The Jewel in the Skull by Michael Moorcock
Tor trade paperback 2010
Michael Moorcock is one of those big names in speculative fiction whose work I don’t know much about. I greatly enjoyed his Elizabethan fantasy Gloriana and have been planning to delve into his Elric of Melniboné books for some time, but I had not been aware that the latter are actually part of a much larger series called the Eternal Champion – that is, until Tor sent me a copy of The Jewel in the Skull (1967), a trade paperback reprint of the first installment of the adventures of Dorian Hawkmoon, another hero from Moorcock’s multiverse.
On the back cover were blurbs from Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon and epic fantasy heavyweight Tad Williams, a pairing that attests to Moorcock’s impact on speculative fiction and the novel’s intended audience. Leafing through the book, I discovered several full-page, black and white drawings, all done by Vance Kovacs, who also illustrated the book’s front cover. They depicted grim warriors heroically posed in ornate armor, mile-long swords raised against monstrous beasts. Hankering for some good old sword and sorcery, I decided to dig in.
Chabon’s blurb calls Moorcock “the greatest writer of post-Tolkien British fantasy,” but when it comes to the adventures of Hawkmoon, the more appropriate comparison would be the works of Robert E. Howard. The setting here, an ancient, alternate universe Europe, is reminiscent of Conan the Barbarian’s Hyborian world, as are its characters: heroic and brutal, intelligent and savage, clear of conscience and ruthless in its execution. This is the world of Baron Meliadus, ambitious general of the Granbretan Empire; Count Brass, wise and clever Lord Guardian of Karmag, one of the few free cities left in Europe; and of Dorian Hawkmoon, captured rebel leader of the people of Köln, recently annexed to the Granbretan Empire. Eager to conquer Karmag, Meliadus makes a deal with Hawkmoon: if he kidnaps Brass’s daughter, the beautiful Yisselda, and brings her back to the Granbretan capital of Londra, Meliadus will restore Hawkmoon as Duke of Köln – subject to the overlordship of Granbretan, of course. To ensure that Hawkmoon keeps up his part of the deal, Meliadus implants in Hawkmoon’s forehead a jewel that allows Granbretan to see whatever Hawkmoon sees, and, should they see betrayal, enables them to destroy his mind in an instant, no matter where he is.
The Jewel and the Skull was exactly what I was looking for: an exciting, whirlwind adventure where the hero’s heart sings as he charges into battle and nothing is more satisfying than the feel of his long sword cleaving his enemy in twain. I think it’s time I read some more Moorcock.
The trade paperback reprint is a really handsome edition, especially with Kovacs’s illustrations, and while it would be cool if they put out the whole Hawkmoon series in a deluxe omnibus edition, Tor is doing the next best thing by putting out the individual novels on a bi-monthly basis. The next in the series, The Mad God’s Amulet, is out on March 30.
© 2010 Arthur Bangs