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Elric: The Stealer of Souls

Blood and souls for my lord Arioch!

Rating: C Length: 458 pages, standard paperback font size, larger than standard paperback page size

I don't have a grudge against British fantasy authors. I'm sure that people who know me well would back me up in how much the opposite of racist I am. And yet, there just seems to be something about the famous fantasy fiction that comes from the UK that just doesn't click with me. It's not that I don't appreciate how transformative Tolkien was in the genre by divorcing it from connections with the real world and establishing so many tropes that are taken for granted these days. It's just that he rambles away at minutiae that's of so little interest to me that whatever enjoyment I might've gotten ends up buried under the tedium of actually reading his writing (except for the short stories that were collected into The Silmarillion, which I enjoyed more often than not). It's not that I don't understand Rowling's commercial success and popularity were and still are incredible. It's that I found Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire so insulting to my intelligence that I blacklisted her (much like I did recently with Brandon Sanderson).

In this case, it's not that I don't recognize how different Moorcock's Elric is from the fantasy protagonists that came before him. It's just that it feels like he does a rather poor job of following Show Don't Tell, together with the general lack of engaging drama in his stories.

That said, out of respect for Moorcock being one of the few people I've seen who agrees with my opinion on The Lord of the Rings as being massively overrated and almost unreadable, I won't mention how many tries it took me to get through this collection, and I'll get to the meat of things.

As I mentioned a moment ago, Elric was a groundbreaking protagonist, and I'd say that he still is quite distinct from most others I've read about (maybe Anita Blake would be the closest, and in all fairness, Elric is light years ahead of her). He's a weakling physically, but thanks to ancestral pacts with a number of Lords of Chaos and elementals, he's able to call in supernatural aid when he needs help in a fight. He devoured the knowledge in the libraries of Melniboné (the millennia-old empire of which he is the final ruler), so he knows about all sorts of mystical lore, magical rituals, and secret herbalism (i.e. drug use). He's got a magical sword, but rather than a being a legendary sign of goodness like Excalibur, it's an evil sentient artifact of Chaos called Stormbringer, which consumes the souls of its victims and transfers some part of their strength to Elric. It's all quite metal, really.

The thing is, though, that we're told often about how Elric has shady morals and how he's conflicted about his pact with Arioch (one of the most powerful Lords of Chaos). Similarly, we're told often about how the Melnibonéans were depraved, amoral sadists, and how Elric has such tendencies himself. The key phrase is both of those sentences is "we're told", because there is very little shown to back it up. Elric's entire conflict about his patron can be summed up by the exchange "I'm a follower of Chaos!" / "Yes, but if Chaos disrupts the Balance, the world will be destroyed!" / "Oh, then, I'll fight for Law!", followed by maybe one mention in each subsequent story of how odd it is that Elric would fight with the forces of Law. That's not just limited to Elric, either. We don't really see any Melnibonéans being sadistic assholes. Tanglebones is nothing if not loyal to Elric, Yyrkoon is an asshole in a "vindictive opportunist"-way rather than in a "sociopathic sadist"-way, and Dyvim Tvar and Dyvim Slorm both come across as being surprisingly cool about working with the guy who destroyed their home (which would be Elric).

To play devil's advocate for a moment, maybe Moorcock's approach was that a certain degree of information could just be accepted through exposition instead of needing to be proven. I can appreciate that, especially in contrast to the approach of Tolkien's imitators, who seem to indulge in world-building as an exercise in textual masturbation (inasmuch as I don't like the writing in The Lord of the Rings, at least it did actually come to an eventual point most of the time). My problem with that is so much of what we see either fails to support or seems to outright contradict much of what we're told. If the exposition matched up with the narrative, I wouldn't have so many objections to it, but it really doesn't.

Even still, I could forgive that if the writing was fun to read. Sadly, it wasn't. In typical swords-and-sorcery fashion, many of the stories deal with conflicts that are small in scale and very personal to Elric, as opposed to the epic world-saving quests of (super)heroic fantasy. Even though the second set of stories (Stormbringer) does center on Elric's part in the cosmic war between the Lords of Chaos and the Lords of Law, it still feels very personal because Elric's reasons for opposing Chaos are focused on the forces of Chaos kidnapping his wife. I like these types of plots because I find them far more relatable than something like The Lord of the Rings (in contrast to The Hobbit, which still bored me with Tolkien's loquaciousness but was better than the dreck that followed it) or The Wheel of Time (which would've been intolerable had it not been for Mat and [to a lesser degree] Perrin carrying on their subplots alongside the whole conflict with Rand).

This runs into trouble, though, because it never feels like Elric is in any real mortal danger(*), and aside from getting a bad reputation and occasionally killing someone on accident due to Stormbringer's influence, he doesn't really suffer any other losses(**), either. There isn't much drama when it doesn't feel like the protagonist won't have anything short of nigh-complete success.

(*): The exception to this is the story Kings in Darkness. It was one of the two stories that I really enjoyed from this collection. Interestingly, Moorcock calls out this story as one that he didn't like in one of the ending letters.

(**): Well, aside from two specific things that are major spoilers. I didn't care much for the first of those because of the whole Show Don't Tell problem, but Sad Giant's Shield was the other of the stories that I really enjoyed. Doomed Lord's Passing was mostly a foregone conclusion after that.

I'm sure there are some people out there who'd try to point out that I'm reading these stories several decades after they were first written and that Moorcock was influential enough in the fantasy genre that elements of the stories have been ripped off often enough to dilute the impact of the originals. To them, I point to my undying love for Poe and Lovecraft, both of whom predate Moorcock by decades, both of whom were more influential to a far broader audience, and both of whom are just as incredible to read now as they were in their times. Great writing is transcendent regardless of when you're exposed to it. Furthermore, this doesn't address my complaint about the lack of drama. I started reading The Complete Chronicles of Conan right after finishing this, and while the masturbatory history lesson to start that was even worse than Tolkien, The Phoenix on the Sword was more engaging than the entirety of this collection.

However, this collection wasn't bad, either. I've heard so much about how amazing Moorcock's writing was that my first reaction was severe disappointment, but I did still enjoy it. I'm willing to try reading some of the other Eternal Champion stories (I've heard that Hawkmoon's stories are supposed to be the best, anyhow). I wouldn't recommend Elric: The Stealer of Souls since it just felt average overall, but at least it held its own well enough to leave me open to trying more, which is better than some of the other books I've reviewed here.

As a final note, though, "No! Oh, no, not my soul!" is a truly awful bit of dialogue.

Rating: C Length: 458 pages, standard paperback font size, larger than standard paperback page size

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