Thursday, 14 July 2011

‘Corum’ – Michael Moorcock (Gollancz)

Would you believe that this was the only decent cover picture I could find on the entire internet? (Taken from my blog post Here last April...)

Something that struck me as a little odd the other day... Go into any second hand book shop and you’re pretty much guaranteed to see shelves absolutely heaving with old books by Michael Moorcock. Seriously, pick any second hand book shop and that’s what you’ll get. Go into any high street book shop and how many Moorcock books will you see? Hardly any, that’s how many; just a couple of the more obvious titles (well... ‘Elric’ mostly although Tor did re-release the ‘Hawkmoon’ books last year) and nothing else. Considering the number of people who make a big deal of the influence on the genre that Moorcock has had its very surprising that this isn’t reflected more on the bookshelves. Unless I’m looking at the wrong bookshelves that is, I could be... Just strikes me as a little odd that publishers haven’t taken the opportunity to cash in on an extensive back catalogue of a very popular author. Oh well, the second hand book shops will be getting my business in the meantime :o)

I read ‘Corum’ a long time ago but my original copy mysteriously disappeared during a house move (or something like that, I have real trouble keeping track of my books sometimes...) As luck would have it though, a random browse in a charity shop saw another copy fall into my hands (see, there was a point to the first paragraph!) and I figured it would sit very nicely in the occasional Moorcock reviews that happen here. It’s been a while since I picked ‘Corum’ up but I was soon reminded of why I’d enjoyed it last time round. I did have a couple of issues with it though...

The time of the Vadhagh has come to an end and it has ended in fire and blood. Prince Corum is the very last of the Vadhagh and his tortures, at the hands of the human Mabden, have driven him half mad. Revenge is the only thing on his mind but two things are about to get in the way of Corum’s quest for vengeance. Corum not only finds himself falling in love with a Mabden woman but will also find that he is part of a much larger battle that encompasses far more than the world he knows. All the fury of the Chaos Lords is turned against Corum for he might just be the hero that can bring their reign to an end...

I was lucky enough to have the first three ‘Corum’ tales (‘The Knight of the Swords’, ‘The Queen of the Swords’ and ‘The King of the Swords’) all handily wrapped up in one collected edition and this meant that I didn’t have to spend any time, in aforementioned second hand book shops, hunting for each individual book in the trilogy. On the other hand though, it did highlight one fairly major issue that I might not have come across if I hadn’t read all three books back to back...

Way back in the day (and we’re talking the late sixties/early seventies here) Michael Moorcock was known for his quite frankly awesome ability to get books written in a matter of days. It’s not really an exaggeration at all to say that in the time it will take me to write this review, Moorcock would more than likely be several chapters into writing a book and would probably have a fair idea of how things were going to finish up by the end of the book.
Looking at these three books though, it would appear that Moorcock’s reputation for speedy writing is based on some very formulaic writing (at least in this case). Each of the three books follows the same pattern to the point where you could take the titles away from each book and not really notice any difference. There’s a big threat to overcome and Corum must undertake a quest in order to win through. There are loads of dangers to overcome (all accompanied by very similar evil villains) and Corum will find out more about the larger role that he has to play. That’s the deal in each of the books.

Now, if a writer is writing to that kind of fierce schedule (bills to pay and all that) then you can’t really blame them to adapting a similar kind of framework to each book in a trilogy; you just can’t. It’s also worth noting that the similarity between books is also in some part down to Moorcock’s examination of his ‘Eternal Champion’ mythos (more on that in a bit). When you’ve essentially read the same book three times in a row though... You’re going to feel like you’re in a bit of a rut by the end. If you’re not careful you’ll end up falling into the ebb and flow of each book rather than following the story itself... What I’m going to suggest here is either buying individual copies of each book or spacing the read out with other stuff in between. The issue will still be there but you can work around it.

The approach taken to the trilogy proved to be more of an issue as the read went on but it also ended up helping things along in the best possible way and made ‘Corum’ a read that I couldn’t help but get into. The energy that Moorcock put into writing these books in such a tight timescale shines through in the writing and powers the plot forward like you wouldn’t believe. There is always something happening and it will more likely than not be solved either by the sword or by the magical items that Corum must carry. Fair play to Moorcock here for avoiding the ‘deus ex machina’ route here, Corum’s magic will get him out of a spot but there is a price to be paid in his very soul...
If you’re after a fast paced ‘Sword and Sorcery’ read then you really can’t go wrong with ‘Corum’. Quests, sword fights and some truly vicious deities and monsters to overcome; in this respect ‘Corum’ has it all and dishes it out to the reader in fine style.

It’s not all just swords and monsters though. Moorcock shows that he can mix commentary into the proceedings as well, no small feat given how short and fast paced the three books are. Moorcock’s examination of Corum as a hero lends another facet to the ‘Eternal Champion’. This time we are given a hero who would really rather be doing any number of other things rather than fighting to keep the Balance. You can’t blame him either; a lot has happened to Corum that he needs to deal with! It’s a good job then that the needs of the Balance eventually dovetail with Corum’s need for revenge on his enemies. Moorcock leaves you wondering what Corum might have done if this wasn’t the case...

It’s also interesting to note Moorcock’s continued exploration of his theme of an ancient races slowly being usurped (by humanity) because of their own decadence. The Vadhagh suffer the same fate as Elric’s people and for the same kinds of reasons. When there’s nowhere left to expand into, all you can do is look inwards and that’s dangerous when new threats are making themselves known. There’s a sad inevitability about the decline of the Vadhagh that kept me reading.

The collection of the three ‘Corum’ stories in one volume raises an issue, over the repetitive nature of each book that readers should bear in mind. The stories themselves though? Pure ‘Sword and Sorcery Gold’ with an edge to them that will get you thinking...

Eight and Three Quarters out of Ten


David Mosley said...

Would you believe that this was the only decent cover picture I could find on the entire internet?

Hi Graeme,

If you're looking for decent cover images of Moorcock's books, might I refer you to the Image Hive at Moorcock's Miscellany, where we have collected scans of virtually every Moorcock book published (certainly in English), the vast majority being high quality. If you would find them useful for any future Moorcock reviews feel free to 'borrow' them for the blog (an acknowledgement would, of course, be appreciated).

Thought your review of Corum itself was very fair and made some good points. I think the second Corum trilogy is better than the first but the first is nothing to be ashamed of.


Lagomorph Rex said...

The last time the Moorcocks were published in a format I'd actually have paid for.. was when White Wolf released their enormous "Eternal Champion" series..

I've got quite a few volumes from that.. but some of them are purely ludicrous price wise on the secondary market. I'd really like to see these volumes re-printed the same was Tor chose to re-print the Sci-Fi book club omnibuses of Black Company.

Tor didn't really help matters by releasing 4, 200 page novels for 14.99 each either.

Graeme Flory said...

Hi David,

That'll teach me to do a little more poking around than just a Google image search... I found the cover I was looking for within a couple of minutes of clicking on the link! Thanks for the kind offer, it's one I'll take you up and I will of course acknowledge my borrowings.

It's been a long time since I read the second Corum trilogy but I do remember getting a lot more out of it than ther first (although, like you said, there's nothing wrong with the first). I'm hoping to read it very soon.

Lagomorph - I think you might be talking about the same editions that I'm always on the lookout for. Did White Wolf and Gollancz release their series at roughly the same time (UK and US)?
I'd love to own more of these books but picking them up second hand (online) is far too expensive for me. Oh well, back to the second hand bookshops... ;o)

Daivd Mosley said...

Did White Wolf and Gollancz release their series at roughly the same time (UK and US)?

The Gollancz omnibuses were originally published by Orion Books/Millennium in 1992-3 in hardcover and trade paperback editions. These were put out very quickly and there wasn't much time for revisions (although Moorcock did substantially revise the third Oswald Bastable novel, The Steel Tsar, for the sixth UK volume A Nomad of the Time Streams. (Incidentally this also included the first uncensored version of The Warlord of the Air ever published in the UK.)

The White Wolf omnibuses were originally published (in hardcover) between 1994-2000. The two series were not identical in composition (due to copyright availability) and the reading order was amended for the US market with more emphasis on the fantasy titles. (Details of the series differences can be found here.) The longer lead time in preparing the US series meant that Moorcock and series editor John Davey were able to spend more time ensuring the White Wolf texts were as 'definitive' as possible and a greater degree of textual revision was undertaken. (Details of the revisions can be found here.)

White Wolf published the series in trade paperbacks editions between 1996-2001 (with minor textual amendments made based on errors discovered in their hardcover eds.) but White Wolf's financial situation in 2001-2 meant the final three volumes of the US series were never published in trade pbk format. Consequently they have become the most expensive of the US hardcover editions since collectors wanting to complete the set can't get them in trade volumes.

(It's worth noting at this junction the the ninth US omnibus, Kane of Old Mars - which wasn't included in the UK series - appears, for some reason, to be quite expensive on the secondary market but is *textually identical* to the generally far cheaper UK Warrior of Mars omnibus published by New English Library in the early '80s!)

Orion/Millennium (later Gollancz) then published the UK series in mass-market paperback editions (which are the ones you appear to have) between 1995-7 using the revised White Wolf texts, so are generally more definitive texts than the UK hardcover/trade volumes.

Anonymous said...

I've got the same edition as you. Corum is probably my favourite of Moorcock's books (I think I read up to vol. 8 of the Eternal Champion series) closely followed by Elric, Hawkmoon and Von Bek. I've got Moorcock's Between the Wars series on my shelf so I think I'll try those soon.

Mark Lawrence said...

Glad to see you reviewing these. I don't know where the copies I scavenged from 2nd hand shops as a kid in the late 70s are - I would like to read them again. I don't know what I'd make of them now but certainly at the time they had a huge impact. The man has a tremendous imagination and I thought he captured some special essense of fantasy in these books. The covers I remember for 'The Oak and the Ram' and 'The Sword and the Stallion' aren't in the Image Hive and I like them better than the ones that are...

Anonymous said...

Hi Graeme,
Thanks for the generous reviews! I thought it worth mentioning here that I'm in the process of signing as new contract with Orion/VG to put pretty much all my fiction in print and e-form. The reason why so few of the titles are out there is that I deliberately let some titles go out of print because the original contract I had with Orion was flawed. However, probably from early 2013 on we'll begin the process of restoring pretty much everything to print. Meanwhile the Bastable series will soon appear from Trident USA. I agree, by the way, that the TOR books were good looking and nicely published but were way overpriced. I have this dream of my books being published in the small, handy format Penguin did some Simenons in a few years ago and at a low cover price. But apparently booksellers don't like this format/price structure because it uses up too much shelf space for too little profit. So, while they go bankrupt, the e-books survive!
Mike Moorcock

Graeme Flory said...

Hi Mike,

I really need to check my comments a bit more often... I'd heard that something was happening with your back catalogue but it's always good to have it confirmed straight from the source. I'm looking forward to filling in some of the gaps in my collection, bring on 2013!

Guy said...

Graeme and readers:
Here's the news on the reissue programme.
I'm thrilled to see it!
Guy Lawley