Monday, January 5, 2009

Review - Gloriana

by Michael Moorcock
1979 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

This book is exactly why I have pursued this odd project of reading all of these award winning novels. It's very different to the point of being something that I'd never pick it up on my own and it is one of the most memorable books I've ever read. I can't justifiably call it a great novel: it's incredibly heavy handed with its symbolism but it's audaciousness alone makes it something worth a look.

To describe it in one sentence Gloriana is Moorcock shoving Mervin Peake's Gormanghast moved to Elizabethan England with a lot more sex. In an England whose empire spans the globe and brings peace to every corner of it the queen rules justly and is beloved. Gloriana rules the day in a court that emphasizes the glory of chivalry while the ugly pieces of government are kept out of her view by a protective advisor.

She has one problem with her life between pagents, masques, festivals, and courtly diversions: she cannot achieve an orgasm. So at night she attempts all forms of sexual experiences and maintains a stately pleasure dome behind her chambers.

These dichotomies endure until one of the agents who does the dirty work of assassination, murder, and plotting feels slighted and becomes resolved to tear down the kingdom by corrupting the court and driving them into hedonism.

So can you find the symbolism there? You better get used to that if you read Gloriana because Moorcock lays it on thick. It's painted on in bright primary colors, pointed out by blinking neon signs, and has blaring klaxons to alert the reader. The symbolism is piled on so high I can only read it as a clumsy attempt to create a "serious novel".

On the other hand the themes that the symbolism is there for keeps things interesting. Watching the repressed sexual desires emerge and destroy the characters is fascinating and the biggest strength of the novel. Every character is split in two by their private and public lives and these divisions drive the book forward. Moorcock may work in archetypes but he's very good at bringing those archetypes to life. That's a good thing since that's what really drives the novel; the plot itself isn't much but these broken people playing off each other worked well for me.

If you haven't read Gormanghast then the descriptions of the court and the labrynthtine palace that has congeled into a maze of hidden warrens might feel very distinctive. Moorcock does a good job of replicating the feel but in the end it does feel that Gloriana borrows a bit too heavily from Peake's earlier book.

Moorcock's prose is a very hit or miss situation for me; I have read some of his stories where I enjoy it immensely and then other times he just pushed too far into the purple. He is edging on that line between poetic and purple in Gloriana but this time I think he came down on the correct side despite an opening dozen pages that had me dreading how the rest of the novel would be written. Fortunately he settles down to a more tempered tone before too long but if you pick it up and start reading the book then you may bounce off the first oddly worded chapter.

Gloriana is a book that I am going to remember for some time and for that reason alone I recommend checking it out. It's an interesting novel though some people will find its conclusion objectionable; Moorcock rewrote it in the late 90's to remove some of the objectionable content but the edition I have included the original, much better chapter. I can't promise you that you will enjoy Gloriana but it will stick with you.