THE JEWEL IN THE SKULL
by Michael Moorcock
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
I was first introduced to the writing of Michael Moorcock shortly after I discovered Dungeons and Dragons in the late 1970s. It was an excellent time to have found Moorcock’s writing since DAW Books began to reprint many of Moorcock’s novels in 1976. After beginning with the six Elric books, I searched out his other books, eventually finding the Dorian Hawkmoon books, which comprised two series of four and three books each.
In the first novel, The Jewel in the Skull, the reader was introduced to Dorian Hawkmoon, the Duke of Köln, a recalcitrant nobleman who opposed his duchy’s position as a vassal state to the evil Granbretan empire. Although the world Dorian Hawkmoon and his companions moved through played with the tropes of high fantasy, it was clear that they lived in a post-apocalyptic world. What also made this world interesting was that the empire based on Great Britain was clearly the bad guys while the Germans, still frequently depicted in the shadow of World War II, gave this world its greatest hero.
The Jewel in the Skull opens by focusing on Count Brass, the ruler of the Kamarg, a wasted region. Brass is visited by Baron Meliadus, an emissary of Granbretan who wants to use Brass’s knowledge of the courts of Europe to help conquer them. Although Brass sees the usefulness of a united Europe, he disagrees with the degenerate manner in which he sees Granbretan being ruled. Rebuffed politically by Brass and romantically by Brass’s daughter Yisselda, Meliadus swears an oath to destroy them.
Following his defeat, the rebellious duke Dorian Hawkmoon is brought to Londres, the capital of Granbretan and offered his life if he will aid Baron Meliadus in his quest for vengeance against Brass. Hawkmoon agrees and a pulsing jewel is embedded in his foreheard to ensure his loyalty. Brass recognizes the jewel for what it is and successfully, if temporarily, deactivates it, making a comrade of Hawkmoon and sending him to the distant eastern city of Hamadan to seek a permanent cure, only to once again find himself facing Baron Meliadus.
One of the strengths of the sword-and-sorcery novels Moorcock published in the 1960s, of which The Jewel in the Skull is an excellent example, is that he incorporated many ideas that just seemed really cool. The most obvious is the jewel in Hawkmoon’s forehead, but his vision of a masked-civilization spread throughout Europe is also of interest, as is the city of Hamadan and the strange post-apocalyptic creatures he briefly shows.
His characters are suitably heroic or villainous and his heroes are likeably, especially the poet Bowgentle. The mysterious Warrior in Jet and Gold and the hirsute half-man Oladahn make appearances, adding mystery and more companionship, setting the stage for Moorcock to eventually tie Hawkmoon more firmly to his overarching concept of the Eternal Champion.
Moorcock’s prose is passable, never achieving stylistic greatness, but rarely getting in the way of his story. Given that Moorcock has stated that he tended to write his novels in the sixties in very brief periods of time, this is a testament to his natural (and practiced) ability as an author.The Jewel in the Skull provides an introduction to perhaps Moorcock’s most approachable entries in the sword and sorcery genre. Lacking the angst of Elric, the loneliness of Corum, or the confusion of Erekosë, Dorian Hawkmoon has a loyalty and drive that defines him in his fight against an evil empire.
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