Elric of Melnibone: Book Review

Well, I need to get caught back up with where I was with the Sword & Laser Book Club, in terms of reviews – and that means it’s time to get back into the Elric Saga, with the pick that I ended up recommending (and which a lot of participants bounced off of) – with Elric of Melnibone, the chronologically first novel by Michael Moorcock in Elric’s saga.

There will be spoilers.

Elric of Melnibone is, fundamentally, a prequel. I don’t have problems with prequels – when you take a road trip, you know where you’re going to end up, but you may not necessarily know the route you’re going to take to get there when you start. That’s what keeps you reading – it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. So, the question becomes – is the journey satisfying?

The answer to that question is a deep and confident “eh”. This is partly because the story is less about how we got to the situation where “The Dreaming City” (the chronologically first published Elric story) starts, but more about how we could get into that situation. This leads to something of a less-than-satisfying trip.

To be on the positive side, a lot of the things that are hallmarks of the Elric series are here. Elric bargains with extraplanar beings. Elric journeys to strange and terrible other planes of existence. Elric has some interactions with Arioch themself and pledges himself their champion. The whole part of the story with Elric making his way to Stormbringer and meeting Rakhir the Red Archer for the first time is fantastic.

The problem is it doesn’t quite stick the landing. This is the rare Elric of Melnibone story where he doesn’t kill anybody with Stormbringer. Additionally, it feels as if this story was written to set up the later stories – like Sailor on the Seas of Fate – which came later. Yes, Elric has to be outside of Melnibone, and Yrkoon inside at the start of “The Dreaming City”, but it’s one thing to have Elric in involuntary exile and Yrkoon as a usurper. It’s something else entirely to have Elric in voluntary exile having chosen to put Yrkoon on the throne while he goes on what is basically a pilgrimage to learn more of the lands outside Melnibone, only for Elric to at some point to realize that putting the guy who tried to murder him so he could claim the throne and boink his sister Cymoril (who is Elric’s fiancee) on the throne and followed it up by leaving him alone with Cymoril was a really terrible idea.

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That is – ultimately, where the book stumbles. It takes a situation where the ending is theoretically a foregone conclusion and goes “what if we screw it up?” Fortunately, so much more of the Elric stories fare so much better than this. However, if you start off beginning at the chronological beginning – a point that even I in my reading order suggest you start, it’s something of a stumble.

Thus, perhaps, it is for the best that so much of the Elric series is available as omnibus editions now, because it gives you the opportunity to just go straight from there into the next book, which is considerably better (whether it’s Sailor on the Seas of Fate or Fortress of the Pearl – depending on the edition).

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