Last year Gollancz announced it was going to be making all of Michael Moorcock’s genre work available both in print and in ebook form. It was exciting news for me. Moorcock was my gateway drug to genre fantasy more than 40 years ago. I own most of his stuff in paperback but the books are scattered hither and yon about the world and quite frankly you can’t beat ebooks for convenience, particularly when you’re a long term expat like me.
Recently the first books in the new Michael Moorcock Library rolled off the digital presses (or whatever) and I was delighted to note a completely new (to me) cycle of Elric tales called the Moonbeam Roads. Turns out they were not quite new– Daughter of Dreams looks like it’s a retitled version of the The Dreamthief’s Daughter but that was OK by me. I never got a chance to read it when it first came out because it was not released in the UK. As a bonus the new version comes with an introduction from both John Clute and Mr Moorcock himself. How could I resist?
Anyway, off to Amazon I go, and download the book and into the prose I leap. It’s in first person, which is unusual for an Elric book, and that first person is not Elric, nor is the setting The Young Kingdoms. The narrator is Ulric Von Bek, descendant of that Von Bek who told the tale of The Warhound and the World’s Pain and the setting is our own dear earth sometime between the World Wars. I am not too bothered because I am familiar with Moorcock’s Eternal Champion mythology and the way his multiversal mythos all interlinks and hey, I like the man’s prose.
The story starts with a shuffling slowness but is nonetheless engrossing. We meet Von Bek’s cousin, Gaynor, another name familiar to people who sail around the multiverse on a regular basis. Gaynor is one of Moorcock’s more entertaining recurring villains. In this particular volume he is working for the Nazis, and in search of both the Holy Grail and the Black Sword. Von Bek’s family as it turns out are guardians of the Grail and as it happens our hero is in possession of a black sword that bears more than a passing resemblance to Stormbringer. Soon Von Bek is having visions of white hares, other worlds and an albino who looks not unlike a certain proud prince of ruins. He’s abducted by Nazis, thrown into a concentration camp, and finally escapes Gaynor’s clutches with the aid of a couple of otherworldly travellers. We’re about a third of the way through the book now though and still no Elric. I am starting to feel a little mis-sold.
Still we’re also running through the Mittel Marches, the fantasy worlds that intersect with our own in the multiverse, being pursued by Nazis through a strange tunnel world occupied by one of those idealised philosopher races Mr Moorcock likes so much. I’m not unhappy with the book so much as confused by the non-arrival of the putative star. It’s all a bit like that Steven Seagal/Kurt Russell movie where Mr Seagal gets killed in the opening fifteen minutes and you spend the rest of the movie wondering whether he’s going to reappear because his name is above the credits. (Spoiler alert: he doesn’t. Incidentally it’s my favourite Steven Seagal movie.)
After some more adventures, Elric finally manifests himself by taking possession of Von Bek’s body and we have two facets of the Eternal Champion for the price of one. We also have Elric’s alien consciousness mediated by the human, first person voice of Von Bek, which is a first as far as I can recall.
The plot kicks into gear and I am sure long term Moorcock readers will be unsurprised to learn that Tanelorn is under threat, this time by Miggea, the mad duchess of Law. It’s all part of the same vast universal conflict that the struggle with the Nazis is in our world. There’s much toing and froing, chasing after Gaynor and being chased by him. There’s dragons, there’s colossal world-shaking feats of sorcery and there’s sword fights. There’s a confrontation between Elric and the leaders of the Nazi party. I don’t want to say too much else for fear of spoilers. Oh OK then– here’s one– the Nazis don’t win.
You’ve probably noticed a supercilious tone to this review. I’m not exactly sure where it’s coming from. I enjoyed Daughter of Dreams greatly. The set-pieces, like the dragon flight over Europe, are great. And Elric when he finally arrives is as full of star quality as ever. The writing is very, very good indeed.
And yet, I was left partially unsatisfied or at least uneasy. Part of it is that in places the first person narration slows things down without saying anything particularly interesting. It becomes an excuse for Von Bek to philosophise about Nazism and the banality of evil. Part of it I think is that setting Elric among the Nazis feels a bit blasphemous. Conflating concentration camps and cosmic sorcery leaves me uneasy.
It’s the sort of transgressive thing that many people love but the truth is Daughter of Dreams is a romp, and a romp through the ruins of Auschwitz seems to me a very odd thing. Moorcock does some very nice things with the imagery, including commenting on its influence on his own fiction, but in the end of the mixture of real world horrors with heavy metal, sword and sorcery imagery did not quite gel, for me at least.
As always though Moorcock is never less than interesting and the best bits of the book are very good indeed. It’s not my favourite Elric book but it is a good one.