There is absolutely no doubt that The Whispering Swarm is technically brilliant. The complex interplay of autobiography, real-life history, invented mythology, and pulp adventure is, really, quite stunning to behold. Never before have I seen so many genres and themes at play within the same text, all of them having a significant role within the overall story. While it's bewildering at times, the literary mastery of Michael Moorcock ensures that it's never too dense or too confusing to hold the reader within the magical, mythical, marvelous walls of the tale.
With all that said, the emphasis here is largely on the autobiographical side of things, and that's where the story stumbles. Written entirely in the first person, here we have a relatively dry, straightforward, matter-of-fact presentation of a young man's life, as remembered (and, often, reinvented) by his older self. It has a rambling, stream-of-consciousness feel to it at times, with certain details explored at length, and others inexplicably glossed over. For instance, while it is interesting to understand how Moorock got his start in the business, and it's even fascinating to get a first-hand look at the process of writing, editing, and printing early fanzines and magazines, there's a point at which you really wish he'd just move on. At the same time, things like finding his true love are glossed over in a matter of pages, with the young woman never getting so much as a line of dialogue.
Now, back to the history/mythology aspect of the book, and the adventure it inspires. Alsatia is a mythological refuge of the White Friars, defenders of history's greatest treasures (both real and imagined). Most people are completely ignorant of their existence, and simply cannot see the massive old gates leading into a secret heart of London. Untouched by fire, famine, plague, or war, the refuge has stood strong against the years, with those inside living a multiverse kind of life that touches on random times and places in the outside world. It is, by far, the best part of the tale, especially when historical figures living in an alternate timeline lay siege to Alsatia, dragging Moorock into a battle across time.
There is so much promise in the premise of Alsatia, but I was truly disappointed to find that Moorock refrained from interweaving the multiverse here with that of the Eternal Champion. I remember getting to the chapter titled The Lost Albino and getting ridiculously excited by the prospect of seeing Moorcock and Elric cross paths, even if it was just to have some albino swordsman pass through Alsatia to inspire the character. Alas, such interplay is not to be found here, and the chapter really glosses over the creation of his greatest character with some cold, bored declarations that he only intended one story, but fans demanded another, then another, then another.
Ultimately, it is an interesting tale, but I fear it's too long, too dry, and too autobiographical for all but Moorcock's most avid fans. The moments of adventure and excitement are simply too few and too far between. At the same time, the narrative style does nothing to help propel the story forward. Moorock has proven in the past that he can do first-person well, but it's as if he played it too safe here, trying to remain true to his own voice. Like I said, The Whispering Swarm is technically brilliant, but it's a hard book to enjoy.
Hardcover, 480 pages
Expected publication: January 13th 2015 by Tor Books