, Elric recalls nothing of the happenings within the first story…the events of that first story become fleeting shadows that seem more like a dream. The second story is a buffer, which helps to stuff those dreamy memories into Elric’s subconscious. But instead of bringing him peace, his subconscious now nags at him and drives him to explore places and take actions he wouldn’t normally consider in an attempt to figure out where he came from and what his future may hold. Free will versus fate, opposing forces within the universe at war, and an increasingly sentient sword are explored. In a strong bit of irony, Elric has been fighting the concept of fate and believes that he has free will, but by making an honorable choice through free will, he will unleash a disastrous chain of events and solidify a dark fate. It is really a brilliant concept, although it could be argued that Elric’s honor really gave him no choice at all.

Moorcock’s prose is steady and at times is simple yet elegant, with what feels like Tennyson or Wordsworth influences. Take this introductory passage, for instance:

Distant thunder rolled; distant lightning flickered. A thin rain fell. And the clouds were never still. From dusky jet to deadly white they swirled slowly, like the cloaks of men and women engaged in a trancelike and formalistic minuet: the man standing on the shingle of the grim beach was reminded of giants dancing to the music of the faraway storm and felt as one must feel who walks unwittingly into a hall where gods are at play. He turned his gaze from the clouds to the ocean.

The sea seemed weary. Great waves heaved themselves together with difficulty and collapsed as if in relief, gasping as they struck the sharp rocks.

Moorcock’s style makes for a quick, easy reading experience, and like the first book, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate is over all too soon – a novel twice this length would be more satisfying, but Moorcock’s gift has always been to paint fantastic imagery and wild tales with an economical use of words, and leave much of the details up to the reader’s own imagination.

Elric himself is a polite yet complex fellow, with a mixture of flowery speech, irony, skeptiscism, wit, wisdom, and world-weariness, with an honor and empathy not found in his people of Melnibone. Yet beneath it all, the cruel nature of his people lurks, and at times he loses himself to that nature. Also, Stormbringer is ever a constant, evil influence on his actions and perceptions. Elric’s sorcery is explained as the ability, in the high speech of Melnibone, to concentrate and summon forces through his noble blood and sheer willpower. Such sorcery is more of a deus ex machina, however, for Elric is able to call on old debts in certain times of need, yet in other instances he is unable to do so, and it seems to be largely a function of satisfying the plot. One aspect of Elric’s character, however, is his weakness, as at times he is only able to draw strength from Stormbringer, and when Stormbringer has not been “fed” with souls, Elric is often too weak to perform certain actions.

The Sailor on the Seas of Fate is not the most satisfying Elric book to read, but it is important in setting into motion the events that will make the albino sorcerer with the black sword one of the most distinctive, influential, and legendary characters ever created in fantasy fiction.

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