Sunday, November 27, 2016

Book Review: The Runestaff series

Book Review: The 'Runestaff' Series by Michael Moorcock

5 / 5 Stars

All four volumes of what is labeled the 'Runestaff' or 'Hawkmoon' series first were published in 1967 - 1969, sometimes with different titles, by Lancer Books in the USA.

The Lancer books series apparently was not endorsed by Moorcock; accordingly, the 'authorized' version of the Hawkmoon series is considered to be that issued by DAW Books: The Jewel in the Skull (January 1977), The Mad God's Amulet (April 1977), The Sword of the Dawn (July 1977) and The Runestaff (September 1977). 

All feature outstanding cover artwork by Richard Clifton-Dey.

[Sequels to the 'Hawkmoon' titles, known collectively as 'The Castle Brass' series, consists of Count Brass (1973), The Champion of Garathorm (1973), and The Quest for Tanelorn (1975).]

The Hawkmoon novels are set several thousand years in the future, in a Europe ruled by Granbretan, i.e., Great Britain. Interestingly, Moorcock makes this far future Granbretan the villain, intent not only on conquering the rest of Europe, but the Middle East.......and perhaps the entire World. 

Opposing the Granbreton empire are an ever-dwindling collection of European provinces. In one such province, called Koln (i.e., Colonge), the Duke, a man named Dorian Hawkmoon, uses his military prowess to defy the Granbretan forces. When Koln finally is defeated by the overwhelming might of the Granbretans, Hawkmoon flees to Kamarg in Souther France, there to ally himself with Count Brass, ruler of Castle Brass.

Succeeding volumes in the series recount the various adventures of Count Brass, Dorian Hawkmoon, his sidekick - the loyal Oladahn - and the cryptic Warrior in Jet and Gold, in their efforts to deter the Granbretans. It becomes increasingly clear with each entry in the series that a mystical artifact known as the Runestaff is directing the actions of Hawkmoon and his compatriots, although Hawkmoon is none too pleased to discover he is a pawn in the schemes of the Runestaff. 

But it is only with aid the of the Runstaff and its accompanying artifacts - the Mad God's Amulet and the Sword of the Dawn - that Hawkmoon can even hope to deter the well-armed hordes of Granbretan soldiery........and their psychotic leader, Baron Meliadus, who has a deep and abiding hatred for Dorian Hawkmoon....... 

The four volumes in the Runestaff series each are under 175 pp in length, meaning that the series can be read relatively quickly. Moorcock's writing is unadorned and direct; there is little if any unnecessary exposition, dialogue is restrained, and the use of short chapters keeps the narrative moving at a quick pace.

It's worth noting that the combined four volumes of the Runestaff series occupies less than 800 pages. The brevity of the series is something I appreciated, given that modern fantasy novels have become extraordinarily bloated and overwritten. For example, the current 'Stormlight Archive' series by Brandon Sanderson has a first volume with 1280 pp, and the second volume,1328 pp. And there are eight more volumes to go........?!

What makes the Runestaff series effective is its villains. The Granbretans are not the reincarnations of past Dark Lords, or a cabal of Evil Mages who use corrupt incantations to direct Dark Forces against their opponents. 

They are in fact a race of aristocrats who are so jaded that only war, and its freedom to carry out all manner of perversions and atrocities, can satisfy them. The Granbretans take delight in raping and pillaging conquered villages, taking in the spectacle of the Sexual Gymnasts (!) at court ceremonies, and casually snuffing out the lives of their slaves and servants. The repellent nature of the Granbretans gives the conflict between them and Hawkmoon a nasty edge that is very much absent from modern-day fantasy series.

Summing up, although Moorcock was in many respects a one-man publishing factory in the 70s, much of what he wrote in that decade was of good quality, and the Hawkmoon / Runestaff series is the equal of the Elric series. 

While picking up the individual volumes is feasible, there are omnibus volumes that can be purchased for very affordable prices from your usual online vendors.

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