This week I’m reading The Knight of Swords by Michael Moorcock.
The Knight of Swords is the first book in the Swords Trilogy which tells the tale of Corum Jhaelen Irsei, the Prince in the Scarlet Robe, who is an incarnation of the Eternal Champion that exists in many forms to bring Cosmic Balance to the Multiverse.
So, you know, just a little light reading.
Actually I’m being serious. Michael Moorcock has always been daunting to me for the simple reason of where to begin? Moorcock is a prolific writer whose body of work is semi-interconnected with multiple characters and series combining and overlapping to expand on his idea of the Eternal Champion, so the notion of where to start was problematic.
After much thought and dwelling on multiple recommendations I finally settled on the Knight of Swords for the very simple and rather pedestrian notion that it was really short. At 140-odd pages I figured I could plow though it and get my feet wet and decide if I wanted to continue with Moorcock for the long haul. And after finishing it I have to say I am left with a mixed feelings.
But before I get into the specifics of the story I want to talk about Michael Moorcock and why I was so eager to read him. Moorcock is a sci-fi/fantasy writer from the 70s “New Wave” tradition. This was a group of writers that included authors like Philip José Farmer and J. G. Ballard and Harlan Ellison, among many others. They typically wrote in a more experimental, modern style that was less technical or “soft” science fiction. New Wave writers like Moorcock wanted to rebel against the typical notions and cliches of the genre and subvert them and in some cases mock what they regarded as stodgy, outdated ideas.
Moorcock for instance was a critic of writers like J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft whom he saw perpetuating an authoritarian, misogynistic and sometimes racist point of view. He actively sought to turn these ideas on their heads while at the same time using the same tropes and language.
I have always been a fan of New Wave/Modernist writers and was intrigued by Moorcock but, as I said earlier, was just a bit intimidated by the inter-connectivity of the work.
As it turns out I really didn’t need to be. Although The Knight of Swords touches on many of his larger ideas it is for the most part self-contained and not dependent on knowing anything else in Moorcock’s grand theory.
Okay, so what’s it all about?
Corum Jhaelen Irsei, the Prince in the Scarlet Robe, is a member of the Vadhagh an ancient, peace-loving race that is long-lived and dedicated to art and poetry. A new race called the Mabden (men) show up on the scene and immediately wipe out the Vadhagh so that Corum is the last survivor.
Corum is tortured and eventually loses a hand and an eye while prisoner of the Mabden but is able to escape by slipping into another plane. You see there are multiple planes of existence and the Vadhagh were able to fade in and out of them occasionally if they concentrate hard enough. He is then aided by a friendly Bigfoot type creature who takes him to a secluded kingdom of nice Mabden who in turn take him in and he learns to fight and falls in love with their leader, the Margravine Rhalina.
Rhalina and Corum set out to find a sorcerer who gives Corum a replacement hand that is super strong but sometimes has a will of it’s own and kills people and a replacement eye that allows him to see into a netherworld where the last beings killed by Corum exist until summoned.
In return for these gifts the sorcerer sets Corum off on a quest to steal the heart of the Knight of Swords who is in reality a god of Chaos who has created the Mabden and is the cause behind all the death and destruction so far in the story.
Still with me? Hope so because I’m actually leaving a lot out.
Corum eventually meets the Knight of Swords and finds out that he (the Knight) is actually an embodiment of Chaos that is involved in an eternal war between the forces of Law and the forces of Chaos. Whenever one force gets too strong a champion is called to restore balance, the Eternal Champion, and Corum is apparently one. After a creepy encounter Corum steals the heart of the Knight, cruses it with his strong hand and restored Law for a time. All the while knowing that he will be called on again eventually to fight to restore balance in the Force…or something like that.
Is it any good?
Actually yes…and no. There is a whole heck of a lot going on in just 140-odd pages. And I must admit some of the ideas were intriguing and original and very exciting. (The bit when Corum meets the Knight, for instance, is truly creepy. A hell-scape where Mabden crawl over the gigantic body of the Knight like lice eating dead, rotted skin. Really great stuff.) But other times less so. The romance between Rhalina and Corum seems rushed and uninspired. The writing in general seems rushed and I found myself wishing Moorcock took a bit more time to worldbuild or just flesh out a scene. There were great ideas and I wanted him to linger on them just a bit longer.
And the writing style itself is hit or miss. First off it is old-style epic fantasy with lots of “thees” and “thous” which can be tedious from time to time but can be overlooked I find when the story gets interesting. No, the thing that bothered me is that at one moment the writing is beautiful with lines like, “The sentient may perceive and love the universe but the universe can not perceive and love the sentient. The universe sees no distinction between the multitude of creatures and elements which comprise it. All are equal. None are favored.” And then head-shakingly bad with things like, “they sank, again, into the sheets, making gentle love, learning of one another as only those truly in love may.” I suppose this novel being written in 1973 is simply showing it’s age and just hasn’t stood the test of time very well.
All that being said I did enjoy the book and will continue with the next book in the trilogy if nothing else just to see where the story goes. Overall The Knight of Swords did surprise me, it was definitely was not what I expected when I picked it up. So if nothing else, that’s fun.
Hey, What You Reading? is a feature where I periodically talk about what I’m reading. This could be a novel or a short story or a comic book or maybe a pamphlet someone handed me in the parking lot. Anything really. Let me know in the comments what you think or if you have any recommendations based on this or just let me know what you’re reading.