Sunday 14 November 2010

what I've been reading lately: Moorcock and Manchu

I've long though of the Corum books as the least among Michael Moorcock's works; indeed, they don't match the verve of the End Of Time sequence, the madcap invention of the Cornelius quartet or the elegiac weirdness of the Elric tales at their best. But Moorcock at his closest approach to by-the-numbers epic fantasy is still head and shoulders above the average fantasy hack.

The Corum books begin with the end of an age that was nobler and more beautiful than ours; they follow the sole survivor of this world, Prince Corum Jhaelen Irsei in his attempts to mitigate the damage somehow and re-assert the balance between Law and Chaos by defeating the three Sword Rulers and helping the forces of Law regain some control. For the seasoned Moorcock reader, this immediately signals that Corum is another manifestation of the Eternal Champion and gives the story added resonance in the context of the ongoing struggle between law and chaos in Moorcock's Multiverse.

But even on the level of the first-time reader, what makes these books stand out from contemporaneous hack work by the likes of Brooks or Eddings is the complexity (not mere ambiguity) of Moorcock's moral context, his knack for vivid atmosphere and description, his ability to conjure up an entire culture in a few breathless sentences packed with descriptive lists and most of all, the utter weirdness he can conjure up. His fantasy owes more to the Weird Tales stable of writers than to Tolkien, but he goes one better than Robert E Howard at least in the depth of characterisation and, dare I say it, mastery of plot.

In short, I'm finding myself pleasantly surprised with the Corum books and am now 2/3 of the way through The Queen Of The Swords the second installment of the first Corum trilogy.

I've just finished The Mystery Of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the first of Sax Rohmer's Fu-Manchu thrillers. A lot of contemporary commentators emphasise the racism of these books, hinging as they do on the 'yellow peril'. For myself, I have to say that the racist elements that occasionally creep in hardly interfere with my enjoyment of these thrillingly paced and often very eerie thrillers. Rohmer had a great sense of atmosphere and tension and the weird elements, always amenable to reasonable explanations place these books somewhere on the peripheries of both horror and SF apart from being classic thrillers, I think. I've acquired the whole set of Fu-Manchu omnibus editions released by A&B in the 90s and look forward to revisiting this classic adventure series.

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