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The Whispering Swarm
by Michael Moorcock
Tor, $26.99, 480pp
Published: January 2015

I really wanted to like this book.

Michael Moorcock is one of the formative writers of my youth, I spent my teens curled up with dog-eared copies of his novels, drinking in the exploits of the eternal champion in all his incarnations: Elric, Corum and Hawkmoon. Especially Elric.

So I was stoked to see he had a new series coming, and jumped at the opportunity to review it.

Sadly, The Whispering Swarm didn’t wow me like his earlier works.  But not for lack of trying.

Pitched as a tale about a group of monks who established a mysterious sanctuary in the heart of London during the reign of King Henry III, The Whispering Swarm confounded me almost immediately.

Mostly because it starts as autobiography. Moorcock recounting his early life growing up in post-war London, entering the publishing business, starting a family and engaging in swashbuckling adventures with legendary characters in a hidden part of London where time does not change.

Yep, Moorcock pulls a nice switch, transforming his stream of consciousness biography into a tale of high adventure filled with such larger than life literary figures as the Three Musketeers as well as historical figures like Andrew Marvell and Prince Rupert of the Rhine.

Moorcock eases the reader into his adventures slowly, the first third of the novel is primarily biography, the middle interweaves his real-world adventures with his initial forays into this alternate London, known as the Sanctuary, or Alsacia, while the final third is firmly in the realm of fantasy.

He first discovers Alsacia as a teen, working as editor of Tarzan Adventures magazine. Encountering a mysterious monk in a pub on Fleet Street, he is invited back to the monk’s home in Alsacia. Here he first meets the mysterious Moll Midnight, a dashing red-haired woman he initially mistakes for an actress. Soon however, he is robbing trains on horseback with the bold highwaywoman, a’la Dick Turpin (who also frequents the same pub in Alsacia).

Despite the thrill, he is hesitant to return, however, concentrating on his burgeoning writing career and his new wife, Helena. He does not forget his adventure in Alsacia, however, and it becomes the basis of his early work in pulp magazines. Or so he claims – my non-literary encounters with Moorcock’s work seemed to owe quite a bit to psychedelics, which would provide a more sensible excuse.

As he grows more successful throughout the ’60s, Moorcock finds himself plagued by a strange sort of tinnitus, the titular “Whispering Swarm”, which eventually draws him back to the Sanctuary and Alsacia. He learns the secrets behind the mysterious order of the White Friars, and becomes a character in his own adventure novel, albeit at a heavy price when both realities begin to spill over into each other.

As Moorcock writes:

“Memory is the foundation of identity…. We rewrite our own memories, of course, all the time. We create fresh narratives to use in our survival. We agree on fresh histories enabling us to take action. It is part of what makes us such flawed creatures. Creatures of narrative fiction creating cause and effect…. We are protagonists in our own novels.”

As I said, this was an intriguing premise, and The Whispering Swarm is gorgeously written. His adventures in Alsacia make me question the voracity of his real-life experiences, even if some were verifiable — Moorcock was the youngest editor of Tarzan Adventures, he was a guest of honor at the 1967 WorldCon in New York City. He was also a part-time rock musician, fronting a band called “The Deep Fix”.

Moorcock even throws nods to his own narrative creations, like Elric, Jerry Cornelius and even Karl Glogauer from Behold the Man, into his experiences in Alsacia. The monks and the cavaliers he encounters live in a world of universal absolutes, Law and Chaos, and we see the same figures affecting time and space in different places in our own universe. He is taking the underlying ideas from the rest of his works and applying them to his own life and our world history.

An ambitious conceit, which unfortunately didn’t quite work for me.

I can’t even really pinpoint where it fell apart. I liked the idea, I liked the writing but the story left me a little cold. When we were in Alsacia I wanted more biography, when we were dealing with domestic issues I wanted more adventure. And most of all I wanted some sort of explanation of the fuzzy metaphysics that became the focus of the finale.

There are still two more books to go in “The Chronicles of the White Friars”, so I look forward to learning more, even if The Whispering Swarm will never hold the same place as Stormbringer, Behold the Man, Gloriana or The Dancers at the End of Time. ~~ Michael Senft

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