Upon Finishing Elric Part 1

This is the cover art for Elric: Stealer of Souls by Michael Moorcock, the story of Elric, the albino prince of Melnibone and his fall from grace. Beautiful cover art by John Picacio.
Elric of Melnibone wields the the dreaded Black Sword, Stormbringer. Elric, Stealer of Souls by Michael Moorcock. Cover art by John Picacio.

I do a great deal of reading before my shifts at my part time job. The Muzak channel most often played at the restaurant I work for is Family Favorites, whose scant selection of bottom forty eighties songs and Justin Bieber can be heard before Alex or Mike changes it to the Greek channel. At the end of my final semester of my BA, when the reward for finishing Dan Simmons’ Ilium and Olympos was more reading, I finally began the first Ballentine Books (yeah, no relation) version of Elric: Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné. The series starts off with The Stealer of Souls. I sat shivering in a chair as the A/C returns pumped cold air by the front door with my book before me when an effeminate voice came over the Muzak. My head snapped up. I could hardly believe my ears. I had just finished “The Dreaming City”, where the Prince of Ruins gains the title itself, sacking his homeland to rescue his beloved cousin and betrothed. How the mighty do fall. Proud, shining Imryrr, brought down by the very man trying to save her, a tall, effeminate man with pale skin and milk-white hair, lean and sick looking with strange red eyes. The albino lay on the deck of a reaver ship, clutching a black sword to him, hanging on for dear life, and wishing all the while that he were dead.

The song was about Elric.

Well, I very much doubt Coldplay would agree, or even know what I was talking about. But as I sat there, really listening to the song for the first time, though I’d probably heard it a thousand times before, I realized that the song immortalized an elegiac motif in popular culture much the same way Michael Moorcock has done with Elric, sealing the genre and the character forever in subjugated popular culture genre whose denizens probably spend more time in front of a computer than anywhere else and favor thick framed glasses..

“When I Ruled the World” is about a figure whose own power is his undoing. The fictional reality of the song involves a country whose love for their new king is blinding and the king himself is unaware of his fallibility, “The minute I held the key, next the walls had closed on me. And I discovered that my castle stands on pillars of salt and pillars of sand.” Throughout the fictional reality of Elric and the Young Kingdoms, empires rise and empires fall, none so great as Melniboné, the Dragon Empire with her sorcerer kings. She ruled the face of Primal Earth for ten thousand years, doubtless warring with–and eventually conquering–Brian Lumley’s Theemedra. Melniboné had grown vain and decadent, comfortable in her cruelty and complacent in her stability. Then rises this prince, this sickly prince whose vitality and sanity are both in question and who may yet doom Melniboné with his ideas. But it is not his ideas which threaten the Dragon Empire. It is Elric’s own selfishness that drives him from Melniboné to seek knowledge of the world, and it is his selfishness that brings him back to claim the Ruby Throne and save his fiancé and cousin. Only he does not come in peace. Self-preservation is the name of the game for the last emperor of Melniboné. Many fall to the Black Sword, Stormbringer. Elric’s betrothed and beloved cousin, Cymoril, dies on the Black Sword. Elric consumes the very thing he is trying to save, and when escape is impossible, he sacrifices the lives of those who helped him sack his homeland. Elric escapes with his life. Like the novels and short stories that comprise the Chronicle of the Black Sword and Elric’s legacy, there is little hope to be redeemed for past mistakes.

To me the song is about Elric himself and the elegiac atmosphere of the stories. Throughout the song there is something like harmonized moaning that, taken away from the tempo and rhythm of the song, would make quite a choir of sufferers. Listening only to the tune one might think it was a love song. The lyrics are not dark, but they present the listener with little reason to hope and very much to grieve.

Elric carries the death of Cymoril and the fall of his empire with him for the rest of his life. As Elric tries to get back to the person he was before the sacking of Imryrr in The Revenge of the Rose, the last novel in the Ballentine Books collection, the song shifts its meaning a little for me. I have heard it many times over the past year and two months with relish, knowing that it reminds me of the “thin white duke” (David Bowie, I hope, will forgive our appropriation of the title). For my part I remember him with fondness.

The end of “When I Ruled the World” finds the despot contemplating his after life with no small amount of apprehension, “For some reason I can’t explain, I know Saint Peter won’t call my name.” Elric fears neither death nor Hell, as we see in his contempt for his patron deity, Arioch, in Revenge of the Rose. However, his present life holds no meaning for him either. He is a despot, a prince of ruins. Moonglum recalls that Elric is frivolous with wealth and resources and links it to his insouciance, born of a soul with very little interest in material things. What is the point? Knowing the fragility of all wealth and the meaninglessness of the acquisition of wealth, we can expect little else from the albino, whose own wealth and empire he helped to destroy. The irony is that Elric came to realize that the foundations of all empires are built of salt and sand and are at their centers fundamentally decadent, as are “all empires who gloried in gold or conquest or those other ambitions which can never be satisfied but must forever be fed,” (Moorcock 9).

Elric looks back on his life with increasing regret. He misses his homeland and his kinsmen, though each time Elric encounters an old acquaintance or a cast off revenant or refugee, he regrets it, especially when he meets a cousin of his in “Black Petals” (2007). The Revenge of the Rose in particular emulates the atmosphere of “When I Ruled the World”. Moorcock repeatedly narrates Elric elegiacally, often in italics, “There were times when Elric left his friend Moonglum in Tanelorn and ranged the whole world to find a land which seemed enough like his own that he might wish to settle there, but no such land as Melniboné could be a tenth its rival in any place the new mortals might dwell,” (Moorcock Swords and Roses 8). Elric, like the despot of Coldplay’s only good song, has nowhere to go where he will be comfortable. Likewise, his own empire once controlled the factions now called the Young Kingdoms. Elric is considered a legend but also a betrayer. No one, with the exception of Moonglum, can trust him for long. Since the Black Sword must be sated, many of those who ally themselves with the albino find themselves betrayed if not by Elric then certainly by Stormbringer itself, such as the adventurer captain in “The Jade Man’s Eyes”.

As I sit here, listening to the song again, remembering the exact lyrics for posterity, I find myself imagining Elric, perpetually with his back to me while Imryrr smokes and smolders in the back drop. Elric is master of it all: despair, regret, dependence and dark fate. Coldplay may not have meant the song for Elric, but his legacy is such that whether or not it was intended, “When I Ruled the World” is the eulogy for the Prince of Ruins.

He used to rule the world. Seas would rise when he gave the word. Now in the morning he sleeps alone, sweeps the streets he used to own…

Upon Finishing Elric: Revisited

At the time of my completion of The Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné volume five, I had thought the series finished. Elric turned his back on mysel–and Neil Gaiman at the end of Elric: In the Dream Realms–I felt like he was truly gone. “The Portrait in Ivory” left such a definitive close upon my mind, and Neil Gaiman honored the Prince of Ruins with “One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock” (read originally in Smoke and Mirrors). So, the eulogy was read. Now to get on with the business of wondering what the world will be like without the albino.

Today I finished Swords and Roses, released at the very close of 2010. Today I do not feel any sense of closure. Where once I could see no light in the future silhouetting a tall figure in snappy armor, now I know that there was no reason for my depression anyway. Elric will never really go away. His destiny, so cruelly revealed at the end of Stormbringer, will continue to haunt him as Moorcock invents more adventures for him and his short, if somewhat neglected, friend, Moonglum. He, aspect of the Eternal Champion, shall never rest. For the Prince of Ruins, it is the worst possible fate. For readers, it is a dream come true.

Readers will always return to familiar ground, searching for that feeling they found so comforting their first time reading through a certain setting, just as our champion will always search for his homeland in far-away places. As long as there are readers, there will be Elric. So many tortured souls owe their existence to the albino. Every outcast, every wayward warrior, every character who has ever been forced to live a life they’d rather be rid of: Drizzt Do’Urden; Alfred of the Sartan (The Death Gate Cycle); Jonmarc Vahanian (Chronicles of the Necromancer); Titus Crow of Brian Lumley’s invention; my beloved Vlad Dracula; my own characters, Zennith Shadowblast–my Elric tribute; Victor Malace of Ramsgate’s Black Guard. For many years I searched for the roots of these characters and their common pain, the father of all literature’s suffering. At last, after twelve years of writing and twenty years of reading, I found him, staring up at me through the glass case at the UT San Antonio library. He said, “I have always been here.”

I believed him, and though I always detected a hint of unwillingness, Elric has been a steady companion of mine these last fourteen months. I am not sure he enjoyed being shoved into a backpack or oversized purse to be called upon for my amusement. I am not certain he was comfortable bearing forth all his secrets and being forced to relive all of his mistakes. But I needed him, and like the selfish act that brought him to destroy his own city, I drag him along anyway. If Moorcock should chose to give him life again, I would gladly walk beside him, for better or worse.

I was depressed to say the least at the end of In the Dream Realms. I was reminded of what I was losing as Gaiman’s Elric left his young self to his future: that the fictional reality is brief and only gives the illusion of substance, but like Elric’s own necessary herbs and drugs, it is vital to my existence. I feared that he had turned his back for good. At the close of “The Black Petals” as Elric looks into the jungle as if seeing a familiar sight, I know now that he was never destined to leave for long. Always will he lift his crimson eyes, offering his message of stoic determination with a hint of insouciance.

Elric, though a destructive force of his own, stands as a testament to inner strength. His moments of weakness, when even his friends cannot guess his next move, are loaded with suspense and as a reader I am left wondering if even I should trust him. We watch him closely, his friends and I, but when he is needed, his Melnibonéan instincts will play out in uncanny ways. He is the first onto the field, and the last to leave it. He is our greatest fear and our only salvation. The paradoxes are what make him real. In life we are given few choices that we can make with absolute certainty. Bound by Chaos, we are always simultaneously creating and destroying with our decisions, leaving our realities changed forever.

As always, one book must end before another can begin. As I move into the midst of the wild Empire of Granbretan and join forces with Hawkmoon, I walk beside Elric for what must be the last time for a long while, if ever again…

They’re Feasting. That Mean’s Their Safe. Right?

The Sworn is a novel of the Fallen Kings Cycle by Gail Z. Martin. Tris and his friends must defend the Winter Kingdoms from invasion.
The Sworn by Gail Z. Martin. Cover art by Steve Stone.

‘Tris led the way out of the crowded tent to where the entire camp stood staring at the sky gone crimson, as if a glistening curtain of blood shimmered across the dome of the night, blotting out the stars and darkening the moon.

‘Around him, Tris could hear commanders barking orders. Senne, Rallan, Soterius, and Trefor ran for their troops. Soldiers rushed to mobilize, and Tris caught a glimpse of vayash moru taking to the sky.

‘Only the ghosts remained with Tris. Estan raised his face to stare at the glittering, blood-red light. Then he turned to meet Tris’s eye. ‘”It begins.”‘

The end of The Sworn comes as a cruel and unusual shock to one of Gail Z. Martin’s most loyal readers–myself. Her previous books, The Chronicles of the Necromancer, beginning with The Summoner and ending with The Dark Lady’s Chosen, concluded with occasions marking the end of trial and hardships unknown to some of the youngest and freshest heirs to the thrones of the Winter Kingdoms.

The close of Martin’s latest novel does not end this way. The novel builds up to the unresolved climax with omens and prophesies, from the darkness predicted by the mages of Vistimar to the predictions of the Lady made at the disastrous coronation of Queen Berwyn of Principality. Martin’s lack of safe haven, of feasting, portends even greater danger for her next novel, The Dread, already in publication, and also derails from a somewhat predictable trend in her novels.

Feasting has always been an important aspect of Martin’s novels (and has set my stomach to rumbling more than once). A feast is often held in honor of one of her characters–such as Jonmarc Vahanian’s welcome feast as he takes over Dark Haven and the feast held for the adventurers at the end of The Summoner. The humor at the end of The Summoner is so light that hope is obviously not out of the question. Feasting is how the reader knows the characters are in a safe place. When the trenchers of beef stew are brought out, we can all sleep a little easier. The awful portents of doom at the end of The Sworn cast it in stark contrast to the rest of the series.

The Sworn is unique, as Martin pointed out in a release-day blog (www.ascendantkingdoms.com), in that it is useful as an introductory novel to the setting and characters as well as a continuation of the events in The Chronicles of the Necromancer. This novel introduces The Sworn, a nomadic tribe loyal only to those they guard, The Dread, a frightening group of ancient chaotic beings who, in turn, guard an even greater form of chaos, the Nachale. Despite the novel’s title, The Sworn are only part of the bigger picture Martin paints for the Winter Kingdoms. The Sworn are vital to the reader’s understanding of the unfolding events: the threat of a War of Unmaking by the Durim, whose ultimate goal is to resurrect the cult of Shanthadura. In doing so, the Nachale will be released and used as a weapon of the northern kingdoms who have, until this time, remained a mystery.

The Sworn contains all of the usual for Martin: adventure, dark magic, ghosts, a cast of powerful, debonair characters whose obvious talents are tempered by wisdom and caution and, of course, feasts. While Martin is truly a gifted writer, her plots are often predictable, especially concerning the feasting, her obviously powerful central characters and the catch-alls designed to keep readers from throwing themselves in traffic at the thought of more harm coming to such nice people. The Sworn are just such a catch-all. One of the Sworn is Tris Drayke’s cousin, Jair, prince of Dhasson. His wife, Talwyn, is the next in line for chieftain and heiress to the shamanistic powers of her people. Instrumental in discovering the truth about the Durim, their goal is to warn Tris. “Communication” with all allied Kingdoms keeps the novel from spiraling out of control but has the feeling of a catch-all. Fortunately the Winter Kingdoms are run by personal friends of the Summoner King of Margolan, Tris (Tris’ wife, Kiara, is heir to the throne of Isencroft. Berry, or Berwyn, is princess of Principality until the sudden death of her father. Jonmarc Vahanian is her personal champion. King Kalcen of Eastmark is Kiara’s uncle on her mother’s side. Now keep all of that straight for five novels.). However, as each faction learns of the Durim’s goals, the bigger picture is slowly brought into focus, allowing Martin two advantages: complete control of events and an unprecedented amount of suspense.

Tris and Kiara play a much smaller roll in this novel, which is disappointing at best, given Orbit Book’s synopsis that leads the reader to believe Tris will be the center of the novel’s events, as he has been for the entire series. To cast a heretofore unkown character as the central figure of an introductory novel is a bit pretensious (but Orbit seems to have been more confident about the readership than Martin, also providing no Map of the World. Common to most fantasy novels, a Map of the World would most certainly have been nice for anyone new to the story). The figure of Aidanne, new to the cast, is brought much closer to the fore. She is a “Serroquete”, a ghost whore who carries a message vital to Principality’s survival. However, her perspective as a central character shifts at the end of the novel to the role of a spirit pawn. Jonmarc is also very important. His fight against the Durim seems to parallel The Sworn’s. However, Jonmarc has been a pawn of the Dark Lady before, and he continues to be so. Characters who have always been in the foreground, such as Carina and Carroway (central characters for the previous novels) have been pushed all the way to the peripheral, cruel treatment for a character like Carroway, who sacrificed his livelihood to save Queen Kiara and her unborn child in The Dark Lady’s Chosen. Also, the word ‘vampire’ emerges almost as a slip of the tongue at the end of the novel. Vayash Moru is the term used for vampire in the series, and so far the two are not interchangeable.

Martin continues to show improvements as her writing evolves. The end of the novel is refreshing, though understandably disturbing. There is no hope at the end of The Sworn. Graphic description continues to be fundamental but is not overpowering. After all, Martin writes fantasy, not horror. Setting and character continues to dominate Martin’s perspective, and she does not degenerate into the flaw that those without magic are inferior to those with magic. Martin possesses skill in making her readers emotionally invested in her characters. At the end of The Sworn, Martin’s characters face a cataclysmic war. I defy a reader to declair themselves apathetic to that fact.

Sitting on the floor, stomach dropping with the turn of every page, this reader was hit with the realization that the world is on the brink of disaster with no end to the suffering in sight. For one of Gail Z. Martin’s most avid readers, the need for more has become urgent. Martin’s writing is sometimes flawed, but her greatest achievements speak for themselves in her imaginative setting and honest-to-goodness characters. The Dread is slated for release in the fall of 2011. For this writer, that is a long way off indeed.

For more information about Gail Z. Martin and her novels, visit her website at http://www.chroncilesofthenecromancer.com.

The Living Canvas: Star of Texas Tattoo Expo

True Blue Tattoo's Rachel Kolar is cleaning up a blue bonnet and skull motif for her client at The Star of Texas Tattoo Expo
Rachel Kolar working on a skull and blue bonnet traditional motif.

The ninth annual Star of Texas Art Revival and Tattoo Festival opened its doors this weekend at the Palmer Events Center in downtown Austin. Hundreds of vendors and artists from around the country and around the world–as well as the local Austin area–drew their tattoo guns to throw down on the waiting spectators. The throng of avid tattoo-seekers and activists were not disappointed.

The Revival started Friday, January 7th and wrapped up Sunday, January 9th at 8:00pm alongside a very unassuming city-wide garage sale. The tell-tale sign of fresh ink was visible everywhere in the form of Saran Wrapped arms and legs, the skin underneath shining with B12 “goo” and Aquafore, pointing the way to the convention floor. The masses were greeted by the hum and whir of the tattoo gun. The smell of tattoo ink permeated the air, mingled with the not unpleasant scent of nachos. There were no radio stations or public music stands blaring mainstream alternative and heavy metal, dismaying and perhaps boring younger generations looking for a loud, raucous event. The atmosphere was comfortable and unstressed. Those sitting in the tattoo chair may have found the time passing slowly, but their hair was not standing on end. Many vendors and artists had their own music going at their booths. Skingraver Tattoo Studio hosted strong heavy metal, while True Blue moved steadily to the tunes on Rachel Kolar’s iPod. Most booths were content with the whir of the gun.

The event was advertised as an “all ages” so one was not surprised to see mothers with children in strollers or in slings. Teens cruised by the booths, perusing artwork and watching patrons get tattooed. There was something for everyone at the Revival, from vintage Harley Davidson motorcycles to classic and old-fashioned Hot Rod auctions. In addition to being a tattoo festival, The Star of Texas is also an art revival. Many of the pieces on gallery and booth tables were not portfolios, but sale prints and framed artwork from the shops’ various artists. Tattoo contests were held all three days, each day presenting different categories. Saturday featured best black and white, best color, best portrait, and best Texas while the best sleeve and best overall male and female were held on Sunday. Tattoo of the Day contests were held a half hour before closing. Patrons walked the aisles browsing artwork and ogling custom Choppers.

The artists and patrons of Inkrat and Crystal Skull Tattoo sit and converse at the Star of Texas Tattoo Expo in Austin, Texas.
Inkrat and Crystal Skull Tattoo shops of Japan.

Coming across fascinating and uncanny artwork was not a problem. Exhibitor portfolios littered booth tables, available for everyone to admire (or in the case of some artists, to cringe at), some of them from as far away as Tokyo, Japan (InkRat, Crystal Skull) and Rome, Italy (Sezza). Many of the portfolios were labeled with the artists’ name, such as the Misses Olivia Zephyr and Stacey Martin (who also had their own vintage portraits and banners) at Dovetail Tattoo. Artwork ranged from traditionals, inspired by Ed Hardy to family portraits, military motifs, Japanese horimono and movie villains to animal symbols and script. Sharks were very popular as well as dragons, the phoenix and tentacles that might have belonged to animals, but not necessarily. Dovetail Tattoo’s portfolios featured Rainbow Brite and Strawberry Shortcake, while Skingraver’s artwork rose to new heights of the macabre, inspired by something that Lovecraft might have imagined Pickman creating.

Weekend pass holders to the event were able to experience not only the floors of the convention but also free shuttle access from the Embassy Suits to the convention grounds for no extra cost. Those interested in a single day’s excursion were stuck paying for parking at the Palmer Events Center, but fortunately did not have to pay twice to get back in. Neither did those artists and patriots coming and going at the convention itself, for one day pass let the hordes come and go as they pleased, often bringing in outside food for themselves or artists and vendors shuttling supplies (food and tattoo related) from their vans or–for the locals–their shops.

For more information about The Star of Texas Tattoo Art Revival and Festival, or for information about next year’s event, visit their website at www.golivefast.com.