Book Review: Sailor on the Seas of Fate

When I reviewed Fortress of the Pearl, I was partway through the next book in the first of the more recent Elric omnibus collections, and I came to the realization that book was written less with the thought of “How do I fit this story within the larger Elric saga?” and more “I have an Idea for an Elric story – where do I put it?” By contrast, Sailor on the Seas of Fate, which was published soon after Elric of Melnibone, feels like Moorcock continuing with the concepts he had with that first story – setting up the chain of events that lead to where the first published Elric story – “The Dreaming City” – picks up, and in the process further building up the concept of the Eternal Champion Mythos, based on the other incarnations that had been published at this point.

The Daw cover of Sailor on the Seas of Fate.

While Elric of Melnibone & The Fortress of the Pearl were both fairly cohesive novels, Sailor on the Seas of Fate is much more of a fix-up. The novel is made up of, effectively three short stories, with a limited linkage between the three. The first has Elric boarding the Black Ship, a vessel that can travel between universes, leading a crossover between Elric and three other incarnations of the Eternal Champion – Hawkmoon, Corum, and Erekosë – who are tasked with saving the multiverse by slaying two mysterious sorcerers, Gak and Agak, before they can begin feeding on the multiverse. The second has Elric leaving the Black Ship and ending up on an island in a pocket universe controlled by an ancient Melnibonian sorcerer. Elric must put together a plan to escape, alongside Count Smeorgan of the Purple Towns in the Young Kingdoms. The third has Elric and Smeorgan, now somewhat adrift, rescued by an explorer and roped into an expedition to an island in the Boiling Sea that may have information on the origins of the Melnibonian people.

The stories in this novel feel, to an extent, like Moorcock trying to find an entertaining way to check boxes. It introduces Elric himself to his ultimate destiny (even if it buries some of that knowledge in the back of his mind). It introduces Elric to Smeorgan – who will fight alongside him in “The Dreaming City” – while also foreshadowing some of Smeorgan’s fate. And it also fits a lot of the archetypes of the classic Elric story – travel to strange and unreal dimensions, sorcery that is not always trustworthy, strange and cruel fates for those who travel alongside Elric, and people getting killed by Stormbringer.

That said, it does feel like Moorcock feels like at this point Stormbringer itself is something of a cheat – on multiple occasions in these stories Elric ends up fighting opponents that Stormbringer can’t feed on. It gives the vibe of Moorcock thinking he’s written himself into a corner – that Moorcock’s put Elric in a situation where he thinks Stormbringer could too easily get Elric out of it when that’s not really the case. So far (admitting that I haven’t re-read the entirety of the Elric series recently) – all that’s been established that Stormbringer can do for Elric is increase his stamina and some of his physical strength, and (if we jump the publication timeline) some vitality – as demonstrated by Stormbringer staving off the effects of the drug in The Fortress of the Pearl. It doesn’t prevent the wielder from being overwhelmed by sheer numbers or being outclassed in a fight (as demonstrated by Elric beating Yrkoon in the (chronological) first story to get Stormbringer in the first place.

After years of reading fantasy novels where authors pull new abilities out of a hat to explain how the protagonist gets out of one hazardous situation or another, it seems odd to find a book where instead the author has a desperate need to kneecap the protagonist. I’m no stranger to the concept of the diabolus ex machina, but I’m still not accustomed to the author using the same one twice in such close proximity. Normally Moorcock changes up the diabolus ex machinas that keep putting Elric through hell between stories – it’s one of his strengths that he rarely uses the same one twice – and when he does (Stormbringer deciding to kill one of Elric’s allies against Elric’s best efforts), its handled deftly and foreshadowed well.

All of that said, Sailor on the Seas of Fate is still a good read – if nothing else the stories are some very necessary developments to the overall Elric mythos, and does a good job at bringing us to the beginning of “The Dreaming City.”

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