7/10 Fun new characters and adventures but a little rushed
The Queen of the Swords is the second book in the Corum series, continuing Corum’s adventures as he battles the gods of chaos. After defeating Lord Arioch and restoring a fragment of order to the world, Corum is faced with growing dangers as the remaining Sword Rulers vow revenge on Corum. Now, Chaos Queen Xiombarg, who rules beyond on another plane, threatens Corum and the mortal world while hordes of Mabden barbarians are conquering what remains of civilized lands.
We pick up right where book 1 left off and are soon thrown into new developments. There are several returning characters and a host of new ones. What makes the story captivating is how Moorcock has expanded the world. We get to see more of these Mabden barbarians, getting to know Glandyth-a-Krae and their king, Lyr-a-Brode. The story also travels to Lywm-an-Esh, the great kingdom only spoken of in book 1. There’s a lot of world-building, especially as we explore the lands of Lywm-an-Esh, the first Mabden kingdom in the series. But once our heroes reach the troubled capital, they then traverse into Queen Xiombarg’s realm in search of a fabled city, the City in the Pyramid. Xiombarg’s realm is full of strange and terrifying places and new adversaries. It’s an inventive realm where Moorcock lets loose all of his coolest ideas, my favorite being a lake of whispering voices. But there’s a catch; the book tries to cover a lot of ground in a small space—it’s shorter than the first book, and it’s noticeable. One particular valley filled with soldiers frozen in place felt like an idea left unexplored; the story needed to move on. There was a sub-plot of chaos followers trying to convert the citizens of Lywm-an-Esh that I think Moorcock could have done more with. What we get is great, but I can’t help but think the book is rushing to the finale.
There’s a late twist regarding the City of the Pyramid (which astute readers might figure out on their own) that was satisfying and well-done. For obvious spoiler reasons, I won’t get into it here, but it helps prime the epic climax.
Joining Corum on his adventures are the traveling poet Jhary-a-Conel, the King without a country Noreg-Dan, and a handful of others that temporarily join, coming and going from the story. Jhary is especially an interesting character as he officially brings the series into Moorcock’s multiverse of the Eternal Champion. As Jhary explains, he is a companion to the Champion and has met them at different times as different people, and Corum is the new Champion. Rhalina also returns and joins Corum on his adventures, but I’m not sure enough was done with her character. Perhaps it’s the style of storytelling Moorcock employs with the series, but most of the characters seem rather static and under-developed. It’s true-to-form for older heroic fantasy, but it’s still something of a flaw for the genre. Our hero, Corum, goes through immense change, but his companions never seem to get their own time in the spotlight.
Two more characters that mark a transition in the series are Lord Arkyn of Law and Queen Xiombarg, both of whom play more significant roles than any of the gods had in the first book. Arkyn has replaced Arioch as the lord of the Five Planes and makes use of his growing influence to aid our heroes. It’s easy for epic fantasy to get lost in the epicness, where even gods become mundane and trite from overuse. But Moorcock maintains the mystique and danger that these beings represent. Even Lord Arkyn, at times, feels cold and distant to our mortal heroes.
Other than perhaps feeling rushed at times and a few exposition dumps, it’s the same quality you can expect as the first book. You’ll still get lengthy descriptions of characters (for better or worse), inventive scenery, great action, and a generally fast pace. Maybe too fast.
I’ve really fallen out of love with epic fantasy over the years. The uncreative attempts of epic fantasy in video games and tabletop games have sucked the intrigue out of the genre for me. Much of the time, it feels like the same old thing, over and over. Going back to older epic fantasy like the Corum books reinvigorates the genre. Moorcock’s ideas and adventures are endlessly creative and fresh. It doesn’t stop feeling epic. That said, as I’ve remarked above, the book does feel rushed as if parts were left out unfinished. The plot still works fine, but one or two ideas we glimpse could have been explored more.