I actually like Moorcock’s later Elric stories, those written after the completion of the two original trilogies and squeezed into the cracks of those tales, better than the early stuff. Not that I don’t love the early stuff too, but I think Moorcock had grown as a writer. He had things to say, so his plots become tighter. Fortress of the Pearl is where the divergence begins. Spoilery bits follow.
This story is less soap-operatic, and more along the lines of a tale by Fritz Lieber, for whom Moorcock has professed great admiration. A down-on-his-luck Elric, on his walkabout from being emperor, has neither herbal extracts to maintain his strength nor work as a mercenary to insure a flow of souls for Stormbringer. He ends up in a city that postures to be a rival to Melnibone in its decadence. A man with political aspirations gets the weakened Elric hooked on what’s basically fantasy heroin. It will give elric his strength temporarily, but will ultimately cause him to waste away and die. There is an antidote, of course, and the man will supply it to Elric if he’ll go steal a precious pearl for him. With the pearl, the man can buy himself more political power and influence.
Then is gets trippy, and this is where I love Moorcock’s brand of non-Tolkien fantasy. Elric hooks up with a dream thief, a beautiful woman who literally steals and sells dreams. They meet up with nomads, whose Holy Girl has fallen into a coma. The child possesses all of the collective wisdom and knowledge of the people. To save the Holy Girl, Elric and the dream thief have to enter what’s more-or-less a variation on Lovecraft’s dreamlands. Stormbringer gets left behind in the “real” world, so we get to see how Elric functions without it. He literally hooks up with the dream thief, but it somehow doesn’t count as cheating on the lady-love he left behind in Melnibone because, well, it’s inside a dream.
The pearl, of course, ends up being a metaphor, as well as a real pearl, and Elric of course gets off the magical heroin and exacts his revenge on the guy who tried to manipulate him. Stormbringer gets souls, and Elric slides back into the continuity of the original trilogy.
This is fun stuff, filled with good characters, great imagery, and interesting ideas. What that more fantasy took its cues from Moorcock and stopped being bogged down in pseudo-Medieval hobbitry.