The Stealer of Souls Reviewed

According to my quick, back of the envelope calculations, Michael Moorcock must have been around twenty-one years old when he started writing this book. It doesn’t show. For the few of you who have not heard of it, Stealer of Souls is the first book in the Elric series, which follows the adventures of Moorcock’s doomed albino hero through the world of The Young Kingdoms. It is one of the most influential, and in my opinion, greatest sword and sorcery series of all time. It’s inspired everyone from game designers to heavy metal bands to fantasy writers.

Saying this is the first book in the series invites all manner of confusion in the same way as referring to A New Hope as the first Star Wars movie does. Stealer of Souls was the first of the books to be written but since that time the Elric saga has sprawled in all sorts of directions chronologically so that there are books such as Elric of Melibone that technically precede it in the timeline. The Stealer of Souls remains the first in the series for me, though. It was the first Elric book I ever read, sometime in 1971 in the old psychedelically covered Mayflower edition.

The book is a fix-up, a collection of linked novellas that first appeared in John Carnell’s Science Fantasy between 1961/62. It demonstrates Moorcock’s many virtues as a writer of pulp fantasy. Each novella compresses as much into its sub-12000 word length as most modern fantasy novels manage in ten times that length.

In the first story The Dreaming City we meet Elric and the collection of human rulers who plan to loot his home Immryr,  capital of the fallen empire of Melnibone which Elric is, in theory, the ruler of. Elric is an albino sorcerer, symbiotically linked with his vampiric runesword Stormbringer. He is scheming to bring down the last remnants of an empire that has lasted 10000 years in the company of a bunch of greedy, ruthless human rulers, and he is doing it for his own reasons. He wants revenge on Yrkoon who has usurped his throne and placed Elric’s lover, Yrkoon’s sister Cymoril, under a spell of eternal sleep. By the end of the story, Immryr is in ruins, mighty sorceries have been worked, dragons and monstrous magical ships have been unleashed. Pretty much everybody except Elric comes to a sticky end. This is a series that starts as it means to go on.

While the Gods Laugh tells the tale of Elric’s quest for the Dead God’s book in the company of the wingless woman of Myyrrhn, Shaarilla. It introduces Elric’s long-term sidekick Moonglum, and features a quest across haunted lands and right out of the world and into an extra-dimensional realm ruled over by the Book’s demonic Keeper.

The Stealer of Souls has Elric recruited to slay the merchant Nikorn of Ilmar by his competitors. He takes the job in order to get revenge on Nikorn’s guardian mage, Elric’s old rival Theleb K’aarna, a sorcerer of Pan Tang and would-be lover of Elric’s former paramour Yishana Queen of Jharkor. Naturally, things go horribly wrong as the story flashes towards its dire conclusion.

Three Kings in Darkness finds Elric in the corrupt somewhat post-Apocalyptic Kingdom of Org, where the plan to defraud the local ruler goes more than a little wrong in the teeth of an undead assault. In a move most unusual for a sword and sorcery hero Elric meets his soon-to-be wife during the course of this adventure.

The Flame Bringers sees Elric and Moonglum set out to stop the Mongol-like horde of Terarn Gashtek in order to save Elric’s new home city of Kaarlak in the Weeping Wastes. Using a combination of sorcery and dragonpower, the mission is accomplished.

These extremely bare summaries don’t begin to communicate what Moorcock achieves in this book or how they demonstrate his virtues as a writer. The stories are small miracles of compression.

Most of the tales open with situations that other writers would have used for a whole novel. They imply a web of backstory and personal relationships that tell you a lot about the world with a minimum of fuss.

They are written in a style very different from the single point of view, show don’t tell fashion that is common today, and yet they work very well. Moorcock uses direct exposition, but usually, it’s only a couple of sentences that tell you exactly what you need to know and which slow down the story not at all. Everything moves at a cracking pace. There are mighty feats of sorcery and of swordsmanship. It’s everything you could ask for in a S&S novel and a little bit more.

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  1. As a wordsmith myself… i’m more influenced by Corum than Elric. Mostly because Corum was the first work of Moorcock i knew and read. While he Gods laugh has, for me, one of the best ways to end a story. At the time when i read it, because was so different from all i knew. A very logical ending, i think. i can’t imagine that story with another final act.

    Btw, and a bit related to Moorcock: Why his books must suffer from such awful covers?

    • The cover I chose is from the 60s, Deka, which probably goes a long way to explaining why it’s so awful. Some of the Michael Whelan Elric covers are lovely though. I am a big fan of Corum and Hawkmoon too. I am currently rereading the Runestaff series and enjoying it too.

      • The Runestaff is great. At first i tought it was weird he delayed so much until Hawkmoon is introduced, but i suppose he wanted to show us the world first.

  2. Gordan Jovanovski says:

    I think you did a fair job of summarizing each of the stories. For me the Stormbringer stories were the most well put together of the original series. Over all though I’m not as into Moorcock’s work as others. Just don’t quite do it for me. There are interesting elements and it’s certainly influential but I’d rather Robert E. Howard’s work.

    On a slightly unrelated note, I read Spider God the day it was released and was quite pleased with it. Belal reminded me quite a bit of Elric in fact so it’s very appropriate you’ve made this post. Vampiric swords, berserk heroes, and everyone’s favorite arachnophobia inducing villains and a good cliff hanger to top it all off. Definitely looking forward to seeing more!

    • Thanks for the kind words about Spider God, Gordan. I agree with you about Stormbringer being the best put together of the original series. I like Moorcock and Howard about equally but comparing them is like comparing apples and oranges. They are both great but at different things.

      Howard is unbeatable for a driving single story narrative and a feeling of reality in his world building.

      Moorcock is stronger on long form narratives and an implied web of interpersonal relationships and backstories. That was something that really struck me reading Stealer of Souls this time around.

      • Gordan Jovanovski says:

        That’s true, they are noticeably different. You’ve hit the nail on the head about Howard, for sure. I think some of his adventurous energy came through in his work very naturally. Always an adventure with him.

        On the other hand, I personally liked the strange magical bits of Elric’s stories the most. The vampiric demon sword that turns out to be far more sentient and malevolent than it ever seemed, and that wonderfully weird, warped chaos outbreak at the end. Elric being a sorcerer himself naturally made expounding on these subjects much easier. What you said holds true, though. Moorcock does smooth out his long term plans more finely than Howard.

        Whichever one might prefer though I can see the influence in your work and think you’ve managed a wonderful blending of the two.

        • That’s very flattering, Gordan. Moorcock and Howard were my two biggest influences. I read them at an age when they boggled my mind.

          I loved the sorcery stuff in Elric, like the summonings of the elementals and the Beast Lords, particularly the scenes that slid out to the point of view of the Beast Lords themselves. And the Chaos fleet haunts me to this day, an astonishingly vivid image.

  3. Rex Fausett says:

    Always liked Moorcock whom I started reading about that 1971 date. My favourite has been the Dancers at the End of Time series. What a wonderful imagination.

  4. The problem is that The Dreaming City is the first, the best, the most perfect story. There’s an argument to be made for The Stealer of Souls. After that third story Moorcock got fed up with a character and repeatedly tried to retire him. Everything written afterwards, though good, doesn’t achieve the heights of that first story. Also there’s the fact that Moorcock’s work became more fantastical later. By the time Elric reached the USA the first story written was buried in the middle of a series which was inconsistent in style and level of magic etc.

    The Dreaming City would make a great film.

    • I agree about The Dreaming City being the most perfect story in Stealer of Souls. I seem to recall reading an article where Moorcock claimed he got fed up writing the series after Stealer of Souls (the novella) too. Thing is he changes his stories about these things over time so it’s hard to tell how seriously to take that. I would be sorry to have missed the stories in Stormbringer though and The Sleeping Sorceress is a personal favourite of mine. The Dreaming City would indeed make a great movie.

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