The Whispering Swarm (The Sanctuary Of The White Friars book 1) by Michael Moorcock (book review).

July 21, 2015 | By | Reply More

‘The Whispering Swarm’ is Michael Moorcock’s latest fantasy novel and is somewhat unusual in that it also serves as a fictitious biography for the author. The result is a skilfully woven if lengthy tale that frustrates and delights in equal measure.


Moorcock writes as himself growing-up in London during the forties and fifties before settling into writing as a living in the sixties. During this time, the young Moorcock encounters the abbey of the White Friars that exists in a place in London called Alsacia. It isn’t on the tube map, in fact it seems to float freely in time. The entrance is not always accessible and sometimes cannot be found at all. Moorcock, though, who is possessed of some sort of ‘sixth sense’ can perceive the gateway better than most.

On the other side, he finds himself surrounded by heroes from mythology and history, some of whom guard the monks and their abbey and some are openly hostile towards it. When Moorcock finds himself drinking in a pub with Dick Turpin and other action heroes, he rightly begins to question his own sanity. He becomes friends with a girl called Molly, who also masquerades as a highwayman. They fall in love, even though Moorcock is at first convinced she has been created by his own sub-conscious.

Meanwhile, in the ‘real’ world, Moorcock balances his trips to Alsacia with his new found writing fame, running magazines and nurturing talent. He also has his own wife and two daughters to support. Moorcock therefore becomes a man with two lives. During his stays in what he considers reality, he becomes aware a psychic buzz that plagues his waking hours, the ‘whispering swarm’ of the title. As the swarm’s effects increase, Moorcock spends more time away from his family and in the confines of Alsacia and its colourful heroes and heroines.

This set-up provides the story with its two elements, part-fantastical, part-memoir. This is intriguing and frustrating. While it is fun to piece together who is supposed to be who through pseudonym, eg Moorcock’s friend in the book, Jack Allard, is actually the author JG Ballard, other famous faces are treated as they are in our world. Moorcock tantalises the reader with memories of chatting to CS Lewis or John Wyndham but these moments are quick glossed over. Covered in more detail is Moorcock’s sexual appetite which eventually leads to him leading a double life with two women. Neither Moll or his wife Helena existed in real life, though you are invited to draw comparisons between his actual spouses and their fictional counter-parts.

At points, the book feels numbingly slow as Moorcock deliberates about his situation and then casually mentions inventing Elric or Jerry Cornelius. In fact, his adventures with the Alsacia gang have more than a whiff of the Cornelius crew behind them. When the novel does get focused on the idea of Prince Rupert daringly rescuing Charles the First from the scaffold at Whitehall, you’ve already surpassed the best part of three hundred pages.

‘The Whispering Swarm’ certainly gives you more than idea of where a lot of Moorcock’s work originated from, but you also get the feeling that a more straightforward memoir may have made a greater impact. He’s clearly lead a very interesting life and one that is key to the development of both Science Fiction and fantasy literature. That life, however, is delivered in an obscured manner to the reader and, because of that, I often felt like putting the book down.

This novel may well be inventive and the intertwining of the two narratives/realities is as skilful as you would expect from a writer of Moorcock’s calibre. When you also consider though that it’s essentially the same plot as nineties BBC sitcom ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ that starred Nicholas Lyndhurst, you may find yourself feeling a little short-changed.

John Rivers

July 2015

(pub: TOR/Forge. 480 page hardback. Price: $26.99 (US), $31.59 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-2477-1)

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Category: Books, Fantasy

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