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The Whispering Swarm: Book One of The Sanctuary of the White Friars by Michael Moorcock
Edited by Moshe Feder
Cover Artist: Ross MacDonald
Review by Sam Lubell
Tor Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765324771
Date: 13 January 2015 List Price $26.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /

The Whispering Swarm, the first in a new trilogy, The Sanctuary of the White Friars by Michael Moorcock, can best be described as a cross between Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere and Moorcock's own life. On a fantasy level, it fits the hidden world subgenre, although time travel plays a role too. The protagonist is Michael Moorcock, here, as in real life, the creator of Elric and Jerry Cornelius and the editor of the British magazine New Worlds. Many science fiction and fantasy authors of the period are mentioned in these pages under their real names or slight modifications. The first half of the book will be especially rewarding to those who know the history of the British science fiction/fantasy field.

Of course, this being a fantasy, there is more to the book than autobiography. This version of Moorcock has psychic visions and is afflicted with a form of psychic static, the whispering swarm of the title. After becoming editor of Tarzan Adventures magazine at age 16, he meets Friar Isidore who introduces him to the Sanctuary community of Alsacia, a hidden neighborhood of London where people from different periods of history and even fictional characters (the Three Musketeers play a major role) coexist. There he meets the girl of his dreams, Captain Moll Midnight, and together they rob a mail train to support the Road Transport Workers Union.

At first, Moorcock assumes that the characters in Alsacia are actors, and later believes the whole thing a drug-induced hallucination, especially since he is unable to find the gates to Alsacia again. So he turns Moll into a character in his own work, writing a series of adventures of Meg Midnight. Then, years after marrying Helena Denham (a fictionalized version of Hilary Bailey, Moorcock's real first wife), he is summoned back to Alsacia by a talking raven and begins a long extramarital affair with Moll. He also begins questioning the friars about the secrets of Alsacia, and finds that something about the sanctuary quiets the whispering voices in his mind. Then, in the last third of the book, Moorcock becomes involved in an effort to rescue King Charles from Oliver Cromwell in 1649.

Fans of Moorcock's Eternal Champion series and his other writing may be disappointed at how little insight the author provides on his writing, other than claiming to write his fantasy historicals in three days and his more serious work like Behold the Man in ten. In several spots, Moorcock claims he writes to support his family. There is only a little more on his goals in transforming the magazine New Worlds into the launchpad for science fiction's New Wave.

Surprisingly, considering the author writes himself as the main character, the fictional Moorcock is not very heroic. He leads a double life, lying to his wife about what he does on his retreats, while leading Moll to believe he plans to divorce his wife and live with her. Even in the action parts, Moorcock is mostly an observer and virtually all the characters are better with weapons (although he gets lucky a few times). He certainly is not a typical heroic figure. This characterization saves the book from being pure wish fulfillment on the part of the author.

Although the first in a trilogy, the book stands alone. While the mysteries of Alsacia are not revealed and the fictional Moorcock still has decades of life for further adventures (assuming he lives as long as the real Moorcock), the immediate situation is resolved.

The Whispering Swarm is well suited for fans of Moorcock and those with a strong interest in British science fiction of the 1960s and British writers generally. I expect fans will try to separate the truth from Moorcock's fiction and to identify the real figures from Moorcock's fictionalized names (no points for figuring out Fisch or Allard.) Mainstream readers would also enjoy this book as its rather minimal magic is mostly that of setting (and the time travel elements) rather than spellcasting or wizards. Certainly the concept of a writer plagued by guilt over his relationships with his wife and mistress is more common to mainstream than to typical genre fantasies.

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