The Fortress of the Pearl: Book Review

The Fortress of the Pearl is Michael Moorcock, in 1989, writing a book set between Elric of Melnibone (1972) and Sailor on the Seas of Fate (1976). The current Elric omnibus collections put this in that space in the chronology in their reading order, while my previous video on the Elric reading order recommended reading it significantly later. Re-reading the book now, in its place at the timeline – I think my assessment is accurate, but not necessarily for the reasons that I thought originally.

The Fortress of the Pearl feels like Moorcock going “I want to write a kick-ass Elric story – where’s a place I can put it which has the least baggage? I know, during that 1 year where Elric is wandering the Young Kingdoms.” This leads to this story, handling a previously described incident where Elric has traveled to the kingdom of Quarzhasaat – that once, long ago, had been at war with Melnibone, before a spell by their sorcerers backfired and turned the land around Quarzhasaat into a desert.

Elric, through a degree of semi-fumbling, ends up getting one pulled over on him by an ambitious noble, Lord Gho Fhaazi, who manages to poison Elric and tasks him with retrieving “The Pearl at the Heart of the World”, which can only be obtained through dreams – leading Elric on a journey through the desert to the camp of the nomadic Bauradim, and into the dreams of their holy girl Varadia, working alongside the dream thief Oone. The two must reach the heart of Varadia’s dreams and must save her and in so doing retrieve the pearl.

First off – this is Elric at possibly his coolest. He has well-conceived one-liners, that he employs wonderfully throughout the story, while still maintaining his air of aristocracy and nobility – making Elric feel very much like a swashbuckler. We also, unlike in Elric of Melnibone, see Elric kill people with Stormbringer – and in the process, we also generally get information to make it clear that the people he’s killing are utter scumbags that we can’t necessarily feel too bad about seeing Elric slay – even, again, with Stormbringer. Even the climax of the story, which is Elric bringing a bloody reckoning with Stormbringer, while it has a level of horror – also has a profound sense of catharsis – like if you’d taken the end of Inglorious Basterds, with the movie theater, and instead of having the Basterds, you just had Elric carving through the Nazi high command with Stormbringer.

Also, the women in the story are generally better written. Cymoril is a whole lot of pining and going “Oh, Elric,” and “Curse you, Yrkoon.” and not a whole lot of doing anything. By contrast, Elric absolutely could not have gotten through this story without Oone – and as a minor spoiler – she even gets out alive! Honestly, this is probably the biggest feel-good ending you could possibly ever get in an Elric story.

This isn’t to say the book isn’t without some problems. Probably the biggest one is that the book has a real “Arabian Nights pastiche” vibe – like all the issues people of Middle Eastern and North African descent have raised with the AD&D 2nd Edition Al-Quadim campaign setting. The story, consequently, gave me some real moments of just stopping in the book and going “Really?” when we hit a particularly egregious Orientalist (in the classical sense) stereotype.

Otherwise, the far more minor problem I had came later – as I started reading the earlier (by publication date) story of Sailor on the Seas of Fate – the next volume in the omnibus. That story opens with Elric on the run and commenting on how there has been no place in the Young Kingdoms where he has ever felt welcomed. By contrast, in this story, he is welcomed and embraced by the Bauradim throughout the story, and he seriously considers (briefly, but still) staying with them, and he leaves the story with them asking him to stay. Again – this is a minor fault. Moorcock is telling the story he wants to tell, and isn’t too worried about the small bits of continuity – he knows Elric has to leave because if he doesn’t (again) The Dreaming City doesn’t happen.

Is The Fortress of the Pearl a better jumping-on point to the Elric series than the novel that bears his name? Maybe. But by coming so much later than the rest of the series, as a consequence, it feels much more different from the rest of the series, which is why the transition feels so jarring. However, I had a blast revisiting it, and it absolutely deserves a place in your Elric reading order.

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  1. Pingback: Book Review: Sailor on the Seas of Fate - Breaking it all Down

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