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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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April 7, 2018 Posted by | Classic Reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: The Skrayling Tree by Michael Moorcock

9780446613408Format: Hard Cover, First Edition, 2003

Pages: 330

Reading Time: about 6 hours

This review is going to be brief, because, quite frankly, this book is borderline awful.

The story is told from 3 main viewpoints of characters that were present in the previous book (The Dreamthief’s Daughter): Ulric Von Bek, Elric, and Elric’s daughter Oona (Ulric’s wife). The plot revolves around a threat to the Skrayling Tree, an ancient oak whose branches represent the multiverse. The setting is ancient America, particularly the Rocky Mountains, and involves time-traveling, as well as many Native American aspects, of which the Tree of Creation is one. Like similar stories that Moorcock has written before, multiple aspects of The Eternal Champion (Ulric and Elric) and the Black Sword (Stormbringer/Ravenbrand/Mournblade), must come together to defeat a threat to the existence of everything humanity holds dear.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a huge fan of Moorcock’s writing, and I love Elric as much as anybody. But the attempt to shoehorn Elric into a Native American setting is ludicrous. This immediately on the heels of Elric battling Nazis feels like Moorcock has jumped the shark. Of all the millions of worlds in the multiverse, Elric visits Earth multiple times? Really? I applaud the attempt at something different, but other than the setting, there really isn’t anything new here. During many parts of the story I had the feeling that I’ve read this all before, just in a different setting. Compounding the problem is a distinct lack of action. There’s lots of philosophy and debate, pondering existence and forces of the universe, and lots more traveling, but not much really happens until the last 50 pages or so of the book, when events finally begin to happen rapidly. I also noticed some pacing issues in places that I’ve not seen in Moorcock’s writing the past. In addition I found the story fairly predictable – Moorcock does little to disguise that Gunner the Doomed is really Gaynor the Damned…I mean, you can tell by the name for crying out loud…

I will say that Moorcock’s descriptions of the setting are still top notch – he paints amazing imagery with an economical use of words, which I always find incredible. Also of interest is an explanation as to the origin of the Black Sword – it provided some background that didn’t previously exist.

But I’m hard-pressed to even recommend this to hard-core Moorcock or Elric fans. While I found some aspects of the story interesting, I became bored with the philosophical meandering and the deja-vu feeling that I’ve read this before. I’ll eventual read The White Wolf’s Son, but only because I’ve already purchased it.

December 21, 2012 Posted by | Book Review | , , , | Leave a comment

Classic Review: Elric of Melnibone 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…

Elric of MelniboneFormat:  paperback, first Daw printing, 1976

Pages:  160

Reading Time: about 2 hours

As I stated in my review of Nine Princes in Amber, the other major influence on my reading during my teen years was Moorcock’s Elric series. My library had the fourth and fifth books in the series: The Vanishing Tower, with a giant bug on the cover, and Bane of the Black Sword, with a cool-looking, giant lich on the cover. It was those great Michael Whelan covers that sucked me in. Both books functioned well as stand-alone stories, and both immediately captured my imagination. This was a time when I was standing in line to see The Empire Strikes Back, discovering Dungeons and Dragons, and playing my Intellivision game console. It was literally a time when the world felt open and unscripted to me, as if anything were possible, and my mind openly embraced the Elric novels. Not long after I read books four and five, I was able to track down the rest of the books and start from the beginning – and what a beginning it is.

Elric is the ruler of a nation called Melnibone, the Dragon Isle, in a place where we are not really sure of but is later revealed to be one of many planes of existence in the Multiverse (with Earth being one such plane). I might have been lost reading this book had I not read the latter books first, because those books included a map of Elric’s world. Elric himself is an albino, with pale white skin, red eyes, and less-than-average strength that requires drugs to sustain him and give him energy. Later plot details do not specifically state, but leave open the possibility, that Elric’s condition could possibly be the result of centuries of inbreeding – the Melnibone empire desires little contact with the outside world. There are whisperings, particularly from Elric’s cousin Yyrkoon, that his condition threatens to weaken the empire. Where emporers in the past would have executed such musings from a traitor, Elric dismisses such talk as insignificant. This is our first glimpse into what makes Elric different from his countrymen – that he is lenient and capable of forgiveness and mercy.

Another major character introduced early in the book is Cymoril, Elric’s cousin and Yyrkoon’s sister. When the book states that Elric plans to make Cymoril his emporess, you can understand where my inbreeding comment comes from. This early part of the book almost seems to be written in second person. Instead of text such as “Elric knew this and wished he could please his court as it strove to honor him”, instead you get a present tense rendition: “Elric knows this and wishes he could please his court as it strives to honor him”. It is somewhat strange to read a story written this way when you are used to first-person or third-person accounts. However, by chapter two the book reverts to a standard third-person format.

The plot revolves around pirate raiders seeking to plunder Melnibone and steal its treasures. At the same time, Yyrkoon plots against Elric because he desires the throne. When Yyrkoon’s plans are set in motion, Cymoril is put into a deep, sorcerous sleep, and Elric must go on a journey to obtain the means to wake her, and then confront Yyrkoon. It is here that Elric has his first encounter with Stormbringer, the famous soul-sucking sword, and he also meets Rackhir the Red Archer for the first time (Rackhir will appear in later books). We also start to get a feel for the vastness of the Multiverse and the creatures and powerful beings that inhabit it. The creation of the Multiverse and the Eternal Champion is truly Moorcock’s gift to fantasy – multiple worlds existing on different planes, sometimes mirroring one another, and often times intersecting with results that strain the fabric of existence itself. The Eternal Champion is one of those mirror-type elements: a hero saving the world, in various aspects, across those multiple worlds. Elric is a manifestation of the Eternal Champion concept, though that fact is not fully revealed until the next book in the series.

Moorcock’s writing is not without flaws. Most of the imagery required for the story the reader needs to imagine, as Moorcock provides enough to get the job done, but could have provided more. Also, the motivations of supporting characters could have been explained in more detail. I guess what I’m really saying is that I’d really like this book to be twice its size; 160 pages goes by far too fast and then the story’s over. This is something Moorcock corrected with later Elric novels like The Dreamthief’s Daughter.

In Elric of Melnibone you won’t find hundreds of pages of characters delivering monologue, spanking each other, engaging in lengthy introspection on their internal demons, or a description of every leaf color or market smell. What you will find is a fast-paced, action-laden adventure full of sword fights and sorcerous duels. This story embraces the “Sword & Sorcery” genre, whose modern roots were established by Robert E. Howard with creation of Conan, and who in turn derived it from Greek mythology and Tales of the Arabian Nights. The genre name was coined by Fritz Leiber in an exchange with Moorcock, who wanted a name to define the style. As the popularity of Lord of the Rings grew, by the late 80s and early 90s, Epic Fantasy had caused Sword & Sorcery to become a derogatory term. Many current authors of the “dark genre”, like Abercrombie, Lynch, and others owe some of their roots not only to Sword & Sorcery, but also the anti-hero, a character with flaws. Elric was the first character I read about with serious flaws: the weak strength, the subsistence on drugs, and a naivete that would come back to haunt him.

Personally, I feel that there is room for all these types of genres to co-exist, and I think reading only one type is self-limiting. I like taking a break between 1000+ page Epic Fantasy novels, and diving into a Sword & Sorcery book, which is typified by action sequences full of armed conflict and magic. It’s good to see releases like The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones bring back interest in the genre. Elric of Melnibone is highly recommended for fans of Sword and Sorcery, and also anyone looking for a brief respite from huge novels. I also encourage people to read this to see where the origins of current fantasy found its inspiration from.

September 28, 2012 Posted by | Book Review, Classic Reviews | , , , | 2 Comments

Book Review: The Dreamthief’s Daughter by Michael Moorcock

Format:  Hardcover, First Edition, 2001

Pages:  343

Reading Time:  about 8 hours

 

From the moment I pulled The Vanishing Tower from the bookshelves of my high school library, I became infatuated with Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion. Awestruck by Michael Whelan’s cover, which depicted a giant bug on a throne being challenged by the albino Elric, I was totally captivated. Up to that point my only exposure to fantasy had been The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Elric was something wonderfully different. Lord of the Rings was a carefully crafted tale full of structured language, culture, and a single, laser-focused plot. Elric, on the other hand, was wildly imaginative, adventuring where whim took him, the plot shifting like the stuff of Chaos to which Elric was beholden.

After I devoured Elric, I moved on to Corum, then Dorian Hawkmoon, then Erekose, and finally Von Bek. All too soon I had run through the entire Eternal Champion Cycle and was left with fading memories. For awhile I occasionally satisfied myself with bits and pieces – short stories, Elric at the End of Time, The Fortress of the Pearl, and The Revenge of the Rose.

Time was unkind to the relationship between Elric and I from that point; for Elric, he would appear in stories with new titles, but they were the same old stories; for myself, my interests turned to stories of Glen Cook, Robin Hobb, Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind. Elric began to fade like an apparition…

In 2001 a new Elric book was released, The Dreamthief’s Daughter. I bought it with the full intention of reading it. I was entrenched in so many different series, however, that I could never find the time to revisit the White Wolf. But now, Elric’s time has come again…

I was initially disappointed at the start of The Dreamthief’s Daughter. You see, the Dreamthief originally appears in The Fortress of the Pearl, an Elric novel, so I was expecting a book about Elric. Instead the story opens with Ulric Von Bek…not he of The War Hound and the World’s Pain, but rather a descendant living in Germany during the rise of the Nazi Party. In fact, the first 80 pages are, to borrow a phrase Moorcock uses later in the story, “philosophical meanderings,” and they are a look into the emergence of Nazi Germany.

Despite the slow pace and the meanderings, I was still interested. At one point I Googled a map of Germany to find out where these places were in relationship to each other, and what they look like now. The fact that Moorcock has tied his Von Bek and Elric storylines to actual places and events in our own world within the last century is rather intriguing.

After that the story, in true Moorcock fashion, dives into the fantastic, the imaginative, the absurd. It’s delightful in the way Moorcock can describe unknown places and creatures, the way combatants spar verbally as well as physically, the way the fabric of the multiverse is traveled, bent, and torn; its formative nature revealed, manipulated, and threatened. Yet it’s disturbing in the way that transitions between character viewpoints are muddled, the actions of certain characters are questionable at times, and some things are left unexplained and do not look to be resolved.

The biggest problem I have with this story as it stands is that it does not fit with other Elric novels. It’s not clear exactly when the story takes place during the Elric saga…it is after he met the Dreamthief and after he killed his love, and he is adventuring with Moonglum but they are in Tanelorn. So chronologically there should be at least a book or two after this. However, because this story (and The Fortress of the Pearl) have been shoehorned in after the original series, the fact that Elric now has a daughter and yet never speaks of her in that original series (because she didn’t exist when they were written) is glaring. The same could also be said of his knowledge that Von Bek is another aspect of himself. In the original series, often external forces would cause Elric to lose memory of meeting other manifestations of himself, but that does not appear to happen here. Perhaps this will be addressed in The White Wolf’s Son. We shall see, since that book has been added to the queue.

In an introduction to one of the Chronicles of the Last Emporor of Menibone (I’m not sure which one), Moorcock describes The Dreamthief’s Daughter as a way to bring Elric into a contemporary setting. But the story is much more than that. I recommend heading over to Amazon and reading Academon’s review of what this book represents. It is outstanding commentary and shows that the book transcends merely bringing Elric into the now.

Despite its shortcomings, sometimes it’s a joy to sit down with a good old sword-and-sorcery story and suspend disbelief as bloodlust and revenge are satisfied, worlds are conquered or saved, and magic flows like water, capable of both triumph and tragedy. I would recommend reading the original Elric series first before this, as well as The Fortress of the Pearl, The War Hound and The World’s Pain, and The City in the Autumn Stars. Though this is not the Elric, or even Von Bek, that I remember, that’s probably because I’ve changed so much since that day in high school when I was swept away by a picture of a giant bug on a throne…

May 6, 2011 Posted by | Book Review | , , , | Leave a comment