Friday, 12 March 1999

Michael Moorcock: The Jewel in the Skull (1967)

Edition: Granada, 1979
Review number: 221

The first of Moorcock's Runestaff series really sets the tone of his mature style. Like many of his fantasy novels, it fits in with his ideas about the Eternal Champion, which is a mechanism by which all his heroes are in fact more or less interchangeable aspects of one archetypal hero.

The atmosphere of the book is typical of Moorcock. It is set in a Europe far into the future, in a civilisation recovered after a nuclear holocaust. The Dark Empire of Granbretan is where most of the atmosphere is generated; this is done with little bits of descriptive writing, using symbols to evoke an emotional response: the best-masks, the dark dungeons and alchemical experimentation, the grotesque Emperor Huon. This is an empire whose legions are gradually extending it through the whole of Europe, maintaining an iron grip on the conquered populace.

Dorian Hawkmoon, the Duke of Köln, was captured by Granbretan while attempting to lead a revolt in his country, overrun by the Empire some years before. Now he is to be used against Count Brass, who has kept the Kamarg safe from the Empire and who has recently humiliated the Granbretan envoy, the sinister Baron Meliadus. Sent to betray Count Brass, Hawkmoon has a black jewel implanted in his skull by Granbretan alchemists. This not only enables them to spy on what he is doing and saying, but makes it possible to kill him from a distance at the slightest hint that he might turn against them.

Hawkmoon comes to admire Count Brass and his daughter Yisselda, and the Count uses his own knowledge of sorcery, by which he immediately recognised the Black Jewel for what it was, to temporarily neutralise it. There are now two tasks facing Hawkmoon: to destroy the armies of the Dark Empire, now massed on the borders of Kamarg, and to find a more skilled sorcerer who can destroy the power of the jewel permanently.

Exciting and atmospheric, The Jewel in the Skull is a fine introduction to Moorcock's first mature fantasy series.

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