Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Book Review--THE JEWEL IN THE SKULL by Michael Moorcock

EDIT: I'd like to thank Taran of One Last Sketch for the link to this most excellent review of The History of the Runestaff. Check it out. It addresses some of the reasons why I was so disappointed by this book--mainly Moorcock wrote it as a potboiler in the space of three days. Basically, he wrote it to pay the bills while the bulk of his time was spent on more serious projects. Apparently the 1990s omnibus editions were corrected of inconsistencies and such, but still remain very disappointing.

Anyway, on with the review... .

I'd like to start out with a few quotes:

Théoden King of the Mark had reached the road from the Gate to the River, and he turned towards the City that was now less than a mile distant. He slackened his speed a little, seeking new foes, and his knights came about him, and Dernhelm was with them. Ahead nearer the walls Elfhelm's men were among the siege-engines, hewing, slaying, driving their foes into the fire-pits. Well nigh all the northern half of the Pelennor was overrun, and there camps were blazing, orcs were flying towards the River like herds before the hunters; and the Rohirrim went hither and thither at their will. But they had not yet overthrown the siege, nor won the Gate. Many foes stood before it, and on the further half of the plain were other hosts still unfought. Southward beyond the road lay the main force of the Haradrim, and there their horsemen were gathered about the standard of their chieftain. And he looked out, and in the growing light he saw the banner of the king, and that it was far ahead of the battle with few men about it. Then he was filled with a red wrath and shouted aloud, and displaying his standard, black serpent upon scarlet, he came against the white horse and the green with a great press of men; and the drawing of the scimitars of the Southrons was like a glimmer of stars.

Then Théoden
was aware of him, and would not wait for his onset, but crying to Snowmane he charged headlong to greet him. Great was the clash of their meeting. But the white fury of the North-men burned the hotter, and more skilled was their knighthood with long spears and bitter. Fewer were they but they clove through the Southrons like a fire-bolt in a forest. Right through the press drove Théoden Thengel's son, and his spear was shivered as he threw down their chieftain. Out swept his sword, and he spurred to the standard, hewed staff and bearer; and the black serpent foundered. Then all that was left unslain of their cavalry turned and fled far away. --J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

How about another quote?
And then, as the horde writhed and coiled upon itself, Amalric's lancers, having cut through a cordon of horsemen encountered in the outer valley, swept around the extremity of the western ridge and smote the host in a steel-tipped wedge, splitting it asunder. His attack carried all the dazing demoralization of a surprise on the rear. Thinking themselves flanked by a superior force and frenzied at the fear of being cut off from the desert, swarms of nomads broke and stampeded, working havoc in the ranks of their more steadfast comrades. These staggered and the horsemen rode through them. Up on the ridges the desert fighters wavered, and the hillmen fell on them with renewed fury, driving them down the slopes. --Robert E. Howard, "The Black Colossus"
And for comparison, this final quote:
From the remaining ranks of infantry, arrows flew thickly toward them and flame-lances sent searing fire. Count Brass' archers retaliated, and his flame-lancers also returned the attack. Arrows clattered on their armour. Several men fell. Others were struck down by the flame-lances. Through the chaos of fire and flying arrows, the infantry of Granbretan steadily advanced, in spite of depleted numbers. They paused when they came to the swampy ground, choked as it was with the bodies of their horses, and their officers furiously urged them on. --Michael Moorcock, The Jewel in the Skull
One can see a vast difference between the first two and the last quote, both in temperament and quality of prose. I would expect much more from the man who would later pen the essay "Epic Pooh," blasting Tolkien for the "sentimental, slightly distanced, often wistful, a trifle retrospective" prose that "contains little wit and much whimsy."

Tolkien's description of the Battle of Pelennor Fields and Howard's description of the battle at the Escarpment are both written extremely well. Tolkien's description eschews the sleepy quality that Moorcock describes as reminding him of A.A. Milne:
There is an element of conspiratorial persuasion in his tone that a suspicious child can detect early in life. Let's all be cosy, it seems to say (children's books are, after all, written by conservative adults anxious to maintain an unreal attitude to childhood); let's forget about our troubles and go to sleep. At which I would find myself stirring to a sitting position in my little bed and responding with uncivilized bad taste. --Michael Moorcock, "Epic Pooh"
True, Moorcock provides quotes to compare portions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to back up his argument. But Tolkien does not maintain a consistent voice throughout the novels. Indeed, he alters his voice depending on the circumstances and the Battle of Pelennor Fields reads more like Beowulf or The Iliad than Winnie-the-Pooh. Granted, Moorcock deals with these shifts and injects a good deal of politics into his assessment of Tolkien's supposed anti-industrialism and anti-democratic romanticism.

But this review isn't about "Epic Pooh." If you want to read a full rebuttal to Moorcock's essay, check out "Knocking Some Stuffing Out of Moorcock's 'Epic Pooh'" by Brian Murphy of the Silver Key. It's about The Jewel in the Skull and how I was profoundly disappointed by this book by the man who wrote "Epic Pooh."

Now, I've read Elric of
Melniboné and remember enjoying it. However, I wasn't quite so profoundly moved or invigorated as I was by Tolkien's or Howard's prose. Indeed, the prose in The Jewel in the Skull is so weak that I had difficulty making it all the way through the book. I was profoundly disappointed by this work. Indeed, this book is weak in more than simply prose, but also in characterization and plot.

Firstly, let's discuss characterization. The main character, Dorian Hawkmoon, isn't introduced until fifty pages into the novel. This isn't bad in-and-of itself, however Moorcock fails to utilize it effectively by building a very compelling opening. Dorian could be easily played by Keanu Reeves as he's almost completely bereft of emotion for much of the middle of the novel. Granted, Moorcock was trying to use his strange emotionlessness as a vehicle, but he handles it so poorly that it fails completely. Our protagonist is absolutely unsympathetic and the reader is utterly incapable of identifying with him. Therefore, we don't really care if he lives, dies, wins, or loses.

The villains are cardboard cutouts, especially Baron Meliadus. The Dark Empire of Granbretan, which is uniting the continent of post-apocalyptic Europe, is evil... and engages in wanton slaughter and rapine of conquered territories... and that's about it. Oh, and it has an immortal god-emperor. Wow.

Moorcock establishes Baron Meliadus' villainy so clumsily that it comes off almost as a laughable parody of Robin Hood-type heels like the Sheriff of Nottingham. Of course he's going to try to abscond with the princess! Of course he's going to wound the aptly-named warrior-poet Bowgentle with villainous swordplay. Of course he's going to betray Count Brass' honorable hospitality. Of course he's going to swear vengeance and rant over every defeat like Skeletor, Cobra Commander, or Megatron.

Count Brass is likewise such an archetype of the honorable warrior-knight that he, also, becomes a laughable stereotype. Moorcock introduces him and develops his character but in so doing makes Count Brass so predictable and noble that he comes off as a flat caricature and not a character.

The plot is not much better, although it does have its moments. At least the opening sets the stage for the later conflict correctly enough. The Dark Empire wants the Kamarg--a portion of what used to be southern France--either with Count Brass' vassalage or through outright conquest. Count Brass, being honorable to a fault, refuses to become politically involved and thus cannot support Granbretan, although he feels that the unification of Europe under one banner and the ending of all the incessant warring (of which he's a renowned hero) would be a Good Thing, even if Granbretan is at the helm. This makes very little sense--he wants to see Europe unified, doesn't want to get involved, and yet is the ruler of a state that is a part of Europe and must eventually be incorporated into any unified whole. The entire time I'm reading, I feel that Count Brass is Lawful Stupid--noble and honorable at the expense of any real rationality. At least Ned Stark wasn't stupid--his honor and nobility got him a pretty rotten result, nevertheless.

Baron Meliadus, in comparison, behaves Retarded Evil. You'd think a Dark Empire ambassador would be much more subtle, but no, that would actually be interesting. Instead, Baron Meliadus tries to steal Count Brass' daughter and kill his best friends when Count Brass proves himself too stupid to live. He doesn't spend time scouting out the defenses or planting a spy network or finding ways to sabotage the forces of the Kamarg.

Enter Dorian Hawkmoon, a lord whose state was conquered by the Dark Empire of Granbretan and is now a prisoner. The defeat robbed him of his emotions and has left him a cold automaton who just doesn't give a damn. When Meliadus makes a deal with him ("sabotage the Kamarg and we'll give you your state back"), Dorian basically says, "meh."

Then comes the eponymous MacGuffin--a plot vehicle that is so weak and positively stupid that I nearly put the book in the trash. The black jewel implanted into Hawkwood's forehead is basically a magical camera that is connected to a machine in London that shows only what is in front of Dorian and provides no sound. The sorcerers of Granbretan assure Hawkwood that if he betrays them, the jewel will basically fry his brain. It's the tool they're going to use to blackmail him and ensure his loyalty. But it has immensely profound weaknesses. So, in the end, instead of Lawful Evil, the leaders of the Dark Empire of Granbretan has demonstrated how they, like their Baron Meliadus, are entirely Retarded Evil.

At least Count Brass and his friends aren't so stupid as to not see through Granbretan's ploy. They use their own technomagic to prevent the stone from frying Dorians brain, but it will only last a little while--the only place Dorian can go to get the jewel removed without killing him is somewhere out in Persia. But the armies of Granbretan are marching for the Kamarg. Now that Hawkmoon has met Count Brass' stereotypically hot daughter, he's starting to get his emotions back, but the presence of the jewel makes him feel hopeless enough that he refuses to allow himself to fall in love (although she has, predictably, fallen head-over-heels for him).

By this point, I want to bang my head against a wall.

The rest of the story consists of a couple of rather better chapters describing guerrilla raids on the Granbretan forces and a decent set-piece battle before descending into Hawkmoon's journey toward Persia, his gaining of a companion, and a very uninspired arrival in a Persian kingdom and his participation in a battle. I say "descend" because the rest of the book is just as uninspired as the beginning.

The problems with the plot are not the actual contents but in how they are handled by Moorcock. Coupled with his lackluster prose (which I will address below), Moorcock's storytelling is simply lacking. Other authors have written equally derivative works but did so with style and/or panache that Moorcock, as of 1967, did not seem to possess. Every opportunity he had to make the story more interesting he did not seize. As a result, the book reads like a dull attempt at parody. If parody it was, then Moorcock failed at this as well because there is no wit whatsoever in his writing. There are no moments where we realize that he's presenting these events to us tongue-in-cheek. It simply plays out dully, uninspired.

The prose simply serves to drive this point home:
Sparks scattered into the darkness of the hall as the two big men dueled, the broadswords rising and falling, swinging this way and that, every stroke parried with masterly skill. Sweat covered both faces as the swords swung; both chests heaved with the exertion as they fenced back and forth across the hall.
George Orwell said it best when comparing pulp boxing stories by British authors to those of American authors in "Boys' Weeklies:"
Notice how much more knowledgeable the American extracts sound. They are written for devotees of the prize-ring, the others are not.
An honest comparison of this to any combat scene by Robert E. Howard demonstrates this. The American writer wants the reader to experience the combat. I could also compare it to Zelazny's description of combat, which benefits heavily from his excessive knowledge of fencing. Moorcock's description is vague and frankly blasé. Obviously, Moorcock doesn't know anything about sword-fighting, but he doesn't even attempt to guess. Tolkien's description of combat is much more energetic for all his dreamy let's-all-go-to-sleep prose.

Moorcock also is guilty of the tell-not-show sin.
A conflict was beginning to develop in Hawkmoon's breast--perhaps a conflict between humanity and the lack of it, perhaps a conflict between conscience and the lack of conscience, if such conflicts were possible.
If such conflicts were possible? You tell us, you're the author! This is just clumsy writing, but it continues.
Whatever the exact nature of the conflict, there was no doubt that Hawkmoon's character was changing for a second time. It was not the character he had had on the battlefield at Köln, nor the strange apathetic mood into which he had fallen since the battle, but a new character altogether, as if Hawkmoon were being born again in a thoroughly different mold.
One of the advantages of writing a novel is the author can actually develop these changes through showing how the character behaves and actually describing a bit of their thought processes and feelings. George R.R. Martin does this very well with many of his characters, especially ones like Arya, Jon Snow, and Jaime Lannister. Moorcock is writing one of the very, very short SF novels that proliferated the discount bookracks of convenience stores (like my own antiquated DAW Books copy pictured below) and the like during the mid-twentieth century, so he has to deal with page limitations. However, I don't feel that is a legitimate excuse, especially since these problems are rife throughout the narrative and detract from the interest factor.

I could provide more examples of the disappointing writing, but I'll refrain. Suffice it to say, for the most part, The Jewel in the Skull reads like a rough draft or perhaps an extended summary of a story that could have really benefited from some greater detail and less derivative narration.

I don't know if I'm going to read any more of The History of the Runestaff, the four-volume series of which this novel was the first. Indeed, this makes me want to go back and reread Elric of Melniboné to see if it suffers from the same weaknesses in narration, characterization, and prose.

As I said, this book was a disappointment. I was very interested in reading it but when I finally did, it most certainly did not live up to expectations, especially considering the vocal criticisms its author leveled against other, noteworthy and accomplished, authors. There's a kernel of a good and exciting story here. However, in this volume at least, Moorcock doesn't deliver.

The Jewel in the Skull by Michael Moorcock Style: C
Substance: C-
Overall: C-


Lagomorph Rex said...

I read the first four Hawkmoon novels earlier this year. I remember they were a decent enough way to while away an hour or so.. but not really anything else. I felt Moorcock's proselytizing for Marxism and anti imperialism grew wearisome.

The only reason to read the series is to get to the third volume when Hawkmoon and Erkose confront the entity formerly trapped inside stormbringer which sort of continues the Elric books.

It really just cements my opinion that Moorcock's major complaint with Tolkien is.. Tolkien takes him to school and makes him sit in the corner with a dumb look on his face.

That being said, his work with Hawkwind is still pretty cool.

Dave Cesarano said...

Some comments by my friend Jason:

Moorcock talking about "if such conflicts were possible", isn't clumsy writing but more of a poor sense of when to bring up details. You took what he said as a reference to the act that was occurring, the conflicts that were going on. Moorcock was commenting more on the greater conflicts represented by what was then occurring. It's overly confusing and passive. He then talks about the changes undergoing within Hawkmoon's character, which you state as being ineffective. This is very much a common pitfall in fantasy fiction, especially for beginning writers. I'm not sure Moorcock changed as he continued to write but I saw the same thing going on in Elric: there's a distance at work here, one that arises from too much self knowledge, from too much of a sense that Moorcock's writing a novel. BTW, I'm not a fan of the Tolkien passage you included to begin the article; not his strongest writing, imo. Too much inversion that feels overtly artificial "Great was the clash of their meeting. But the white fury of the North-men burned the hotter, and more skilled was their knighthood with long spears and bitter. Fewer were they but they clove through the Southrons like a fire-bolt in a forest. Right through the press drove Théoden Thengel's son, and his spear was shivered as he threw down their chieftain." Tolkien's trying much, much too hard here; he thrives when he describes landscapes and deals more with the Hobbits imo. Which is certainly not a criticism.

Michal said...

It's no secret that I think the Runestaff saga is complete garbage. I wouldn't bother with the other books, they only get worse, though there are glimmers of a much better work strewn throughout. The effect is more frustrating than not. It's appallingly uneven and uninspired, and I'm still not sure how (or why) I finished the damn thing except via the explanation that it's much like watching a train wreck in progress. "It can't get worse, can it?" you think, but oh, it does. It gets far worse than you could ever possibly imagine.

Here's a very good review of the entire series, dwelling mostly on how terrible it is:

Brian Murphy said...

This will no doubt come across as small-minded and spiteful from me, but Moorcock can't hold Tolkien's jock. MM has a couple pretty good short stories and ideas buried under an avalanche of crap.

Dave Cesarano said...

Wow, guys, I totally didn't mean to open up this magnificent can of anti-Moorcock sentiment. But it is entertaining indeed to hear Brian Murphy and Michal/Taran (whichever he prefers to be called) express varying levels of disdain for his work. Cheers!

Lagomorph Rex said...

Well you didn't open the can of anti-Moorcock sentiment.. the man did that himself when he penned Epic Pooh and then reiterated it with Wizardry and Wild Romance...

If he wants to be an Iconoclast then he must surely be prepared to weather the scorn thrown back at him.

I mean, I actually enjoyed the Hawkmoon books. I liked the Elric books too. I'm sure I'll enjoy the Corum and Kane and Von bek books also.

I don't consider any of them on the level of REH or JRRT or even Glen Cook.. But I'd read a boatload of Moorcock's books before I touch another Joe Abercrombie or KJ Parker. Moorcock's work may be the patient zero of the "grimdark" virus.. but his own work doesn't succumb to the disease entirely.

Michal said...

Not so much disdain for his work in general, just this particular work. Moorcock had done much better than this. Though, really, anyone could've done better than this. It's the absolute nadir of Moorcock's output.

This blogger account dates from before I started using my real name on the interwebz. I've gone back and changed it to the real deal.

Dennis Laffey said...

I haven't read much Moorcock, but I did find him to be pretty uneven in his output. I've got the second Corum trilogy (haven't read the first) and found it decent, if somewhat too derivative of Celtic myth for very little payoff from all the borrowing.

Josh lent me a pair of Elric books. Forget which ones. One was good, although it really felt abridged. The other was so poorly written I stopped reading after about three chapters. There aren't many books I've put down that early. I think the only one I've read less of and stopped was Eragon.

So my opinion of Moorcock from my limited exposure to him is not to expect too much from his work, and to just laugh at his essays like "Epic Pooh."