Book Review: The King of the Swords by Michael Moorcock

9/10 A whirlwind climax of old-school epic fantasy

After enjoying the peace won by slaying Xiombarg, Corum and his allies are thrust into new uncertainty when a strange madness of anger and hate sweeps through the castle. Are other lands under the same effects? Does it signal the return of chaos? It’s time for Corum to hunt and defeat the last of the Sword Rulers, Mabelode.

Story

Book 3 in the Corum series, the end of the first of two trilogies, starts with a rather horrific premise. Everyone Corum knows and loves is turning violently against one another, and he is joining them. Corum, Rhalina, and Jhary, the traveling poet and fountain of multiverse knowledge introduced in The Queen of the Swords, set out to discover if the rest of the world is falling to the same madness and where might it come from. The three soon enter into the twisting planes of the multiverse where all sorts of strange new threats await them. For the first time in this series, Moorcock takes us into the multiverse of the Eternal Champion setting, showing us what lies beyond the fifteen planes Corum is familiar with (and some very special guests to team up with). But unlike the previous book, our heroes have more direct goals; the adventure doesn’t feel aimless, and we learn a great deal.

While the creativity on display with the planes and multiverse is impressive, the way Moorcock starts stringing together elements that have been in all of the books is is doubly so. Things you didn’t even know to pay attention to come back in huge ways. As often happens in classic heroic fantasy, though, the climax might feel short-lived and we don’t get a check-in with other places to tie-up loose ends, but it comes with the territory.

Characters

Like the story, the characters seemed more fleshed out this time around. We’re no longer spending a single chapter in one place before being thrust forward, we have time to spend with our characters. And both Jhary and Corum see more detail and development. This was a more character-driven story than book 2 which was much more concerned with the adventure and what kind of crazy realm Xiombarg dwells in. Many of our new characters are also presented with greater clarity and detail than secondary characters in the previous two books.

However, Rhalina continues to be left behind, literally this time. Partway through the book, in a move I assume was meant to raise the stakes, Rhalina is plucked from the story when our heroes crash their skyship while traveling between planes. But it felt as if even Moorcock couldn’t figure out what to do with her and just removed her from the story to be plopped in at the end. Again, characters like her and the “romance” between Corum and Rhalina are typical of old fantasy, but it doesn’t make it any less disappointing. More than anything else in the series, it’s the part that has aged the worst.

Writing

Moorcock, in the old style of story-telling he employs, is not overly concerned with describing everything. At times, scenes may even feel rushed without a moment to breathe. And yet, at other times, he’ll stop to over-describe something else (which may not even be important, such as what a character is wearing) while still skimming over things that could use more description. It just seems to be his thing. As noted in previous reviews, you can also expect a lot of emotional telling. At least with the madness that afflicts them, it can be largely forgiven. There’s a lot of style to his writing, just not subtlety.

Conclusion

Though the book is old and is told in an even older style of heroic adventure, it was an excellent finish to the first trilogy. There are downsides with this style of story-telling but many things to enjoy as well. You’ll never be rolling your eyes at the umpteenth time a character spends another page or two of introspection. It’s all action and adventure, full of character, and endlessly creative.

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