Michael Moorcock, The Ice Schooner (Berkley, 1966)
Michael Moorcock is a singularly prolific writer; the number of novels and short stories that has flowed from the man's pen is almost unforgivable. Over the course of the last twenty years, I've read roughly a hundred of Moorcock's novels, maybe half again the same number of short stories. So when I say that The Ice Schooner may be Moorcock's finest hour, take it with as much salt as necessary, given that I've read such a small amount of his output.
The Ice Schooner is Moorcock's high-fantasy retelling of Moby Dick, but without the two-hundred-odd-page "how to kill, skin, and eat a whale" interruption in Melville's bloated tome. Actually, it's not so much a retelling (as was, say, Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres a retelling of King Lear) as it is a retooling. Instead of a big whale, Konrad Arflane, the book's main character, is on a quest to find the ancient, legendary city of New York. (One wonders if Pierre Boulle read this in the year between its publication and his writing of Planet of the Apes.) The quest comes not from his obsession with the city, but with another's obsession. But still, when it comes right down to it, Arflane and Ahab are more similar than just in name. Certain supporting characters are also recognizable (the similarities run deeper than name, too, in Urquart and Queequeg, and dandyish Manfred has more than a bit of Ishmael about him). The conscious warping of Moby Dick alone would be enough to make this novel stand out with the litt-rat-chaw crowd, where most of Moorcock's stuff is so easily dismissed by most of them. But it's also romance in the finest sense of the word, as the word was used back in the days when Melville was writing. Burly whalemen putting their lives in danger every time they harpoon a whale (and whales do get harpooned here, though not in the living detail rendered them by Melville), star-crossed lovers, and Manfred in the middle of it all, happy to be adventuring, despite (or perhaps because of) the adventure's possibly fatal nature.
A word on the star-crossed lovers. Moorcock has a long tradition in his novels of the traditional love story; even when things look bleakest for his protagonists, their lovers are beacons of hope, no matter how distant. He turns his (and romance's) convention on its head in this novel; from the moment the two lovers are introduced to one another, the air of foreboding in the novel palpably thickens. You know as well as they do things are not going to turn out right for the two of them. For the veteran reader of Moorcock, this is a refreshing change from the norm, especially in the Eternal Champion novels. (Moorcock neophytes may take a different view, as this particular pair of star-crossed lovers is of the most traditional sort: adulterers. And, as we all know, adulterers can never get away with it.)
The one failing the book has is in its ending. The book was originally serialized in a magazine, which may account for the rather rapid fantasy-cliché ending. Still, despite the annoying deus-ex-machina approach Moorcock takes in the last chapter, he does remain true to his characters; Arflane and what little of his company remains when they get to the final confrontation with the white whale-oops, excuse me, New York-act exactly as one who has come to know them through these pages would expect them to. Not that this doesn't keep Moorcock from throwing in a final, unexpected twist or two at the end. Not all the loose threads get neatly tied. (This is a good thing.)
Those of you, and I know you are legion, who have yet to pick up a Michael Moorcock novel, this may be the finest place you could possibly start. All the brooding grandeur of high fantasy without any of the parody of, say, the Kane of Old Mars novels, and far less of the otherworldliness to be found in the Eternal Champion books. Moorcock turns inward here, as Melville did in the book that he wrote as atonement for Moby-Dick (Pierre, ironically Melville's most hated novel by critics and fans alike; at times I think I'm the only person on Earth who thinks it's the best book he ever published), and what he finds is utterly fabulous. **** ½