Having conquered his upstart cousin and acquired the soul-devouring sword Stormbringer, young emperor Elric sets out to explore the world to learn wisdom and justice so he can transform his people from amoral decadents into virtuous paragons. But his journey does not start out well.
This is the second book in the linear progress of Elric’s story. Our hero is alone in the world, and while searching for the virtuous city of Tanelorn he stumbles upon the corrupt city of Quarzhasaat instead. Deprived of his healing herbs and not having devoured any souls recently, fragile Elric stumbles out of the desert and lies dying in a hovel, tended by an opportunistic boy named Anigh.
Definitely not a good start.
One of the cruel, selfish, and generally mean lords of the city learns about Elric and gives him a poisoned elixir that revives him while simultaneously addicting him and killing him (fantasy pharmacology!), and kidnapping the boy Anigh to boot. To get the antidote and save the boy, Elric must seek out the “Pearl at the Heart of the World” for this evil lord.
Whew! That’s some set-up. But now the real story can begin. Elric sets out into the desert with just scraps of myth and legend to find the Pearl. He battles monsters (including the classic D&D firebeetle) and mercenaries, and befriends a dreamthief named Alnac who guides him to the nomadic desert dwellers and reveals that the Pearl is truly a myth. It isn’t real.
More importantly, the nomad’s princess (“Holy Girl”) is trapped in a coma. Elric feels a powerful kinship to the noble and wise desert peoples, so he agrees to help them save the girl, even if it means he will die of the poison elixir. Alnac tries to save the girl by entering her dreams, but he is killed by the effort. Elric grieves.
Moments later, a second dreamthief arrives. Lady Oone is a master of the craft, and she brings Elric with her into the dream-realm to save the girl.
And then things get real. Or unreal?
As they journey across the seven regions of the dream-realm, Elric is challenged by his hopes and fears, his ambitions and vices, and finds strength and wisdom by bowing to the superior knowledge and instincts of his companions.
I won’t spoil the strange lands, strange peoples, and swashbuckling action, but the story concludes in fantastic fashion. This adventure isn’t physical but psychological, and likewise the treasure is truly just a MacGuffin. The real pay-off is Elric’s strengthening sense of morality and his desire to do good and punish evil. Unfortunately, his particular brand of justice at this early age prevents him from changing his fate or finding new happiness. The last words of the book are especially tragic, and I wonder what echoes and ripples they will cause in future stories.
The ending also serves to illustrate how very different Elric is from conventional fantasy heroes. Glimpsed only in small bits, it would be easy to label Elric a villain or even a monster. The only reason to feel otherwise is to understand where he has come from and where he is trying to go.
Again, I continue to really enjoy the Elric stories. They always blend the familiar and the bizarre in wonderful ways that make me want to go on reading, hoping the stories won’t end.
That’s pretty magical.