People like to write stories about heroes. From The Iliad, Beowulf, King Arthur, The Chronicles of Narnia, to The Lord of the Rings, our literary history is full of heroic stories. What makes a hero's story compelling, is the hero's ability to reduce the world down to a singular focus. A focus where the only thing that matters to the hero is the completion of a quest, be it about winning a war, rescuing a damsel in distress, questing against an overlord, or slaying a fire-breathing dragon. When heroes are questing, nothing can deter them from their destinies.
The hero's ability to reduce the world to a single focus is an attractive quality for some. It rallies people to support a hero's cause. However, if we look at this from another perspective, then the typical heroic stories appear narrow-minded, where the hero's worldview is overly black and white. In a typical heroic story, there are only two ways to live; you are either with the hero's worldview wholeheartedly, or you are against him. In a typical heroic story, there is no room to question the justice behind a hero's viewpoint.
Yet, the real world is not black and white. In reality, things exist in shades of gray. For more than 40 years, the fantasy genre tried to echo the reality of our world in fantastic stories. Over the decades, fantasy fictions evolved and gradually matured. Today, we have a sub-genre in fantasy called “grim-dark”. Grim-dark fantasy novels often feature characters struggling with personal battles instead of in a “good vs evil” conflict involving the whole world. In grim-dark fantasy novels, characters encounter life-changing events, causing them to doubt the justice behind their positions, often leading to reconfiguration of their worldviews. (The prime example for this, is the story for a character called Karsa Orlong, from Steven Erikson's masterpiece, The Malazan book of the Fallen series.)
In other words, in today's world, adult readers can relate to characters in grim-dark fantasy novels. Gone are the days when people equated “fantasy” to “juvenile stories”. If you are still not convinced, take a look at who is target audience for HBO's smash hit TV series, A Game of Thrones. So the question is, when did the evolution for fantasy fictions begin?
Elric of Melnibone, an albino and weakling, is the exiled sorcerer king of the dying Bright Empire. Elric sails the Seas of Fate with his ancestral blade, Stormbringer, an evil, sentient sword that steals souls and feed Elric with unhuman vitality.
Elric detests his sword, but he cannot afford to part with it. Due to his natural deficiency, Elric is a pathetic weakling barely able to walk without the stolen vitality gifted him by Stormbringer. Yet, just as Stormbringer gifts Elric with superhuman strength and unparalleled battle prowess, it also curses Elric to a life of grief and doom
My thoughts on this book:
I love The Stealer of Souls, and after reading this book I am pretty sure I will like the whole Elric Saga.
However, this book is not for everyone. Why? Some people may find Elric saga too dark for their tastes. Elric's story is really, really tragic and depressing. So if you don't like stories that are too dark, or if you are easily saddened by tragic stories, then Elric saga may not be for you.
Now I have said the warning, let me share what I liked, and disliked about The Stealer of Souls.
The Stealer of Souls is not a full length novel. Instead, this book consists of several novellas following the chronological order of Elric's life. Each novella is sectioned into several short chapters. In this book, the use of short chapters sped up the pace in The Stealer of Souls, making this book a cracking read. In regard to the writings in this book, my opinion is while Elric stories are engrossing, but the paces are uneven. The introduction in each Elric story was too hasty, and the story's background was not as flashed out as it could be.
The true brilliance of this book lies in its characterization. Elric of Melnibone is a striking and memorable protagonist. I don't think he is a likable character (nor is he meant to be likable), but I felt a lot sympathy for Elric. Sometimes treacherous and cowardly, Elric is a deeply flawed character who formed a symbiosis relationship with Stormbringer, an evil, sentient sword. Stormbringer is a necessity for Elric's survival, but it is also Elric's source of agony. Because Stormbringer has a mind of its own, it controlled Elric more than he controlled it, and the sword often brought death to both Elric's loved ones as well as his foes, leaving Elric to a pitiful and guilty existence. A a result, he pursued an unsolvable, metaphysical quest to no end. The characterization of Elric is remarkable because he is a tragic symbol, representing the search for meaning and purpose among the echoes of a universal struggle between order and chaos. Elric saga was written in 1960s, imagine how revolutionary this character was when it first embraced the fantasy genre half a century ago!
A good story always has a compelling protagonist, and a good antagonist. Elric saga has, in my opinion, a truly fascinating and unique antagonist. In The Stealer of Souls, Elric faced down many opponents. However, none of his opponents is the main antagonist. Instead, the saga's main antagonist is actually Elric's sentient sword, Stormbringer. This sword has a sinister mind of its own. It controlled Elric in the heat of combat, stealing his opponent's souls as it cuts them down then fed the stolen vitality to sustain Elric's deficient body. Elric is addicted to this sword's power, and his survival depends on it. However, this sentient sword is just as likely to cut down Elric's friends as his foes, sending Elric into deep depressions and therefore further enslaved by Stormbringer's will. I don't want to spoil the story, but let me just say by the end of the book, I realized Stormbringer is the mastermind behind Elric's tragic life and the sealer of his fate (which is really ironic).
The Stealer of Souls captivated me from the first page to the last. I was still thinking about this book for days after closing the final chapter. Some stories in this book may appear rushed with uneven pace, lacking attention to details. Yet, it is undeniable that Elric saga is probably the most influential work in shaping modern fantasy fictions. Furthermore, Elric and his sword, Stormbringer, are some of the most interesting and memorable characters in the genre. Even by today's standard, the story of Elric is still highly unique and revolutionary. So if you are not easily saddened by tragic and dark stories, and if you are a serious fantasy fan, then I would highly recommend The Stealer of Souls.
I am reading Del Rey's republication for Elric saga, and these stories are presented in the order of publication dates. This means Del Rey's version is NOT following the chronological order in Elric mythos. The result? The final conclusion for Elric's story appeared in this book (The Stealer of Souls), which is the first installment in the series. In other words, The Stealer of Souls may confuse you. For me, it is too late to change because I already purchased Del Rey's version. However, if you are reading this review, and you are interested in exploring Elric saga, then apparently these two Elric Omnibuses, published by White Wolf Publishing, followed the chronological order. They are titled: 1) Elric: Song of the Black Sword and 2) Elric: The Stealer of Souls.