This review contains spoilers for The Knight of the Swords, the first book in the CORUM series.
The Queen of the Swords, the second book in Moorcock’s CORUM series, takes place after Corum, The Prince in the Scarlet Robe, has had a needed respite from defeating Arioch, The Knight of the Swords. Aricoch, along with the Queen and King of Swords, are the three Lords of Chaos responsible for upsetting the Balance in the fifteen planes of Corum’s universe. At the end of Book 1, with Arkyn of Law restored to power on Arioch’s plane, Corum is told that Chaos still has too much power within his universe, which encompasses these fifteen planes of existence. So, with his mystical hand and eye — the Hand of Kwil and the Eye of Rhynn — The Prince in the Scarlet Robe must now seek on another plane the destruction of Xiombarg, the Queen of the Swords, who is more powerful than was the Knight and is already angry at Corum for the Knight’s downfall.
Corum, however, is not responsible for initiating his second quest. At peace in the castle on Moidel’s Mount with his great love, Rhalina, he wants to stay there as long as possible. Only dire news will move him to action, pushing him to be again the Eternal Champion, a role he is destined to play. At the beginning of the novel, the peace of Corum, Rhalina, and the people of Moidel’s Mount is brought to an end by the arrival of Jhary-a-Conel and his pet, a winged cat. He announces that the race of man, the Mabden, are posing a danger once again; this time, they are preparing to attack other, more peace-loving, Mabden in Lywm-an-Esh. Unfortunately, the horde’s path toward Lywm-an-Esh will take them past Moidel’s Mount. Corum knows the Castle will be unable to defend itself against such a great army of violent Mabden who are much more experienced in war than they are, but prepare they must. And thus, the stage is set for book two.
Michael Moorcock, as in the first book, pulls the reader in with delightful prose and a page-turning plot, quickly raising the reader’s expectations: How will Corum escape the Mabden? How will he do so with an entire castle’s worth of people? Are the people and beings who help Corum to be fully trusted? And, most importantly, for what reason will Corum be led to face the dangerous Queen of the Swords, an expectation built into the overarching structure reflected in the titles of the first three books in the CORUM series? In other words, before we even open book two, we know that Corum must face the Queen Xiombarg, must defeat her, in order for there to be a third book, The King of the Swords.
I love The Queen of the Swords as much as I do every book in the CORUM series: again it’s a quick read at under three hours, and given Moorcock’s mastery of concise story-telling, what would be a light, slight story by another author is a work of genius that is more brilliant, rather than less, because of its brevity. I enjoy in this book the wide variety of places we travel, particularly when we visit Queen Xiombarg’s plane and see her frightening creations — the Lake of Voices and the White River. Jhary-a-Conel is another reason why this book is so much fun; Jhary is one of the Eternal Companions to the Champions, and his banter with Corum adds levity to the book. I also enjoy the cosmology that becomes deeper as we progress through the series, our growing understanding leading us to reflect on our own views of destiny and god. Moorcock also gets us to consider the nature of good and evil both on a grand scale that touches on theology and on the small, more immediate level as we consider the ethical weight of our everyday actions.
Though many readers — accustomed to the lengthy tomes of fantasy that have followed in the wake of Tolkien — would give a more modest rating, I cannot give this book anything less than five stars. My reading of the CORUM series this summer has made me, more than ever, fall in love with and see the great potential in the fantasy genre itself. I’ll be rereading it soon.
Corum (Eternal Champion) — (1971-1974) The ancient races, the Vadhagh and the Nhadragh, are dying. By creating Mankind, the universe has condemned Earth to a pestilence of destruction and fear. Prince Corum is the last remaining Vadhagh. He sets out on a crusade of vengeance against the forces that slaughtered his family and his race, to challenge the unjust power of the puppet masters of Man: the Lords of Chaos. Along the way he will barter with his soul for the limbs of gods to repair his mutilated body, and will encounter a member of the very race who caused the mutilation, the irresistible Rhalina…