Michael Moorcock
Gloriana Cover



This review contains spoilers.

Gloriana cannot be described as historical fiction or even an alternate history. However, the Albion that Gloriana rules will be very familiar to most readers.

Gloriana is a fantasy novel, set in a fantasy world during a Golden Age of chivalry, prosperity, science, culture and art. Gloriana presides over Albion and it's colonies / protectorates with a rule that solves difference amicably, that does not permit execution or violence and promotes justice. Of course, there is a seedy underbelly to Albion, one which Gloriana is barely aware of and there is political intrigue and Gloriana's chancellor Montfallcon carries out dirty work unbeknownst to her to ensure her reign is peaceful. Montfallcon has hired help - the mysterious Quire who can aid Albion through murder, kidnap and manipulation to achieve his aims.

Montfallcon's desire for 'peace' is based on his being one of the few survivors of Gloriana's father's reign - King Hern. Hern ruled by cruelty and terror. Montfallcon's family was slaughtered by Hern and he saw his life work to protect Gloriana. A central theme of the book is not returning to those 'bad days'.

Gloriana despite presiding over a Golden Age is filled with a sadness and a yearning - for she cannot achieve orgasm. Gloriana engages in a range of sexual practices to seek 'fulfilment' which she never get despite her nightly efforts.

In political intrigue other powers seek to control Albion and seek it's wealth and power. A couple of suitors are in the frame and Gloriana seeks not to offend them but to hold them off in a combination of statehood, diplomacy and espionage.

Whilst the court of Albion is interesting and the world is vivid and recognisable, one problem I have with the book is that nothing really happens for the first half of the book. The plot is pedestrian at times.

Moorcock acknowledges that this book is a homage to two works he greatly admires. The first is Mervyn Peake's Gormeghast series and the second is Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene.

I've read and loved (well, at least the first two) Gormenghast books. Moorcock was a friend of Peake's and the influence of Gormenghast is clear in this work. When I read the early chapters I felt I was in for a real treat. The description of Gloriana's castle and it's denizens does evoke Gormenghast strongly. Like Gormenghast, Gloriana's castle is vast as buildings are built near existing buildings and then roofed and then building work takes place over old building work. What we have is a vast warren of corridors and rooms, most closed off to the Court (indeed, most of the official residents of the Castle know little of what is behind the walls, despite the sounds of despair of an 'unfulfilled' Queen carrying around the building). Inside the walls live disgraced nobles, criminals, former lovers, people in hiding and various misfits. The two worlds co-exist but eventually collide.

Much has been written of Moorcock's characterisation, in particular the character of Quire. If the reader is familiar with the Gormenghast series then Quire is recognisable as Steerpike. However, Quire is not a patch on Steerpike. Both can be equally despicable and commit barbarous acts but I feel Quire has none of the charm of Steerpike who is a real rags to riches story - an individual motivated by passion. Quire is cunning and cruel but again, can't hold a candle to Steerpike's cunning. For me, Steerpike is an anti-hero whereas Quire has no redeeming features and isn't even that interesting. In terms of characterisation, I remember the inhabitants of Gormenghast really well and think of them fondly still. With the exception of Una, Countess of Scaith, (the Queen's best friend and lover) the character's are pretty forgettable.

The other work that this book is based on is Spenser's 'The Faerie Queene'. This unfinished epic poem was written in the Elizabethan era and although there is no evidence Elizabeth I ever read the poem she did publically support it. In 'The Faerie Queene' Gloriana is the queen of 'Fairyland'. I have not read this book but I understand the book was intended to be viewed allegorically for Elizabethan audiences and Gloriana was intended to be read as Queen Elizabeth. The intention of The Faerie Queene was to 'fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline'. Therefore 'Gloriana' does promote virtues within the Court of Gloriana but this is really on a surface level. Perhaps this is a nod to Spenser's glorious opinion of Elizabethan society was very different in reality?

So onto the sex of the book. For a novel about sex and filled with sex this book is pretty unerotic. I saw this book described as an 'erotic fantasy romp' and realistically it's anything but. Gloriana has a seraglio where various people and misfits live. On one level it a home for the dispossessed (like those who live in the walls), on another it's an area of the castle where every possible sexual activity can and is engaged in. Moorcock makes it abundantly clear everyone in the seraglio loves the Queen and wants to be there. Despite the sexual activity being very much on the 'extreme' end it's made clear all activity is consensual. And this is my big problem with the book. I consider myself broad minded and as a libertarian think people should be able to engage in any consensual activity between adults. I don't particularly enjoy reading about the S&M and sexual degradation in the book but I accept people can and do engage in this behaviour and lead normal happy lives. What I have a problem with is the casual nature of paedophilia in the book and the fact that it is mostly consensual. I'm aware of the practice in ancient Greece of men engaging in sex with pre-pubescent boys and I'm aware that the concept of when a girl / woman matures isn't viewed the same around the world today - let alone in the past. It just seems that there is a lot of consensual sex with children alluded to in the book and on one level I felt the book promoted this. Aside from any philosophical argument of consent the fact is this practice worldwide does not 'seek' consent. Maybe it's a product of the time but it felt wrong reading this today.

The second 'sexual' problem is that of bestiality - Gloriana has 'ape-men' to please her. They seem sub-human, like some kind of missing link and are more animal than man. Animals have feelings and emotions but until a dog can bark once for yes and twice for no this is another 'consent' issue. An argument could be made that these creatures are more man than animal - if that's the case then Moorcock is treading on dangerous ground - probably with some racist assumptions.

The third and most important and famous 'sex' problem is that of the ending. Gloriana is raped by Quire and at last achieves sexual satisfaction. So that's it - even if Moorcock didn't mean it there is a message in here that women can get off whilst being raped. Even though that may not be the central message I'm not sure what the message is. One reading suggests Gloriana achieves sexual satisfaction by having her 'power' and 'control' taken off her and finally being 'her'. What a cop out! She can't cope with statehood and the 'responsibility' of being Queen and Quire 'taking' her sets her free?

Moorcock re-wrote the ending which I have also read. Gloriana says 'no' and achieves orgasm by asserting her 'power'. Stopping an attempted rape gets you off does it? I'm sure there are deeper messages but they were lost on me in the unsettling ending.