Elric of Melniboné

Michael Moorcock
Elric of Melniboné Cover

Elric of Melniboné


Heroic fantasy has never been high on my reading list, but I have read some of Moorcock's science fiction and liked it, and I read one of the hard-to-classify Jerry Cornelius books and liked it, and so I decided to dive into this best-known of his series. Based on the first three I have read, these are not radical reinventions or deconstructions of the genre, but they are swiftly and well told stories with a complex hero, fantastic settings, and cool monsters. In other words, I am pleased so far.

Elric of Melnibone comes labelled Elric #1, and everything about it seem to be the beginning of a series. But in the omnibus volume I read, the third book has some earlier copyright dates, even though the plots clearly follow what happens in this first novel. All this is some future bibliographers delight or nightmare.

Elric is the albino emperor of Melnibone, ruling from the ruby throne in the city of Imrryr the Beautiful... He is a scholar and a sorcerer and a reluctant warrior. His love is his cousin Cymoril and his enemy is her brother Yyrkoon. (Yes, since this is heroic fantasy, everyone has irritating names impossible to pronounce. Moorcock's somewhat lazy approach to this convention is simply to repeat letters, a technique that reaches its most absurd heights with demon names: Haaashaastaak, Lord of the Lizards, and some buzzy thing whose moniker has about a dozen U's in a row.)

Melnibone has existed for 500 centuries. It is a powerful and decadent place. Melniboneans scorn the upstarts of the Young Kingdoms, but they are hardly paragons of nobility. Yyrkoon attempts to kill Elric early on, and when Erlic announces that the punishment for the insurrection will be to remove chunks of Yyrkoon's accomplice's flesh, roast it, and feed it to the traitor at a banquet, all Imrryr is delighted that their emperor is proving to be the kind of leader they can look up to, and not some bookish nerd.

But of course, Yyrkoon escapes and a chase is on. A climactic scene inside twin architectural towers that prove to be disconcertingly and disgustingly organic once entered brings Elric the prize of the runesword Stormbringer, a weapon that delivers strength to its owner with every soul it takes. But as with all gifts of the Lords of Chaos, Stormbringer is a mixed blessing for Elric.

Much of this first novel is necessarily involved with setting up the situation, but it never bogs down in explication. It's a lively 130+ pages that had me turning immediately to the second installment.