I devoured Michael Moorcock as a kid. The Elric books were hands-down my favorite fantasy series, and I launched from them into tales of Erekosë, Corum, Jerry Cornelius, Karl Glogauer, but for some reason I never made it around to Hawkmoon. I’m sure I started them when I was about 15 or so, but my reading really dropped off when I got a driver’s license, and I didn’t come back to Moorcock for a long time (with the Dancers at the End of Time Omnibus, still one of my favorites). So although I have two other editions of the first Hawkmoon book—the yellow-edged 1977 DAW paperback with the cover by Richard Clifton-Dey and the 1995 White Wolf Omnibus with cover by John Zeleznik—the übercool Vance Kovacs artwork has induced me to pick up yet a third edition, and, having picked it up, I couldn’t resist dipping in, let alone justifying having three editions of a book I haven’t read.
Now, while I’ve read a lot of Moorcock in recent years (and been privileged to publish him four times now, twice at novel length), I’ve not dipped back into the early sword and sorcery work until now. And if I were worried how that particular era might hold up, my fears were quickly set aside. I’m enthralled.
It’s mind-boggling to me to experience the way that Moorcock creates such a complex and interesting future history with so few and simple pieces. It’s like watching an expert painter at work—where the application of just a few simple lines and a few deft strokes, a touch or two of color suddenly bring a painting of depth and subtlety to life before your eyes. And the way that Moorcock introduces the elements and characters of this world is masterful. Contemporary authors of fantasy could learn a lot from studying his set up.
In The Jewel in the Skull, we open on the charismatic Count Brass, touring the borders of his small kingdom of Kamarg alone and on horseback. We learn that Brass was a great mercenary warrior, albeit one with a smoldering idealism, who grew weary of conflict and finally accepted the leadership of the realm of Kamarg when its inhabitants slew their former, despotic ruler. Traveling between his defensive towers, said to be armed with strange weapons gathered from his time abroad in Europe, Brass is set upon by a monster, a former human creature twisted by the science-sorcery of his predecessor. Out-massed and alone, he dispatches it with a bit of cleverness that serves to impress us with the Count’s resourcefulness, then travels home to his castle, where we meet his daughter and best friend.
In the next scene, we join them as they watch a bullfight, only for Brass to leap into the ring in aid of the matador. We learn then of the evil empire of Granbreta—how brilliant in 1967 to cast his own country as the evil empire!—who are gobbling up Europe one country at a time. Brass, it seems, is a sort of Rick Blaine, who has no problem with the war as long as it leaves him alone in his domain. In fact, he feels Europe should be united, even if under the perverted heel of Granbretan, as even a dark empire will mellow in a few centuries and ultimately, good will come of it. But then Baron Meliadus comes calling, seeking to entice Brass into advising the Empire from out of his fount of knowledge about the various rulers of Europe (many of whom Brass previously fought and defeated). Brass’s neutrality frustrates the Baron, who isn’t used to taking no for an answer. This obstinacy in the face of refusal extends to his relations with
women, and when he attempts to kidnap or kill the Count’s daughter, he impinges on Brass’s hospitality a step too far. Thus, Brass has made an enemy of Granbretan after all.
Back in city of Londra, we meet captured Prince Dorian Hawkmoon von Köln, who is slated for death after having temporary thrown off Granbretan’s yoke. Instead, Meliadus sees a means to get revenge on Brass, and using arcane science-sorcery, implants a strange “Black Jewel” in Dorian’s forehead, which not only sends back visual images of everything Dorian sees, but can come to life and devour his brain with the flick of a switch. Dorian is sent to win the Count’s trust, then kidnap his daughter, in order to force Brass to comply with the Dark Empire’s wishes. I don’t think I’ll spoil overmuch by saying that together Brass and Hawkmoon manage to turn the tables, and that the rest of the novel deals with Dorian’s quest to rid himself of the eponymously named threat of the book’s title. What follows is a succession of strange encounters with weird creatures, battles with the Baron, etc… until the end of this particular quest, and the set up for the next book.
And it’s wonderful. From the strange animal masks that all the various “Orders” of Granbretan wear (from the Baron’s military “Order of the Wolf” to the prison guards “Order of the Pigs” to the weird Mantis order of the King-Emperor in his “Throne Globe”), to the bizarre bird-shaped ornithopters of the Granbretan air force, to the giant pink flamingos that the soldiers of Kamarg ride, this is inventive with a capital I. Reading it, I kept longing to see it animated by someone of Hayao Miyazaki’s talent, though the illustrations from Kovacs do a good job at bringing the world to life.
Yes, there are some cliches that might not slip through in a contemporary novel. The Baron is seemingly slain but his corpse is never found. A mysterious character emerges to help the heroes out of a tight spot, only to be instantly slain in the next encounter. But these are minor quibbles in a tale that is so colorful and inventive that you hardly care. What’s more—there is really nothing dated here. I enjoyed it now, in 2010, as much as I did reading his other works as a pre-teen, with no apologies necessary. The Jewel in the Skull is a quick, fast-paced, (only 222 page!) read that is a quintessential work in the genre of sword & sorcery—a genre that flowered from the 30s to the 70s, then took a back seat to the epic for several decades, only to be enjoying a resurgence now. Moorcock is a master of this and other sub-genres, and his mastery is on full display here. I’m in for the next three books. They can’t get here soon enough. Of course, I could read either of the two versions I already own, but I love those Kovacs covers, so I’ll read them as Tor reissues them. And so should you.
Lou Anders is the editorial director of Pyr books, a Chesley award-winning art director, and the editor of nine-critically acclaimed anthologies. It was his privilege to publish Michael Moorcock’s Silverheart (written with Storm Constantine) and The Metatemporal Detective, as well as an original Elric story due out this summer in the anthology Swords & Dark Magic (co-edited with Jonathan Strahan).