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BOOK REVIEW: The Whispering Swarm by Michael Moorcock

REVIEW SUMMARY: While billed as an autobiography wrapped around fiction, I know what this is….Mr. Moorcock is finally coming clean. He learned all about The Eternal Champion and the moonbeam roads at a supernatural Sanctuary in the heart of London called Alsacia. Either that or it was LSD. Which sounds more feasible?


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Michael Moorcock grows up in London, becomes a writer and magazine editor, plays with a band known as the Big Fix, gets married, has kids….but is drawn to a Sanctuary in the middle of London, where time appears to have different rules. Unsure if he is hallucinating, tripping or actually experiencing something supernatural that goes against his logical perspective, he alternately runs from and runs to Alsacia, becoming involved with its adventures, its secrets and a lady named Molly.

PROS: Characters, characters, characters – what Moorcock always does splendidly; great autobiographical background; a true sense of conflict and confusion in the main character/author. Descriptions of London! Moonbeam roads!
CONS: Where does the autobiographical piece end and the fiction began (could be a pro, depending on which part you are reading); one or two chapters in the autobiographical part added little to the story (this was an ARC, so this point may not hold up with the final copy)
BOTTOM LINE: This first book in The Sanctuary of the White Friars provides a fascinating Moorcock-esque romp, where the rules are never quite revealed, to the reader or the characters. The autobiographical parts were quite enjoyable, but some added little to the progression of the story.

Upon my shelves sit Elric, Jerry Cornelius, Corum, Hawkmoon and many other Moorcock character creations, creations that I like other readers have risked the investment of my time, and been so justly rewarded that the risk began to mitigate with each Moorcock tome. Thus is was with great anticipation that I begged for the ARC of The Whispering Swarm from our fearless leader (in exchange for bagels), put my current read aside and dug in.

In retrospect, reading the summary of what the book might be about may have been warranted…but that would have taken away the discovery that the name of the main character was indeed Michael Moorcock. The first paragraph is an obvious setup:

Every day of my life, after all I have learned and the many dangers I have survived, I still reflect on the circumstances which drew me to the part of the City of London I know as ‘Alsacia’, which her inhabitants call ‘the Sanctuary’. I learned that magic is as dangerous as we are told it is and that romance can be more destructive than reality. Worse, I came to know and fear the fulfillment of my deepest desires

Moorcock the character gives a brief summary of his early life, then, as he has his young life humming along as an ambitious publisher, writer and musician, he meets Friar Isidore, a fellow publisher, who takes him at age seventeen into Alsacia for the first time. There he sees not only the girl of his dreams (literally a girl like one he has had dreams about since childhood) but a world that seems lost in time (wooden buildings, horses in the midst of London, earthy smells). He meets the Abbot and is invited back.

After researching the Carmelites a bit, he does go back. He ducks into a tavern and meets Molly (the girl of his dream) who introduces him to  so many people in historic ‘fanciful’ dress (some of them his boyhood heroes) that he thinks he has stumbled upon an actors movie studio. He is then taken to see the Abbot, and the Abbot’s precious “Cosmolab”, a model not just of the earth, moon and stars, but of the ebb and flow of time…of creation itself (see: Law and Chaos!). The Abbot chants at Moorcock as he is mesmerized (or drugged) by the Cosmolab, speaking to him of the Tarot, ‘following the Green Knight’, the Aether and ‘Radiant Time’. When Moorcock leave Alsacia this time, he’s beginning to believe it is a creation of his teenage creative mind.

Of course, he returns for a date with Molly. In an atypical date, they don period clothing, mount horses and go rob a trolley. Michael is exhilarated, but worried about his own sanity. This can’t be real, can it? He begins to write pulps about ‘Moll Midnight’, gets more successful and convinces himself that it was all an illusion. He gets married and has kids.

But he keeps hearing a buzzing in his ears (with my tinnitis I can relate!) that he comes to call the Whispering Swarm. The Sanctuary keeps taunting him, calling him back in various ways that I won’t spoil. Should he go back? Was it even real, and if it was, can he go back? Or is he simply going full goose bozo?

Mysteriously,and for a short while after both children were born, I first heard the Whispering Swarm. That faintest of distant murmurings in my ears would briefly grow into a torrent of unfamiliar, whispering voices. I made out no words, but after a while I thought I heard something, because of certain repeated notes. I would lie in that old double bed worrying what was best for the baby, where we should move and so on, and before I knew it the Swarm would begin to whisper in my left ear.

The integration of an autobiography and a bit of fantasy can be a bit disorienting. I found myself fact checking half-remembered items (didn’t Moorcock actually edit Tarzan Adventures? Why yes, yes he did) to verify if they were autobiographical or part of the story.  And, yes, they were both. After recently reading Harry Harrison’s memoir, I enjoyed the history of the publishing industry and those involved provided here, with the few familiar (and some similar between the two books) names dropped.

There was a bit of a long gap between the first Alsacia scenes and the next, filled with autobiographical content, some of which was valid for an autobiography but didn’t seem to move the story along (especially a bit about drunk Americans and jealousy at Christmas).

But the common threads all weave through Moorcock’s beloved London. This series of books appears poised to stand with Mother London as homages to Moorcock’s birth city. The description of Moorcock’s present day London and the Alsacian versions are told with familiarity, reminding me of walking the streets and visiting pubs on business trips there (though I live in Texas as Mr. Moorcock now does!).

Throughout, the Moorcock character is conflicted – conflicted between the women in his life, in whom to trust, in what “the right thing” is, in what is science and what is magic, and mostly what is reality. The resolution of some of these conflicts will take the reader into the next book in the series.

About Larry Ketchersid (55 Articles)
Author of two novels (Dusk Before the Dawn, Software by the Kilo) and one volume of non-fiction stories. CEO of a security software and services company; co-owner of JoSara MeDia, publisher of iPad apps, print and eBooks. Runner, traveler, Sharks fan, Rockets fan, Packers shareholder.
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