Michael Moorcock's Autobiography Is Nuts

The Whispering Swarm by Michael Moorcock ★★★☆☆

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By M@ Last edited 30 months ago
Michael Moorcock's Autobiography Is Nuts The Whispering Swarm by Michael Moorcock 3

Pub quiz question: which multi-award winning author has written over 50 novels, penned songs for Hawkwind and Blue Öyster Cult, fought alongside the Four Musketeers and broken into St James's Palace to help rescue King Charles I?

Answer: Michael Moorcock, at least on a literal reading of his new autobiography.

The Whispering Swarm, the first book in a new trilogy, is as strange a beast as you're ever likely to read. It begins much like any other autobiography. Young Moorcock grows up in a crater-strewn Holborn, before forging a successful early career working on Fleet Street short fiction magazines. Just like he did in real life. Then he stumbles upon a magical realm.

Within the maze of streets and alleys south of Fleet Street, Moorcock finds a pair of heavy wooden doors. These lead into Alsacia, an atemporal enclave where historical and fictional characters of different periods rub shoulders. Moorcock encounters Dick Turpin, Prince Rupert, the Musketeers and a supporting cast of other notables, including the enigmatic white friars. He falls in love with an alluring highwaywoman named Moll, before joining a Cavalier plot to rescue Charles I from the headblock. Is he in a coma, back in time, on a different plane of reality, or tripping on LSD?

Every so often, the author pops back to what we might take to be his real life — to Ladbroke Grove and time spent with his increasingly estranged wife and children. Just when he's in danger of slipping back into conventional autobiography, Moorcock is summoned back to Alsacia by talking ravens and the 'whispering swarm' of voices in his head.

Moorcock's Alsacia is inspired by the real-world Alsatia, a former sanctuary on the site of Whitefriars monastery south of Fleet Street, which operated outside of the law until the 17th century. Anyone who's ever explored the alleys and courts here will acknowledge their preternatural character. Placing a Narnian realm within this area is a neat idea, and we're almost tempted to go looking for those Alsacian gates.   

Indeed, the book contains plenty of idiosyncrasies and conceits that border on the genius. The book will delight long-term Moorcock fans, with its rich mix of biography and fantasy. It also has many flaws. Chiefly, it can feel needlessly belaboured at times, with too much repetition and too little reveal on the metaphysics. The messy love triangle between Moorcock, his wife, and his 18th century mistress is certainly intriguing, but never really sparked our empathy.

The Whispering Swarm bulges with ideas, but doesn't quite convince us. That said, your reviewer actually dreamt a few elements of the book's finale before getting there. Perhaps the magic of Alsacia is real after all.

The Whispering Swarm by Michael Moorcock is out now from Orion.

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Last Updated 28 August 2015