THE SAILOR ON THE SEAS OF FATE is the second book in the Elric Saga and I think, perhaps more than any book I’ve reviewed so far, I might struggle to pull the various coalescing streams of thought I have about it into coherent sentences. I’ve thought about this book a fair bit and concluded it’s probs best to work my thoughts out just by writing, so forgive me for what will most likely end up being a stream of consciousness word soup.
I guess the best place to start is the premise, and that’s actually the first thing that surprised me about this book. The whole thing is actually more and more bonkers the more I think about it; we’re reintroduced to Elric in the most in media res situation I can ever recall, in the midst of his travels following his departure from his home country of Melniboné in the first book. We find him on the run for some unknown transgression (that we never hear anything more about) and in the course of his flight he finds himself stranded on a beach, where he’s rescued by a strange ship with a strange crew, and an even stranger captain. From here the book is a sort of trio of inter-connected short stories telling of Elric’s adventures aboard the ship, as it travels between various planes of time and space.
The whole thing has a surreal dream-like quality to it, something Elric himself remarks upon on a few occasions, and I got that sense right from the start, when we find Elric in the midst of his flight. You know how when a dream ‘starts’, you find yourself in whatever situation you find yourself in but have no sense of how you got there or even any sense of anything actually ‘beginning’ but it feels natural all the same? That’s how the start of this book feels, it’s very odd. I’ll not spoil anything obviously, but the plot itself is also nuts, especially in the first section and I like how Moorcock approaches sorcery here. There’s no magic system per se, but I really got the sense the sorcerers Elric encounters in this section were much more than your average fantasy wizard of the time; they actually felt powerful, like they had harnessed powers that enabled them to transcend normal human existence and they were now in some way beyond the constraints of time and space. Elric’s own grasp of sorcery continues to be based on his pact with the demon Arioch, and in some instances other demons that owe his people historic favours. Elric calls on the powers of these demons in return for undisclosed favours, which doesn’t bode well but provides for great story fodder. In this sense it’s much like the pacts warlocks make with their patrons in Dungeons & Dragons and on a few occasions I found myself wondering if Elric was the original inspiration for D&D’s warlock class. Parts of the plot read like a novelised dungeon crawl as well and I loved that. Elric and his crewmates have to fight their way through rooms full of giant worm creatures and ape-like demons. It’s very unapologetically fantasy if you know what I mean. It makes me long for more books with an updated, more modern version of this kind of plot, that doesn’t feel as old school but retains that classic dungeon crawl vibe. Kings of the Wyld had it, but I can’t think of many more off the top of my head. There’s still lots of classic fantasy tropes that were fun because they’re in an old book but that I’d roll my eyes at if they were used unironically in a modern release. Like the hooded figure sitting in a shadowy corner and some of the oh so fantasy names in the story. Unpronounceable names and unrestrained use of the apostrophe is something of a running joke in fantasy and I actually laughed out loud at some of the names in this book. There’s a character called J’osui C’reln Reyr and one of the demons is actually called Nnuuurrrr’c’c hahahaha. I mean come on, what the fuck. But it’s fun.
Without a doubt the Elric books are classic sword and sorcery fantasy books, but there’s something different about them that I can’t quite put my finger on. There was an inkling of it in the first book, but it’s more apparent here, even if I am still struggling to place it. I wouldn’t even say they’re the most well-written books and certainly for modern fantasy readers the style is likely to feel a bit stiff and not at all like the books we’re used to reading today. It’s very much a book of its time in that regard. In the opening paragraph I said the premise of the book surprised me, and I want to expand on that a bit without really knowing where I’m going with it so, again, I’m sorry for the word soup. My initial surprise was that the book appeared to have started a significant time after the end of book one, Elric of Melniboné, when ***SPOILER ALERT*** Elric had basically handed the throne of Melniboné to his cousin Yyrkoon, his nemesis for much of that book, while he went off ‘to find himself’, to put it in hippy spiritualist terms. Now, it’s probably just the modern series structure that’s conditioned me this way, but I was expecting to see how things developed as a result of that decision, what Yyrkoon was using his power for and how the people of Melniboné responded to their emperor abandoning the throne and buggering off. ***END OF SPOILERS*** So that felt a bit weird, but actually once I took a step back and looked at the book on its own terms rather than what I’d come to expect from the fiction I usually read, it worked very well. And here I feel like I’m finally getting to the crux of what these books are about, which I’m only just starting to accept and understand after finishing the first two. They aren’t books where Moorcock spent months and years coming up with every facet of deep worldbuilding or fully-expanded lore or necessarily even believable characters. Part of that may just be the period he was writing in but a lot of it I think also has to do with the very different kind of story he was trying to tell, which is more about the inner struggle of Elric himself, between the conflicting parts of himself that are constantly at war with one another. Because on the one hand we see Elric as a ruler who really wants to do good, but in his sentient, soul-eating, cursed sword Stormbringer, we see a part of him expressed that is really quite capricious. There was an interesting essay at the end of the edition I read, entitled Elric: A Personality at War by a guy named Adrian Snook. It’s a Freudian analysis of Elric and talked about Stormbringer as the Id, concerned only with immediate gratification and the sating of primal desires, in constant battle with Elric as a complex combination of Ego and Super-Ego. It talks about Elric and Stormbringer together representing a dysfunctional compound personality, unable to exist when separated but in constant conflict. And while the world Elric lives in is very unforgiving and the universe essentially indifferent to good or evil, it’s Elric’s inner turmoil that gives these books their ‘proto-grimdark’ feel I think. It feels very apparent that Moorcock didn’t pander to his reader’s feelings when writing Elric. He’s a hard character to like, but deeply fascinating nonetheless. And how often have we heard that said of many, more modern, characters in the grimdark canon?
I’m a bit sorry this ‘review’ has ended up mainly being me just trying to parse my thoughts on what I think are very intellectually interesting books, even if they’re probably not to the taste of most modern fantasy readers. In many ways this is actually just the way I approach reviewing in general, not really as recommendations or otherwise, just me putting my thoughts on the page and working out what I think about stuff. In the end I hope that means the people who read this blog regularly get a sense of what I like and don’t like, what I find interesting and not so interesting and get a feel for whether it lines up with their own reading habits and curiosities. In a closing attempt to firm that up a bit then, I enjoyed reading The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, though perhaps more as an intellectual exercise in the development of fantasy than as a deeply-engrossing story with intricate character relationships and extensive and inter-connected worldbuilding that we’ve come to expect from modern writers. These books don’t really have any of that and there’s no verisimilitude at all really; it’s very clear at every stage you’re reading a fantasy book about fantasy characters and I never felt at any point like I had suspended any degree of disbelief. It’s entirely possible I might not have enjoyed it at all had I not grown up reading old sword and sorcery books from the same time period as a kid. That experience leaves me with a deeply-ingrained fondness and nostalgia for these kinds of stories anyway, but without that it’s possible (I’d say more likely probable) that anyone who grew up without that may not find the Elric books to their taste. Despite that, these books are very short, so if you do have a fondness for classic sword and sorcery fantasy, or even if you don’t but are still interested in having a dabble, or if like me you’re just a weirdo who likes reading stuff for its intellectual meta-relevance, then these books are well worth your time.
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