Michael Moorcock, The Jewel in the Skull (Tor Books, 2010)
The Jewel in the Skull is Michael Moorock's first installment in the cycle of Dorian Hawkmoon, one of the most popular of the avatars of the Eternal Champion. It's a rich and sometimes strange series, and has long been one of my personal favorites, so this reissue by Tor is welcome.
We begin meeting the dramatis personae (which takes a while -- the cast is not so large, but they take their time making their appearances), in the Kamarg, in the far south of what was once known as France, one of the few outposts not yet subject to the empire of Granbretan. The Duchy of Köln has just fallen, and Baron Meliadus, one of the chief nobles and war leaders of the island empire, pays a visit to Count Brass, Lord Guardian of the Kamarg. Meliadus wants an alliance -- Count Brass, an experienced soldier, diplomat, and counselor himself, could be of great use to Granbretan in furthering its agenda of world domination because he knows who, among the petty princes and upstart royalty that holds most of the Continent, can be trusted. Brass also has a beautiful young daughter, Yisselda. Brass proves adroit at deflecting the discussions until Meliadus tries to abduct Yisselda, and then Brass proves just what a fighter he is.
Nursing his wounds, both physical and diplomatic, Meliadus returns to London, where he undertakes to create, in the person of Dorian Hawkmoon, the young and very new Duke of Köln, taken prisoner in the fighting there, an agent beyond subversion. Through the sorcerous science of Granbretan, he has inserted into Hawkmoon's brow a black jewel that sees what Hawkmoon sees and that, if things don't go as the Baron wishes, will eat his brain. Meliadus then puts Hawkmoon on the road to Karmarg.
I don't think anyone has ever accused Michael Moorcock of displaying a lack of invention in his stories. As Moorcock himself put it in his opening tag from "The High History of the Runestaff": "Then the Earth grew old, its landscapes mellowing and showing signs of age, its ways becoming whimsical and strange in the manner of a man in his last years. . . ." Whimsical it is, though not quite in the manner of Jack Vance's Dying Earth, which that passage calls to mind. Moorcock's whimsy is more the product of history and mutation than anything else. The milieu in this one is somewhere between steampunk and sewer-system baroque -- horned horses, giant flamingos, the outlandish contraptions of Granbretanian "science" (all made of the richest materials and ornately decorated), mountain giants, flamelances, rotating towers -- they're all there.
There are two mysterious -- well, call them "presences" -- in this story. One is palpable -- the Warrior in Jet and Gold, who plays a crucial if somewhat restrained role -- and the Runestaff, a potent mystical object present only by reference. The Warrior notes that he and Hawkmoon serve the same Power, even though Hawkmoon doesn't yet know it. Take the Runestaff as a version of Elric's Stormbringer, or perhaps the original from which all other avatars are drawn. As for the rest of the characters, Moorcock is working largely in archetypes, so we're not given a lot of detailed character-building. In part I suspect this is a result of the length of the story, a mere 222 pages. It does, after all, date from the days before publishers started buying manuscripts by the pound. I, for one, am relieved not to have to absorb too much information.
It's a good, absorbing adventure story, with noble if somewhat quirky heroes, absolutely vile villains, beautiful -- and resourceful -- damsels, trusty sidekicks, and repellent monsters, among other things. Moorcock is working in broad strokes here -- a feeling reinforced by the equally strong illustrations by Vance Kovacs -- and painting a wonderful picture of a world that exists long after ours. (We are consigned to the years before the Tragic Millenium, when war unleashed poisons and pestilence on most of the world, making Hawkmoon's world not only possible, but nearly inevitable.) While the exposition is sometimes blatant, Moorcock is enough of a stylist that it doesn't really seem all that obvious -- it's not nearly as talky as some of his more recent books, and highly entertaining -- even, I suspect, for those who are not revisiting a somewhat geeky adolescence.