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Review of The Skrayling Tree
The Eternal Champion Arrives in America
The destinies of three heroes converge in a mythic city that leads to the root of the Multiverse.
Ulric von Bek is kidnapped, brought through time and space to the golden city set in the American Plains, and tasked with protecting it against an invasion that seeks to destroy the city and its secret. Meanwhile, Oona follows after her missing husband, and finds herself traveling with Hiawatha, of Longfellow's epic poem, and a shaman called White Crow as they, too, are drawn toward the golden city as part of White Crow’s vision quest.
Elric, Last Emperor of Melnibone
In a third story arc, Elric—in his dream of a thousand years—travels from the Crusader States in the Middle East to find the ancient beings that forged the black blade, Stormbringer, so that he might escape his fate upon waking. As he joins with mercenaries and Vikings lead by a masked stranger who are on their way to a fabled golden city across the ocean, Elric begins to suspect they are being manipulated by larger forces with cataclysmic intentions. They do, however, provide him with the means of reaching his own goals, but the cost may be devastating for others.
The Surreal Multiverse
The settings contain many of the bending of rules for time and space that readers expect from Moorcock’s heroic fantasy fiction. The threat to all of existence feel familiar, but the structure of the Multiverse is explained better here than in any other Eternal Champion novel. More interesting than the menace of annihilation, though, is Elric’s personal struggle as he deals with conflicting impulses to use the quest to save himself or the lives of countless others. Just as in The Dreamthief's Daughter, the presence of these personal stakes humanizes the characters and makes them seem believable in unbelievable circumstances.
The proliferation of eccentric minor characters is also a treat. The idea of Longfellow as a scribe who takes his stories and poems from the lives of other inhabitants of the Multiverse comes as an interesting side note. White Crow, the morose shaman who rides a wooly mammoth is equally spectacular in his own right, and the return of other characters, such as the skull-faced Nazi, Klosterheim, ensures the conflict stays vivid in the mind of the reader. Moorcock certainly creates a memorable cast of characters and puts them in a series of conflicts.
Skrayling Tree Themes
As with many of Moorcock’s other novels, this one explores issues of identity and how people determine what constitutes reality. The conflict between fate and free will figures heavily in the sections that involve Ulric and Elric as they attempt to assert their own wills amid the conflict of much larger forces that likely doom them. The question of whether they can even act independently of each other is frequently on their minds. These ideas are also frequently spoken by Hiawatha, Gunnar, and Oona, and it can begin to wear on some readers when so many characters seems to preoccupied by ideas of destiny.
A companion theme to the previous is the consequences of the characters’ actions and whether or not they can be held accountable if their behavior is predestined. Gunnar the Damned, for instance, is a reckless nihilist and is so because he believes he cannot escape his evil fate. Elric has similar ideas, knowing that eventually he must wake and face the dire situation in his own life, regardless of what good or ill deeds he does while in the dream of a thousand years.
Heroic Fiction Continues
The Skrayling Tree is a real triumph for Moorcock. The characters and their predicaments are strange and engaging, the Multiverse seems mythic and powerfully present throughout the whole novel, and the plot pacing rarely lags. As the novel is a sequel to The Dreamthief’s Daughter it may not be the best book to start a foray into Moorcock’s Multiverse, but it is a destination well worth the travel.
Moorcock, Michael. The Skrayling Tree. New York: Aspect Warner Books, 2003.
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© 2010 Seth Tomko