Saturday, November 07, 2009

Elric: The Stealer of Souls by Michael Moorcock

Elric: The Stealer of Souls (Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné, Vol. 1) Elric: The Stealer of Souls by Michael Moorcock

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
I took a journey into the world of darkness, and I am surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Being me, I tend to embark on new adventures in an atypical fashion. Such is my introduction to sword and sorcery fantasy. I read one Conan story prior to reading Elric: The Stealer of Souls (written by L. Sprague de Camp in an anthology). And I started reading The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane as my first official story written by Robert E. Howard, who is probably one of the founding fathers of this genre (if not the founding father), so it's interesting that one of my first protagonists to read in this genre is more of an anti-Conan. He's not big and muscled. He's slender and physically frail. He cries, he whines, and he does a lot of moping. I'm not really surprised that this worked for me. I love flawed characters in fiction. I love characters with a weakness to them. I think they mirror reality much more than perfect ones do. In my life, I have been haunted by a fear of failure, and I can identify with a character who does feel like he doesn't measure up and sometimes feels like a screw-up, right or wrong. While I don't enjoy depressing literature at all, I like a good genre story that shows a character who is never going to be perfect and get everything right. That's Elric in a nutshell.

A few years ago, I had heard about Elric, and I was intrigued when I read that he was considered the burned-out rock star of heroic fantasy, with his dependence on drugs. Okay, part of me was repulsed at the drug-dependence part. I'm glad I read the story all the same. Elric has had to take herbs because of the inherent frailty of his constitution due to his inherited albinism. That is a minor part of the stories in this book. Really, his more dangerous and much more harrowing dependence is on the vampiric sword Stormbringer. Let me tell you, I never thought I'd hate an inaminate object the way I hate the sword. I imagine poor Elric feels the same way, but fifty-thousand times worse. You see, Stormbringer is evil. It enjoys being used to kill, whether the victim is good or bad. When it kills, it sucks the soul out of its victim, and part of that energy goes to Elric (who uses it to keep his vitality), and part remains in the sword. Stormbring will actually direct itself to deliver killing blows to friends and allies of Elric. Elric is by no means a good person, but he does have friends (and a lover) that he would not wish to betray, and some of the fall to the sword, inadvertently. However, being deprived and away from the sword for a prolonged period brings on a loss of vitality that eventually would be fatal to Elric. Thus he cannot rid himself of this 'hellwrought' blade. Elric has this on his conscience, and also broods the loss of his love and his kingdom. Yes, Elric is very much a brooder.

I found these stories to be very imaginative, and often brutal and dark. The elements of dark sorcery were chilling, yet enthralling. When Elric would say the words of dark spells that were passed down from his sorcerous, maleficient ancestors, my eyes were glued to the page. He encounters dark beasts from a person's imagination or nightmares gone to hell. And he has to fight for his life and that of his friends. I could imagine how vivid some of those scenes would look on a movie screen. Yet I was taken out of my own reality and to the ancient, fallen worlds that Elric travels through. Some of his journeys in this book are motivated by self-interest, and some out of the greater good. However, blood will be shed along the way, both from the virtuous and the wicked.

I like the way Mr. Moorcock mingled some familiar elements of fantasy with things he could have only dreamed up in his mind. I also appreciated the way these stories are a little bit horror, tragic drama, and fantasy all combined together. The tragedy rests in the fact that Elric is a man who is doomed to follow a dark destiny, and being around him too long can be bad for a person's health. One other very much appreciate element is the multiculturalism of his stories. There are characters of various types and races, and they are not described in a way that is bigoted and demeaning, which is common with some of the older pulp fiction (even Mr. Howard, who's writing I admire except for this aspect). There is some degree of philosphy and mysticism that could tend to go over one's head (myself included). I recommend just reading the stories. If you catch some of it, by all means. But a deep understanding of the balance between Law and Chaos is not required to enjoy these stories.

If I could mention a couple of quibbles I had, it would be that women are poorly characterized in these stories. What I mean is they don't come off as being very deep and meaningful. In some of Mr. Moorcock's writing included, he admits to this fact. The women that come in and out of the stories (and Elric's life) serve mainly as plot points. While this is fantasy with a male lead character, I would hope to see a little more depth in the females featured, some of which are quite pivotal in the story and in Elric's development as a character. My other quibble is that the death of some fairly important characters is treated in a somewhat anticlimactic fashion. I realize that in this world, death is an everyday, harsh reality. Yet, I expected there to be a little more pomp and circumstance in the demise of some very important, and somewhat important characters. Those are small issues with the overall writing that I had. Otherwise, I would say that for what it is, this is near perfect storytelling. There is a tendency to be melodramatic, but come on, it's heroic fantasy. Drama is important (in the same way it's a crucial element in Harlequin Presents novels).

Being a neophyte to the sword and sorcery genre (and high fantasy overall, other than some brief forays as a young reader), I may not be the best source of advice. However, I am of the opinion that if you are about to embark on a foray into heroic fantasy, you should read this book. It wasn't boring, although it might be hard to keep up with the odd names and the storylines at times. Personally, I found this to be a book that you read in spurts. This is a collection of short stories and a novella, so it lends itself to that type of reading. In the reading of this story, will find a hero-villain within the pages of this book like no other, one who will keep your interest, inspire pity and sometimes frustration, and one who will linger in you mind long past the point at which you close the book.

Rating 4.5/5.0 Stars

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