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5.0 out of 5 stars Moorcock's finest mature fantasies - in a dreadful cover, 21 Feb. 2015
By 
Stephen E. Andrews "Writer" (United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Von Bek (Moorcocks Multiverse) (Paperback)
From the mid 1960s until the late 1980s, Moorcock was recognised by readers everywhere as one of the key Fantasy writers to precede the Sword and Sorcery boom that started with Terry Brooks' 'The Sword of Shannara' and that has continued almost unabated until today. Alongside Robert E. Howard, Poul Anderson, Tolkien (yawn), Fritz Leiber, C.L. Moore and Jack Vance, he was one of only a handful of writers who kept Sword and Sorcery alive. Before the Brooks floodgates opened (i.e. when publishers started encouraging writers to merely imitate Tolkien in order to make money from readers who slavishly wanted more of the same in huge quantity instead of quality and originality), it was impossible to fill a bay of shelves in a bookshef with heroic Fantasy novels. At any time, there might be three shelves-worth in print. By 1986, the money previously spent on publishers on SF publishing was being siphoned off for Tolkien rip-offs.

Moorcock used to be a best seller. Reading his Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon, Erekose and related books in his huge meta-series 'The Eternal Champion' (which comprises all of his pubvlished fiction, I'd say) was something you inevitably did if you read Fantasy - if you liked him, you probably preferred the original hard-and-fast, anti-heroic, lean and pulpy (and yet sometimes florid and romantic) school of swordplay and wizardry typified by Howard, Leiber, Anderson, Moore and Vance to the overblown fluffiness, pat moralising and cypher-characters of Tolkien. It's worth pointing out that this original strand of Fantasy writing - that emphasises grit, violence, angst and speed - has been in the ascendency for several years now, accoutning for the popularity of George R R Martin, Joe Abercrombie and other 'realists', who have peopled their stoires with characters with recognisable motivations and realistic shades-of-grey personalities. Sadly, many readers of these contemporary books have never read Moorcock and his peers and the reason is simple: poor and indifferent publishing.

Moorcock was well served when he was published by Mayflower/Panther/Granada/Grafton (all the same company, eventually coming under the HarperCollins aegis in the 1980s - HarperCollins Voyager is of course the name of the Collins SF/FAntasy imprint for the last 20 years). His books were everywhere, most of his mini-series were collected into handy omnibus volumes and if you were lucky, you'd bump into a dedicated genre bookseller (or another fan) in the bookshop who understood how his different series intertwined. Then, around 1990, Moorcock signed a new contract with Phoenix Orion and his books were reissued in the Millennium imprint, in awful quasi-manga jackets. Jumping ship for Gollancz (an imprint of Phoenix Orion), the books went out of print as he went into dispute with Gollancz editorial and generations of Fantasy readers came of age without ever reading his massively important work.

Then, circa 2013, Gollancz and Moorcock made up and a reissue programme started. But instead of putting his books into the handsome Fantasy Masterworks series, Gollancz instead issued his books in the worst covers they've ever had: dull, monotone covers, with tiny circular sigil illustrations (mostly from the dreadful Millennium editions) that just sit on bookshop shelfes without ever being picked up because they look so dull. Meanwhile, Gollancz now long-established Masterworks imprints for SF and Fantasy sell steadily, as new and experienced fans recognise the books as being the equivalent of Penguin Modern Classics for SF/Fantasy in genre form.

Ironically, the two excellent literary Fantasy novels contained in this omnibus ('The War Hound and the World's Pain' and 'City in the Autumn Stars') have been particular victims of these circumstances, as they both appeared in the eighties, so neither of them had long in paperback editions that were attractive enough to encourage buyers to pick them up. Consequently, they never sold as well as the long-established Elric, Hawkmoon and Corum books, even though they are - at least in terms of literary quality - much, much better novels. As much as I love the early Elric books, the Hawkmoon and Corum novels (and don't get me wrong, they're elegant, vivid, fast-moving and full of sophisticated messages despite their magazine origins and styles), I can understand why today's young Fantasy readers might find them thin stuff compared to the vast tomes by the likes of Martin, Abercrombie, Sanderson et al. However, I still think that despite their obviously fabular nature and written-for-late-teens approach, the prose tone colours, imagery, striking imagination and fleetness of these books leaves the plodding likes of most contemporary Fantasy writers standing.

The beauty of the Von Bek books is that they fall somewhere inbetween the short sharpness of Moorcock's earlier fantasies and the overblown gigantism of books like 'A Feast For Crows' (Martin) and 'Before They Are Hanged' (Abercrombie). I mention these novels because they seem to me to represent the problem with the renaissance in more 'realistic, gritty' fantasy - while Martin's early "Song of Ice and Fire" books were hard and fast despite their length, he soon became swayed by the description of him as "the American Tolkien" and started worldbuilding, making his cast and setting huge, plodding and unweildy, losing pace and tension to no good effect (and he's now well and truly bogged down, of course). As for Abercrombie, after a superb start with 'The Blade Itself', he felt he had to do a trilogy and of course this meant a tedious quest volume, when what we really wanted was more of the indolent, drunken, perverse visceral characters he painted so well. In short, the artificial commercial demand that 'If you write Fantasy, then you have to do a trilogy because Tolkien did one,' makes good writers into dull ones. It's all work and no play when you have to adhere to a formula and there's a readership who confuse quantity with quality and mistake comfortable, familiar symbols and ideas with imagination and originality. Besides, 'The Lord of the Rings' was only published in three volumes because bookbinding/printing technology couldn't accomodate such a huge pagecount in one volume in the 1950s. The book isn't really a trilogy at all - it's not three separate novels in the way Peake's 'Gormenghast' books actually are.

I digress. The Von Bek books are excellent entry-point works for new readers of Moorcock as they move swiftly, but have richer, maturer prose than his earlier fantasies, have dark, satanic and alchemical mysteries at their core and troubled characters. While 'The Warhound and the World's Pain' is fairly conventional in plot, it's beautifully muscular and doomy, whereas 'The City in the Autumn Stars; is momentous, meaty and as multi-hued as a vintage tapestry. It's also witty, sophisticated (and for long-term Moorcock readers enjoyably references many other Moorcock works - especially the Cornelius novels -with great flourishes ...but don't woprry, newbies, you won't even notice this and you don't need to yet), full of airships, talking foxes who like reading French Enlightenment philosophers, blackhearted villains and louche, decadent antiheroes. It's a rich and flavoursome book, a plethora of tastes and smells and colours, spattered with incident and escapade. Not only that, it's well written enough to satisfy the literati too.

Another plus point is the fact that these books represent Moorcock at what I believe is the most accomplished phase of his career as a Fantasy writer- the balance is just right here between style, sophistication and energy and invention. Soon after this, his later Elric books became somewhat overblown, inconsistent, vague in their moral messages and at times too flowery and even politically correct in a manner that I've found trying (sorry, Mike, you know I love your stuff generally, but one must speak as one finds). For every striking 'Dragon in the Sword', there's a fuzzy cloud like 'The Fortress of the pearl' and for every refreshing 'White Wolf's Son', there's a similarly misty 'Dreamthief's Daughter'.

So, in short, ignore the dreadful cover and buy this book if you like great Fantasy. If you're new to Moorcock, but have enjoyed Martin and Abercrombie and want to get more sophisticated, this is a good place to start, or if you've only ever read Elric or Hawkmoon, try this more literary material. You won't be sorry.

Stephen E Andrews, author, '100 Must Read Fantasy Novels'
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1 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very good book, 5 Nov. 2013
This review is from: Von Bek (Moorcocks Multiverse) (Paperback)
This book is a very good book. It had me gripped all the way through, this is definitely some of Michael Moorcock's best work. Brett Garrett is a hipster, and this book is one of the best books I've read this year. 5/5!
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Von Bek (Moorcocks Multiverse)
Von Bek (Moorcocks Multiverse) by Michael Moorcock (Paperback - 10 Oct. 2013)
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