Originally published in 1967, Hawkmoon: The Jewel In The Skull, the first of British fantasy/science fiction author Michael Moorcock's "Runestaff" novels, introduces the reader to a futuristic, post-nuclear holocaust Europe where science and sorcery co-exist. Armored knights in horseback use flame-throwers as well as swords, and occasionally fly around either on mutated living flamingos or in helicopter-like vehicles.
Sorcerers can still cast spells, mutants and "monsters" of various appearances and abilities roam the countryside, and advanced technology (including brainwashing machines and surveillance equipment) makes it possible for the evil Dark Empire of Granbretan (Great Britain) to expand it's horrible influence over the continent. (Talk about evil; the rulers, soldiers AND citizens of the Dark Empire like to crucify children, just for the hell of it!)
After failing to secure the services of Count Brass, the stolid "Lord Guardian" of Kamarg (which appears to have once been part of France), the Empire's Baron Meliadus vows revenge on Brass and his daughter Yisselda (who had spurned the Baron's attempts at seducing her) . Meliadus forces his captured enemy Dorian Hawkmoon, the last surviving Duke of Koln, to undertake the kidnapping of Yisselda, by which Meliadus apparently intends to break Brass' spirits, eventually leading to the Empire's conquest of Kamarg. To ensure Hawkmoon's loyality, Meliadus has a black jewel inplanted in Hawkmoon's skull. The jewel can relay back to Meliadus everything Hawkmoon can see (but not hear). Should Hawkmoon betray Meliadus, the Baron will have the jewel absorb (eat) the Duke of Koln's brain. Things don't go very smoothly after that development however, particulary when Hawkmoon starts to develop sincere feelings toward Yisselda...
Lacking the complexity of Moorcock's other "Eternal Champion" multiverse novels (like the Elric series), Jewel is a straightforward exciting action adventure with several memorable images and sequences. The battle scenes throughout the book are exciting and well-delinated, and the glimpses we get of a post-nuclear war Europe, now reduced to competing kingdoms, is vivid and unforgettable. Moorcock was influenced by a number of authors in his writing, including Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkian, among others, and it shows. (The last half of Jewel reminded me a lot of Tolkian's Return of the King.) There's some great dialogue too, especially from Meliadus, who tries and fails to provoke Hawkmoon's anger when he confesses to having killed the Duke's father (Meliadus' response to Hawkmoon's indifference -"Well!" - is priceless!) The colorful but stock characters lack any real meat, despite a brief subplot involving Hawkmoon's being dispirited (and, after meeting Brass and Yisselda, subsequent reinvigoration) after having been taken prisoner.
Tor Books has reprinted Jewel In The Skull (reserve it online here) in a trade paperback format with illustrations and a nice cover by Vance Kovacs. Meanwhile, I'm going to go about getting a copy of the sequel, 1968's The Mad God's Amulet, and see where Hawkmoon's adventures lead him next.