Saturday, 19 October 2002
Michael Moorcock: Phoenix in Obsidian (1970)
Edition: Millennium, 1995
Review number: 1127
It took a long time before Michael Moorcock wrote a novel which was in the strict sense a sequel to The Eternal Champion. In between, he had firmed up the concept suggested by that novel, the idea that fantasy heroes were aspects of the same individual, and had begun several of the other series which use it. A long wait for a sequel is often a bad sign, but here Moorcock has been spending his time refining the concept.
In retirement with his beloved Ermizhad, John Daker is called once more to travel between worlds and take up the mantle of Eternal Champion. He becomes another ancient hero returned to save his people, yet no one seems to know who summoned him, or to what purpose. The city of Rowenarc is doomed by an approaching Ice Age, and its inhabitants have given themselves over to despair and sado-masochistic orgies, a darker equivalent to the Dancers at the End of Time, who would have been in Moorcock's mind soon after he wrote Phoenix in Obsidian. Many of Moorcock's novels contain pictures of decadent cultures, and he is superlatively good at delineating them (here, for example, the description is remarkably sparse, but conveys a lot by focusing on Daker's feelings of disgust).
The other major feature of Phoenix in Obsidian is the reluctance of Daker to get involved, to become a hero once again. This is a something of a rarity outside Moorcock, but in his fantasy it is a theme on which many variations are played. Here, there are two aspects: Daker's longing to return to Ermizhad, which gives poignancy to the story, and his distaste for the weapon of the Eternal Champion, the Black Sword that he is sure that he has abjured in the past, even if he can't specifically remember doing so or even precisely why he has done so.
Many of the middle books in Moorcock's large number of fantasy series tend to be lacking in interest compared to the first and last instalments; the first volume introduces the ideas, setting and character, and the third provides the resolution while in between there is frequently only an unwinding of the plot. This is not the case here, though, as the combination of maturing ideas and a new setting have produced an enjoyable novel which is more than the equal of the early Eternal Champion.