Moorcock's desired reading order for fans to fully grasp the Elric Saga begins with the first full-length novel to feature the character, Elric Of Melnibone. It was published in the UK in 1972 by Hutchinson. It was published by Lancer the same year under the title The Dreaming City. The most collectible, and arguably desirable, publications of the novel is DAW's 1976 paperback version, Elric of Melnibone, with incredible cover art by Michael Whelan. This review is based on the version that is included in Gallery/Saga Press's The Elric Saga Vol. 1, a 2022 hardcover omnibus that collects the series first three full-length paperbacks and a foreword by Neil Gaiman. This omnibus is also presented as an audio book narrated by the incredible voice of Samuel Roukin.
At 180ish pages, Elric of Melnibone sets the table for new readers as an origin novel that kicks off the fantasy series properly. Elric is the emperor of the island kingdom of Melnibone, also called Dragon Isle. Elric is the 428th emperor to sit on the ruby throne, but he's a plagued leader. Described as a thin sickly albino, Elric must rely on special potions and magic to stay alive. In essence, he is sort of like a vampire relying on blood to exist. His rival to the throne is his cousin Yyrkoon, a mastermind that is consistently plotting methods to ascend to power. Complicating this familial power struggle is Cymoril, Elric's love interest and sister of Yyrkoon (which means Elric is really in love with his cousin?).
Melnibone was once the world's dominating superpower, but centuries have eroded the kingdom's prosperity and left them merely a shell of their former glory. However, Melnibone still maintains a flourishing trading business that is sought after by rival kingdoms. In the book's opening chapters, Elric and Yyrkoon are on a war barge fighting one of these rivals when Yyrkoon capitalizes on Elric's weakened state and throws him into the deep sea.
I won't ruin the whole surprise, but Elric doesn't die. Instead, he lives to avenge this murder attempt by exiling Yyrkoon from Melnibone. But, Yyrkoon captures Cymoril and escapes into the Young Kingdoms far away. As Elric desperately tries to locate Cymoril, he must fight Yyrkoon. It is this search for Elric's love that makes up the bulk of the book's narrative. Elric is forced to find a magical sword called Stormbringer that “possesses” it's wielder. The sword craves killing and feeds its wielder in the same ways as Elric's magic potions. To kill Yyrkoon, Elric needs Stormbringer, but must also face the fact that the sword will be his new master.
Michael Moorcock is absolutely brilliant with this heroic tale featuring the beloved Elric. In the big picture, Elric is an incarnation of the Eternal Champion, a warrior that is created by the gods and reborn repeatedly. Moorcock's other series titles like Hawkmoon, Erekos, and Corum feature incarnations of the Eternal Champion, just in different universes that make up Moorcock's robust multiverse. However, readers don't need to read these other titles to appreciate this novel. This is an origin tale that gets the reader acquainted with Elric and his mission ahead. It has jealousy, action, nautical adventure, sword-and-sorcery, fantasy, and world building sprinkled into a rather simple plot. It is good versus evil, but tells a broader story of the responsibilities of power. There are numerous underlying themes that reflect political strife and upheaval, a common theme for Moorcock.
Elric of Melnibone is a mandatory read if you have even the smallest desire to read a fantasy novel. It is an easy book to dive into and its characters and frenzied pace are captivating. Highest possible recommendation.