Book Review: The Jewel in the Skull, by Michael Moorcock
This week, I found myself not feeling like worldbuilding while I road around at work, so I started poking around in my Kindle. I had started reading the Coldfire Trilogy by C. S. Friedman, but I just wasn’t feeling like reading more right now. The introductory chapter was fine, but I had no interest in reading more right now. So I poked around some more, until I found a couple of Moorcock books I’d picked up for Kindle.
At first, I planned on reading the Swords Trilogy, the first three Corum books. I remember really enjoying that series, but sadly, that’s not what I had on the Kindle. I had the second trilogy. The first three books are more pure fantasy, not related to anything historical. The second three books are a retelling of the Celtic myths of Lugh Silverhand, with Corum as Lugh (as he is maimed in the first three books, and has made for himself an artificial hand between the two trilogies). I found that second trilogy dissatisfying, as the end rather sucks.
So, instead I started reading the History of the Runestaff series, the first four Hawkmoon books, which were also on the Kindle. I also have the paperbacks, and I’ve switched off between the two over the course of the weekend, finishing the first book, The Jewel in the Skull. I’ve only gotten a few pages into the second book, The Mad God’s Amulet, but I’m sure in a couple of days of broken reading, I’ll be able to move on to the next book.
I don’t know how many folks get on to Moorcock’s other incarnations of the Eternal Champion beyond Elric, the best known. Elric’s personality can be grating, not just because he’s a bastard, but because he’s a whiny bastard who ultimately kills his universe, then is killed himself, by his sword, Stormbringer. (BTW, I was amused while watching the A Game of Thrones “Purple Wedding” episode when one of the guests at Joffrey’s wedding suggests naming his Valyrian steel sword “Stormbringer”, an obvious nod by Martin to Moorcock.) Yeah, pretty depressing. Then again, that’s the British for you, and Moorcock is very British (although I understand he now lives in Texas).
However, while Moorcock puts the other characters he writes about through Hell (sometimes literally), they are not all doomed. Especially Hawkmoon, who I seem to recall eventually finds happiness, even if it takes him seven books to do it. I encourage any reader who hasn’t tried Moorcock’s other characters to at least try Hawkmoon.
It’s been fun reading these books again after 30-plus years. I’d read them originally in high school, when they were given me by my art teacher, Nadan Ben-Calif Chiladoux. (Yes, I knew the man’s full name. French-Arabic, which rolls off the tongue so wonderfully.) I’ve been reading them both as simply a reader and with a critical eye. I’m mildly surprised that I’ve been able to be critical without the joy of the reading being killed. The editing in this edition (the 1977 revised edition) is atrocious, as I’m finding lots of typos. The Kindle version is even worse, seeming to be a poorly done OCR of one of the later editions. I’d kinda like to see a White Wolf omnibus to see what the quality of those editions is.
Moorcock’s writing is entertaining. His characters are titans in their own way, and his descriptions aren’t shy in this regards. Count Brass, Hawkmoon’s mentor, is given a full two chapters of description, which includes his appearance, his personality, fighting prowess, political holdings, and family. His being and actions are Heroic, like a Shakespearean figure or Greek hero. Hawkmoon himself is fleshed out in degrees, first introduced to us as a survivor of a failed rebellion against the villains with PTSD. He needs to be brought back to reality, but the villains, scenery chewers all, now have him and are only interested in him as a tool. It’s not until he meets the aforementioned Count Brass and his daughter, Yisselda (the love interest), that Hawkmoon reconnects with his humanity and becomes the hero he is destined to be.
The novel is set in a distant future of an Earth similar to our own, maybe. Moorcock isn’t shy about his multiverse creation. Corum’s stories could be happening on Earth as well, as could a number of his other characters. Only rarely are his novels even remotely connected to the real Earth of today. Hawkmoon’s world is Post-Apocalyptic, set after the “Tragic Millennium”, in which Europe has fallen into a new Dark Ages. Technology and sorcery co-exist in this version of Earth, sometimes both melded into a techno-sorcery. “Flame lances” are carried by many soldiers, and “ornithopters” are the air superiority vehicle of choice for the villains, the Dark Empire of Granbretan. Weird technology is used to control Hawkmoon, creating the title object, the Black Jewel, implanted into Hawkmoon’s forehead, which is a camera for the Empire and will eat his mind should he betray them and they can flip the switch to bring the device to full life.
As a review, well, I’m sure I’m failing here. Even with the typos and such, I find the books entertainingly written, but they’d never with the Pulitzer. In them, I can see the beginnings of what are now tropes of science fiction and fantasy, and they deserve to be honored for that by being read by anyone who enjoys such works at least one.
As a worldbuilder, the books have a similar trapping to what I want for the StarSea, both in the technologies and the characters. As I said, the characters are writ quite large, being figures of immense potential and destiny, around whom the future of the world hangs. I like heroic games, rather than the gritty, low fantasy of so many other writers. Strange, seemingly magical devices should float throughout the ‘Sea, leftovers of ancient beings, as well as new creations of the knightly orders. In fact, the Dark Empire has it’s only knightly orders, although they are less savory that one would expect, which in all reality makes them perfect examples for the Arcane Order in the StarSea.
As an example how these books have influenced me, one idea I had in the shower this morning was for the Ür to have synced all of the worlds they conquered chronologically. In other words, if it’s 6AM in the capital city of Planet A, it’s 6AM in the capital city of Planets B, C, D, and E, and every other letter of the Alphabet. Summer occurs on every world at the same time, again because of the manipulations of the Ür. The Ür created the Giant races to maintain all of this. The Sun Giants, from their coronal fortresses, brighten the Sun in Summer and dim it in Winter. The Moon Giants maintain the changes of the moon’s phases, and keep the tides flowing in and out from fortresses similar to those of the Sun Giants. Comet Giants carry messages from world to world, keeping the others in sync. The Beacon Giants, on the other small bodies orbiting each world, keep the fires burning that allow the Comet Giants (and smaller beings) to navigate from world to world. Or so it’s believed.
The Ür left behind ruins on each world. One of those is near every capital. The Time Monolith serves as each world’s Greenwich, the point in which every world is synced to every other. Sunrise happens there at the same time on every world, or so it’s believed. As there is no interstellar communications, so no one can completely confirm this, but this is what the Ür claimed they’d done, those hundred of years ago, before their fall. (Ships can communicate with one another within a system and the world in question, but not beyond.) However, the People do have chronometers on every ship that show the same time with the capital city on every world. So, it does seem real to those who travel the StarSea.
Another idea I’ve had was related to the obstacles Friend Eric suggested a couple of weeks ago. One possibility I thought of was the simple empty spaces between galactic arms. Maybe the Ür had trouble initially crossing those voids, but eventually developed robot ships, or simply world-ships, that they sent into the voids to create way points for travel between the arms. Those worlds are still in use by the People of the StarSea, and some of these anchor worlds now have earth and seas in the valleys between the very regular geometric mountain ranges which are farmed by peasants to supply those visiting ships that pass through.
So, that’s what I’ve been doing this week. It’s gotten pretty late, so I’m going to close shop for tonight. Later.