Thursday, 30 September 2010

‘The Runestaff’ – Michael Moorcock (Millennium/Tor)

If you’ve been collecting the Tor editions of the ‘Hawkmoon’ series (and why wouldn’t you, the Vance Kovacs cover art is gorgeous) then you’ll be waiting until December this year for the final instalment to come out. Myself though? I managed to find myself an old second hand copy of the Millennium edition. While the cover art doesn’t match what Kovacs came up with (although it’s not bad at all) the book itself takes up less room on the shelf and I don’t have to hang around waiting until December to read ‘The Runestaff’. I can’t lose really!

I’ve had one hell of a time reading the ‘Hawkmoon’ books these past few weeks and I’m a little sad that the adventure has finally come to an end. Maybe I should have paced myself a little better but there you go. I can’t say that I’ll learn a lesson from this :o)
The last three books have been building up to what promised to be a cracking finale. ‘The Runestaff’ didn’t let us down there...

Hawkmoon chose to ignore the call of the Runestaff, deciding instead to sail home and be with his wife Yisselda. The plans of destiny are not to be altered though and Hawkmoon will have to tread the path that the Runestaff has chosen for him...

Back in Londra, Baron Meliadus’ all consuming hatred of Dorian Hawkmoon has led him not only to go against the commands of his Emperor but to plunge the Dark Empire of Granbretan into all out civil war. Whatever remains of the Empire will be what Hawkmoon faces when Meliadus’ machinations force the return of Castle Brass to its home dimension. No matter what the state of the Empire though, its soldiers still outnumber Hawkmoon’s men by thousands to one though so the final battle looks like it can only go one way, doesn’t it?

As was the case with ‘The Sword of the Dawn’, ‘The Runestaff’ comes across (at times) as not being so much about Hawkmoon itself as it is about the rest of the rest of the supporting characters. This can only be a good thing (and is) as the book is fleshed out substantially and we don’t have a situation where an overabundance of one dimensional characters detract from the impact of Hawkmoon as the lead character. Hawkmoon is a character worth spending time with (not as melancholy as certain of Moorcock’s other incarnations of the Eternal Champion, he just wants to fight for his love and for revenge) and deserves a supporting cast that highlights these positive points.

So, as a result we get to see how Baron Meliadus spirals further into insanity as the result of a misplaced oath (on the Runestaff itself) that influences whatever decisions he makes. His is an object lesson in being careful how you wish for something, especially if you swear an oath on an object of power! All the best intentions of Meliadus count for nothing as the Runestaff throws all his plans into disarray. It’s also very interesting to have the perspective of someone who is totally neutral in the whole affair. Flana’s neutrality (which places her squarely in the middle between Hawkmoon and Meliadus’ excesses) embodies the notion of ‘Balance’ that Moorcock has running throughout his ‘Eternal Champion’ books. This is fully confirmed when you see who inherits the power of the Dark Empire at the end of the book. While I wouldn’t say that Flana is the incarnation of the Eternal Champion in this dimension (it is very obviously Hawkmoon), I still found that the approach employed here enhanced the story itself and placed it firmly in a wider context.

One criticism that you could level at the book is that the Runestaff itself influences destiny to such an extent that there isn’t any real surprise at the outcome of the story. I can certainly see where people might be coming from with that argument as everything is geared at one conclusion with not a lot of room for many (if any) surprises. I for one found myself settling down for a foregone conclusion to the story...

The thing is though; I’d say that this observation is kind of missing the point of the whole thing. ‘The Runestaff’, and the ‘Hawkmoon’ series as a whole, is very much about swashbuckling spectacle (and a classic fight between good and evil) rather than anything else. All the characters have a decent degree of depth to them but are far too polarised to make for a story that can tread a different path. The ‘Hawkmoon’ books are all about an entertaining ride to the climax. If you’ve got this far and are expecting something different then maybe you should switch your attention elsewhere... What I would say though is that Moorcock’s use of the whole ‘and this is how X died’ approach did rob the book of a couple of surprises that it would have been able to comfortably incorporate.

At the risk of repeating earlier reviews, ‘The Runestaff’ has all the ingredients that made the previous three books such an entertaining read. The action doesn’t stop for one minute but it never feels overdone. Instead, I found myself turning pages all the more quickly so that I could keep up with the pace. ‘The Runestaff’ is most definitely a fast paced book, punctuated with well written scenes of combat that are constantly lending fresh impetus to the story (including a finale that is well worth hanging around for). There may not be any surprises but there is a lot of fun to be had here.

Like I said right at the start, I’m a little sad to have got to the end of the series but that’s been more than balanced out by the fun I had reading it. If you’re after a fantasy series that sets out to entertain above all else then give the ‘Hawkmoon’ books a go. ‘The Runestaff’ rounds things off in fine style.

Nine and a Half out of Ten

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