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The Dreamthief's Daughter
Earthlight paperback £6.99
review by Patrick Hudson
Nazis always make great villains: I think it's the uniforms. Other villains - commies, terrorists, druggies - just don't have the same sense of style. Michael Moorcock has always had a great sense of style and his villains have often been Nazis in one guise or another. The Pan Tangan's in the Elric series, Gran Bretan in the Runestaff novels and the Empire in the Bastable series were all Nazis in their evil appetites, world dominating ambitions and slick dress sense. In his latest novel, The Dreamthief's Daughter, Moorcock has a go at the real thing.
The action begins in Germany when the Nazis come calling on Ulrich, Graf von Bek. Von Bek is the last surviving descendant of Ulric von Bek, the knight who found the Holy Grail in the Von Bek series written in the 1980s, and the Nazis are after the Grail and, ominously, a black sword. Soon, von Bek, is unwillingly drawn into the battle of cosmic forces, and joins Elric of Melniboné to fight the threat of the Nazis who are trying to recover the artefacts that would give them the power they need to take over the world and perhaps the entire multiverse. Along the way he meets a number of familiar characters from Moorcock's earlier work, and travels to Melniboné, Tanelorn and some of the further flung reaches of the multiverse.
In this thoughtful novel, Moorcock takes as his starting point the Nazi obsession with myth and the occult and knits it into his multiverse, portraying World War Two as another expression of the apocalyptic conflicts of his earlier series. The images of heroic fantasy, drawn from Nordic and Germanic myth are attached directly to Nazi symbolism and ideology in a way that illuminates both the conflict and the imagery that still permeates much fantasy. The image of the great Aryan hero - be it Conan, Aragorn or Arthur - is shown up as a lie, committing appalling slaughter as he declaims the nobleness of purpose. This is contrasted with the weary, troubled figure of von Bek, who fights for a quiet life and a peaceful home and counsels caution before violence. Seen through von Bek's eyes, Elric is also portrayed as a terrifying figure, a force for chaos and death even when fighting on the side of right.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Michael Moorcock more or less invented modern fantasy. He picked up on the threads left by the American pulp fantasists - Robert E. Howard, Fritz Lieber, Clark Ashton Smith and Jack Vance - and drew them together with the English tradition of Lewis, Tolkien and White, for whom fantasy was not just adventure fiction, but also a statement of moral purpose. Moorcock brought a distinctly radical voice to the genre and the Elric stories turned the reactionary nature of fantasy on its head. Where Conan is a muscular hero who fights his way to become a king, Elric is a weakling who gives away a kingdom at the start of his career. Where Frodo Baggins' quest is to destroy an evil artefact, Elric wields an evil, soul-sucking sword. Where Fafrhd and Grey Mouser are cheerful and carousing, Elric is gloomy and pessimistic.
Over the four decades since the first Elric stories first appeared, Moorcock has expanded the world of Elric into a labyrinth of connected realities known as the multiverse. In each version of reality, the Eternal Champion replays the story of his war against entropy, sometimes on the side of law, some times on the side of chaos. Elric was joined - quite literally on a couple of occasions - by Hawkmoon, Corum, and Erekose, among others, whose stories always echoed the stories of Elric, and each other.
Over the many novels connected to the multiverse concept, Moorcock examines apocalyptic conflicts again and again. The war itself is often doomed and pointless - Elric fights to defeat chaos, even though he and the world he knows are doomed to be destroyed and forgotten. He vividly portrays the sacrifices his heroes make when they take up the sword and the path to victory is frequently strewn with the bodies of his friends and lovers.
But the Eternal Champion does not fight for glory or even survival. The champion fights for the Balance, the principal that holds Law and Chaos in check. The opponents of the Champion are inevitably those who would force an excess of either Law or Chaos on the world and destroy the balance. These are the sources of evil in Moorcock's fiction, the tyrants and oppressors who force their narrow worldview on everyone around them.
In The Dreamthief's Daughter, one gets the sense that Moorcock is looking back on his numerous tales of the Eternal Champion, trying to figure out what it all means. It is a picaresque tale, almost in the style of fantasies of the 18th and 19th century, which are frequently referred to in the text. Von Bek's first person narration displays the genteel learning of an old world gentleman, as well as a tendency to philosophise and postulate. It brings to mind Gulliver's Travels and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, as well as the work of Wells, and Huxley's Brave New World. In all of these a traveller from our world visits a far away place and comments on their queer customs, and worked as a commentary on their times, sometimes light-hearted, sometimes deadly serious. The Dreamthief's Daughter takes as its subject the fantasy genre, its historical roots and its relationship with the real world.
When I began, I wondered if there was anything more to say about Elric and the multiverse that hadn't already been covered in Moorcock's many explorations of the setting. It would be easy for a writer like Moorcock to rest on his laurels and turn out potboiling sequels, but this novel covers new ground and provides fresh insight into the character, the setting, and the fantasy genre. This is the first in a trilogy and I await the future episodes with great interest.
tZ - interview with author, Michael Moorcock
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