The Sailor on the Seas of Fate is the Elric book that’s been cited to me as “coming from left field” or “the weird one,” which considering it’s Elric is saying something (the next book is actually called The Weird of the White Wolf, for an amusing bit of trivia, although Weird in that context is used archaically to mean “fate”). It’s not that Sailor is bad necessarily, but as in the first novel, caution doesn’t really seem to be on Moorcock’s radar. An author with a touch more consideration for the casual portion of his audience would probably have given the premise of the multiverse time to develop before careening from traditional sword and sorcery straight into… whatever in fact Sailor is. There are good points and not-so-good points about this novel — which I’ll cover below — but first I probably have to give you some idea of the premise.
Since his departure from Melniboné in the previous installment, Elric has been wandering amongst the Young Kingdoms and their inhabitants (humanity) in the hopes of learning something about life or himself or just being accepted. His efforts have been such a resounding success that the story picks up with Elric on the lam with a gang of murderous hunters in pursuit. Elric arrives at the seashore, where the instrument of his salvation appears in the guise of an unearthly ship… (and this is where it gets a little odd)… that is carrying a bunch of men who are apparently Elric’s reincarnated selves. The Alterna-Elrics are off to fight transdimensional world-eating sludge monsters and need Elric’s help to defeat the threat by combining his life force with theirs and becoming an eight-armed, eight-legged uber-warrior. Not making this up.
The Sailor on the Seas of Fate is actually made up of three shorter stories. In each, Elric sails to some sort of alternate world and faces a supernatural threat. The first of these, Sailing to the Future, is probably the oddest and has even occasionally been accused of being an advertisement for Moorcock’s lesser-known characters. Hawkmoon, for instance, had his own set of adventures, but he appears here in Elric’s saga for the first of a couple cameo appearances. It feels a bit like we’ve moved from THE ELRIC SAGA into ELRIC & HIS SUPERFRIENDS at least during the portion of the novel in which they appear. I will say, though, that Moorcock did write this meeting from Hawkmoon’s point of view as well, and I’d hesitate to call the appearances of the Alterna-Elrics some sort of commercial. Moorcock simply likes the idea of a large-scale crossover, I think, and whether he indulges himself too far with what he does here is really a matter of individual taste.
As I said above, this novel has some problems but it also has some good points. As always, Moorcock’s prose is great and Elric never fails to feel interesting as protagonist. The eerie, strange tone of the proceedings actually gives the novel a kind of dreamy allure: it’s not what readers of traditional sword and sorcery might expect, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s a very well-done novel in many ways, especially going into it directly after Elric of Melnibone so that one has become acclimated to Moorcock’s “style over structure” method in a comparatively gentler text. On the other hand, it’s hard to deny that for casual readers who really couldn’t be bothered about the multiverse or what-have-you and expect instead to see some sort of motion in the world Moorcock constructed in the first novel, this sequel may be a baffling disappointment. None of the other Melnibonéans we were introduced to in Elric of Melniboné have anything to do with Sailor, and indeed Elric’s meeting with Count Smiorgan is about the only impact Sailor has on the overarching plot of the series.
It may really have been a bit early to bring in the Eternal Champion idea, in all honesty: had Moorcock built to it over time a bit more, it probably wouldn’t have seemed so jarring here. Asking the reader to grow used to one world and one set of circumstances for the protagonist only to turn that on its head by dragging him out of that world entirely is probably a little demanding — and thus risky — in the second book. Still, Moorcock has never been one to take it easy on his readers, and if the stories in Sailor can’t fail to seem a little peripheral and oddball contextually, they’re also quite good in and of themselves. This has the feel of a strong novel, but following that vague impression, it’s hard to say what that strength might be. There’s fighting, but Elric usually wins by sorcerously summoning some monster-of-the-week. There’s emotion, but no real character change. There’s also an expansion of the world…but then the world contracts and we never see the expanded portions again. I have to say, though, that for all its faults (and all its blatant disregard for convention) The Sailor on the Seas of Fate is ultimately a success. Moorcock tells the stories he wants to, and while they’re often bizarre, it’s difficult not to get wrapped up over time in the sheer inimitable flavor of an Elric story told well.