Tuesday, December 17, 2013


There's a bad old joke about a mother who has identical twin sons named Juan and Amahl. She only has a photo of Juan. When asked why she doesn't have a photo of her other son, she replies, "if you've seen Juan, you've seen Amahl."

That's the way I felt after I finished reading THE STEEL TSAR by Michael Moorcock the other day. This third and final novel in the Nomad of the Time Streams trilogy is remarkably similar to the other two entries in the series, THE WARLORD OF THE AIR and THE LAND LEVIATHAN. In TSAR, our time-tossed hero Oswald Bastable once again finds himself in an alternate timeline. The year is 1941 and World War II has just begun. But here the global conflict is waged between the last two remaining imperial powers of this timeline: Russia and Japan. This time, it's an atomic bombing of Hiroshima (similar to the one that occurred at the end of WARLORD OF THE AIR) that precipitates the conflict.

Once again, the first part of the book is given over to Bastables' adventures in this brave new world in which he's eventually captured by the Japanese before finding himself in the Russian Imperial Air Corps, where he serves aboard an airship. We're finally introduced to the titular Steel Tsar about midway through the book. He may or may not be this world's Josef Stalin but whoever he really is, he's a cut-rate Dr. Doom like figure as he wears an iron mask that hides his true visage. The Tsar's aim is to incite civil war in Russia leading his cossacks (and a gigantic mechanical man) against the might of the Russian government's aerial forces. Oh, and the Tsar also plans to drop an atomic weapon of his own on a heavily populated Russian city.

Bastable is once again aided by the mysterious Una Persson (she appears in all three novels) and it's in the final part of the book that Bastable learns about the League of Temporal Adventurers (which sounds a helluva lot more swashbuckling than Moorcock portrays them). Persson, along with the mysterious albino wizard Von Bek (who also appeared in WARLORD OF THE AIR and appears to be an incarnation of Moorcock's eternal warrior hero Elric) and Cornelius Dempsey (also an iteration of Moorcock's eternal character Jerry Cornelius) recruit Bastable into the League, a fate which he willingly accepts. The book ends with Bastable and his new colleagues somewhere in time.

Imperial powers. Airships. A titular anti-hero character who doesn't appear until midway through the book (O.T. Shaw in THE WARLORD OF THE AIR, the Black Attila in LAND LEVIATHAN and the Steel Tsar here). Airships. Discussions about the pros and cons of various political philosophies. A mad attack thwarted at the last minute. Airships. Endings that leave Bastable in yet another timeline. Did I mention airships? All three of these novels contain all of these elements in almost exactly the same measures. I'm glad I didn't read them all back to back or the overwhelming sense of sameness may have been too much to take.

Bottom line: I'm glad to have read the series. I've long wanted to sample some of Moorcock's more accessible works and this neat, short (in terms of page count) trilogy was just the right thing to start with. However, I was not blown away by the series and it will probably be awhile before I read anymore Moorcock but if you like science fiction novels about alternate time lines (with lots and lots of airships), you might want to try the A Nomad of the Time Streams trilogy. Start with WARLORD OF THE AIR and if you like it, read the other two books.

 If not, well, if you've seen Juan....



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