Thursday, February 23, 2012

Book Review: 'The Steel Tsar' by Michael Moorcock

3 / 5 Stars

‘The Steel Tsar’ (DAW Book No. 503, October 1981, 160 pp. cover art by Walter Velez) is the third and final volume in Michael Moorcock’s ‘The Nomad of Time’ trilogy, the first two volumes being ‘The Warlord of the Air’ and ‘The Land Leviathan’.

The first half of ‘Tsar’ is the best part of the novel. Residing in an alternate timeline in which Japan wages World War 2 in 1941 against Britain and Russia, our hero Oswald Bastable is witness to the firebombing of Singapore by the Japanese airship fleet. He experiences many dangers in fleeing the city and ultimately finds himself on a remote island, former outpost of a mining firm, where the remnants of the British Empire are swiftly crumbling as the natives grow restless, and the defeat of the White Man and his empire looms large.

Moorcock well captures the mixture of resignation, drunken apathy, and disorientation that gripped the world of the British Pacific colonies as the Japanese swept to victory in the early months of World War 2. It calls very much to mind nonfiction works such as Noel Barber’s ‘Sinister Twilight’.

In the second half of the novel Bastable makes his way to Russia, where the Cossacks are in revolt against the democratic government of Kerensky.

A Georgian, and former priest, named Djugashvili (i.e., Joseph Stalin) has assumed the leadership of the Cossack armies; he goes by the name of The Steel Tsar. Bastable realizes that underneath his rhetoric of liberation and emancipation of the oppressed, the Steel Tsar is a ruthless man who readily will employ violence to become the ruler of the world. 

Will Bastable and a team of wary anarchists and rebels be able to thwart Djugashvili’s plans ? Or will the Steel Tsar emerge victorious against the Russian government, and then turn his eyes to the rest of the planet ?

Overall, ‘The Steel Tsar’ is a quick and not altogether unrewarding read. Moorcock spends a bit too much of the text having his characters engage in debates and conversations about Man’s Destiny, and whether any political system can fulfill the ambitions of such flawed creatures. The cameos by real world figures that gave ‘The Warlord of the Air’ a quirky originality are absent here, and Bastable is rendered more of a passive observer in momentous events, rather than a vital participant.

It’s clear that by the time it came to 'Tsar', Moorcock was running out of creative steam with the 'Nomad of Time' concept, but he did make an effort to wrap things up in a professional, if workmanlike, manner.

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