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Book Review: The Whispering Swarm

By (January 19, 2015) One Comment

The Whispering Swarm: Book One of The Sanctuary of the White Friarsthe whispering swarm cover

by Michael Moorcock

Tor, 2015

It’s been a decade since fantasy author Michael Moorcock came out with a new book. An interval like that can feel like an ending, and in Moorcock’s case it would have capped a long and fairly glorious career: an array of books, the “Eternal Champion” series, the great novel Behold the Man, and of course his crowning achievement, the creation of his albino anti-hero, Elric of Melnibone. Moorcock is in his mid-seventies, one of only a small handful of living legends in the science fiction/fantasy genre; a new book feels almost like a miracle at a funeral.

And if one new book feels that way, The Whispering Swarm, Moorcock’s new creation, is astoundingly more, the first book in a projected trilogy called “The Sanctuary of the White Friars.” The gist of the story is that an enchanted enclave called Alsacia has existed in the heart of London for centuries, standing apart from time and adjacent to reality, populated by “White Friars” called Carmelites and trafficked by various figures from both history and fiction. When Alsacia is threatened from the outside for the first time in its history, it looks like the pillars of reality itself might wobble.

Bewilderingly, that nifty-sounding gist of the story is buried under layers and layers and layers of woolgathering, distraction, and thinly-muted autobiography for the bulk of The Whispering Swarm. The main character in the book is Moorcock himself, altered in insolently inconsequential ways, and within moments of stepping into the book, you find yourself reading pages of what clearly had its genesis as a straight-up memoir, starting with the narrator’s earliest years going to movies in postwar London:

Making my way through that particular fog, enjoying it as I always did, I could pretend I was in a movie, especially one of the Hollywood Sherlock Holmes stories. Many of my early memories were actually of movies. Anyone was allowed into the cinemas before they made ‘universal’ and ‘adult’ certificates. Long before they needed an X certificate. The movies were always in black and white and full of fog. It took me years to realise there were other kinds of films. My mother liked musicals, too, but I associate my childhood visits to the local Rialto with a mood of grim melancholy.

This Moorcock stand-in encounters Alsacia, yes, but in The Whispering Swarm it’s almost entirely incidental; the main story here is the story of Michael Moorcock in the early years of his career as a writer and editor of science fiction stories, attending conventions and taking writing gigs in, among other places, America, where we get his first-person musings in their uncut, jotted-down raw state:

Four days later and thoroughly corrupted, I visited my publisher on his beautiful farm in the rolling foothills of the Poconos and I fell in love again. At last I understood the American dream! There was only good to say of it! I had never been nor never ever would’ve or whatever it was they wanted you to say in re communism, the Red Menace, and had no problem with that, but I didn’t necessarily swallow the right-wing view of the engine of Western prosperity and how it had arrived at its current levels of success. I knew how much American wealth had been built on the backs of dead natives, illegal immigrants, slaves and destitute refugees from starving Europe. But the people I met now lived only in a happier present. The future was an optimistic dream. Infectious stuff.

Devout fans of Michael Moorcock’s huge body of fiction – among which I certainly count myself – might stave off the creeping dispappointments of The Whispering Swarm by assuring themselves that the author, who (since the death of Fritz Leiber, anyway) has  been the most intelligent craftsman of the genre, is no doubt playing a very deep, very long game in “The Sanctuary of the White Friars.” The fantasy elements of this first volume are so fickle-seeming and suggestive that in a weird way they offer a hint of hope that Moorcock has worked all this stuff out in great detail on a cork board somewhere and that the reading payoffs of the second and third volumes will be commensurately great.

This is exactly the kind of suspension of disbelief that fans of a writer are always willing to make (it’s also the kind of thing most likely to come back to bite them in their asteroids, and they know it, and yet they keep doing it), and it’s a bit of a stretch in this case, especially given the huge amounts of lazy writing in these pages. We’re told, for instance: “The redheaded Welshman sneered dramatically, as only Welshman can, his eyes bright with aggressive malice.” Our Moorcock-narrator at one point says, “They meant business and I didn’t want to find out what that business was.” People know things in their bones, count their last straws, heave sighs of relief, and so on – exactly the kind of bland, ready-to-hand phrasings that this author rigorously avoided in his earlier works. The cumulative effect gives the impression of a cobbled-together thing, and the two successive volumes will have a lot of work to do in order to counteract that.