© Michael Moorcock.
The second book in the Von Bek series follows another of the family beginning in Paris during the French Revolution. This Von Bek has been lured there with hopes of furthering the ideals of the revolutionaries, only to see the entire enterprise turn into mob violence and chaos. Soon he’s trying to flee the country, and barely escapes the clutches of Montsorbier, a soldier on his trail. Von Bek is heading for the city of Mirenberg in Austria. On the way he makes a friend of balloonist and con-man St. Odhran and falls in love on first sight with a noblewoman named Libussa. All of them end up in Mirenberg where a convocation of alchemists has gathered, some of whom want to help Von Bek, some want to kill him, making for an interesting few weeks. Eventually Klosterheim turns up, the villain of the first Von Bek novel “The War Hound and the World’s Pain.” He’s still alive, sort of, and still hoping to conquer the world. Everyone seems to need Von Bek for something, and he eventually realizes it’s because of his family legend tying him to The Devil and The Holy Grail, a legend he doesn’t believe and has always ignored.
St. Odhran and Von Bek have a plan to escape all this in the former’s balloon, and when they do (with two unwanted passengers) they travel to another magical version of Mirenberg, the city under the autumn stars. There things get much more complicated as the book turns into a series of explorations, chases and fights in this old, deeply layered city. The Grail does turn up eventually as well as lots of other magical beings and artifacts, and the story culminates in a massive battle and ritual that Von Bek realizes too late will be a re-inactment of the Crucifixion with someone he cares for as the centerpiece.
I enjoyed the characters and much of the writing in this book, though not as much as the first one. While the plot does have an overall structure that will bring it to an exciting conclusion, much of the story seems to wander about without a plan, or at least a consistent one. Like the first book, it begins with real history and very gradually introduces elements of fantasy until, by the second half it’s very fantastic indeed. I like that part, and Moorcock’s writing is creatively rich in inventing those fantasy settings and characters, or incorporating existing ones in ways that work well. I never felt the title character has a handle on his own story this time, though. Instead he’s pushed along from one event to another by circumstances and other characters. Perhaps that’s my biggest problem with the book. This Von Bek is like Charlie Brown of “Peanuts”: the star, but often the goat as well.
I still found it worth reading, and will continue on with the Von Bek collection in the future.