Night Winds is the third Kane book by Karl Wagner that I’ve read. I already liked Death Angel’s Shadow and Bloodstone very much and so I had pretty high confidence that this one wouldn’t disappoint me either. Like Death Angel’s Shadow, Night Winds is a collection of several unconnected stories of various length. And as many others have already claimed before me, Kane seems to be at his best during these shorter tales when Wagner can get straight to the point. The more stories I read, the more I am surprised that only Howard, Leiber, and Moorcock are widely regarded as the great giants of Sword & Sorcery, but I think Wagner can easily stand among them as an equal. The stories of Kane are a lot more gloomy and less exhilarating fun compared to Conan, but I think when judging them by their own strengths they really come out pretty even.
Just like Conan, Kane is always the centerpiece of his stories and the defining element of the series. The stories are not just with Kane, but always about Kane. And as a character he is extremely fascinating. Kane is possibly one of the most extreme cases of anti-hero with a heart so black and cruel that he would easily be a villain in any other stories but his own. And from what what other people tell about the things he is doing between the stories, being a full out villain is apparently his normal mode. Not only is he an evil man, Kane is also cursed to be immortal. He does not age and recovers from injury and sickness much faster than any normal human. But he can still be killed and he does feel pain like any living man and that’s the true punishment behind his curse. Because the one thing that Kane hates more than his eternal life is the very idea of seeking escape in death. He probably could kill himself or allow others to kill him with no problems, but his pride drives him to cling on to his tormented life with bare hands and teeth until his very last breath. With all the time in the world and a powerful body, he mastered the arts of fighting and sorcery ages ago and is quite probably the most dangerous person in the entire world. But in the world of Kane, sorcerers don’t cast spells and are much more like Lovecraftian ocultists, and even a warrior like himself can not fight a dozen men by himself. He spends his eternity by gathering armies of mercenaries and bandits to carve out small empires to rule, but eventually he is always either defeated by his enemies or simply gets bored with it and walks off into the wilderness with nothing but his sword and his clothes to sink into sorrow or find himself some new kind of diversion. It is during these times where almost all of the tales of Kane are taking place.
As much as I love The Witcher, after three books I feel like taking a break for a while and look at some other books of Sword and Sorcery. I still feel like I am not really that well read in the genre and if you want to write some interesting stories it always helps to be somewhat familiar with what others have done with it and what might be interesting ideas to follow. So I actually got myself a decent stack of new books I will work myself through over the coming weeks. And most likely write reviews for them as well.
Night Winds by Karl Wagner. I really love Wagner. I think he’s the best Sword & Sorcery writer after Robert Howard and Andrzej Sapkowski. After reading a first story in an anthology (which was one of the few good ones in the book) I read and really loved Death Angel’s Shadow, and while Bloodstone wasn’t as great I still enjoyed it a lot. I’ve now seen people say that the stories are generally much better than the novels, so I am going with this one instead of trying out another novel.
The Black Company by Glen Cook. I’ve read one Black Company story in a Sword & Sorcery anthology last year and didn’t like it very much. It lacked both action and supernatural involvement and that just won’t do in Sword & Sorcery. But the series is regularly brought up as perhaps the most important one in recent Sword & Sorcery, so I’ve felt compelled to actually give at least the first book a chance. People joke that we Germans have so many snappy words for philosophy and other complex scientific concepts, and I have to admit that it is true. To me, not having read a Black Company book is a Bildungslücke, a gap in (basic) education. As a Sword & Sorcery fan and critic, you just have to know this series to be able to make any relevant comments.
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. I’ve been actually quite surprised to see that this is already almost 10 years old. The way everyone keeps talking about it at Fantasy Faction made me think that it was very recent and one of the books everyone is talking about these days. While it goes against the Jordan Rule of not starting a fantasy series until it is completed, it does very much match my personal rule of paying real attention to books, movies, and games that people still talk about in high praise a year or two after release. I may not always be up to date, but this way I rarely read,watch, or play something that is not really great. And it’s generally much cheaper. (I think the last game I bought within a month after release was Mass Effect 3 and I was already a huge fan of the series. Before that I can’t even remember. Probably over 10 years ago.)
Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. I don’t really know anything about it, except that a few people recommended it, both in reply to me looking for Sword & Sorcery and nonstandard fantasy settings.
Trollslayer by William King. I’ve read his book Stealer of Flesh last winter and thought it was pretty entertaining. His Grotek and Felix books seem to be more well known and have been recommended to me by several people, so I’ll be giving the first one a try.
Other books I have around and which I plan to get to eventually are Times of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski, Kull by Robert Howard, Warlords of Mars by Edgar Burrough, and the X-Wing series by Michael Stackpole. I also have started reading Tome of the Undergates by Sam Sykes, but that has an infamous drawn out opening scene that I find indeed quite terrible. There’s a lot to complain so far but also some good things, which I think would all be very interesting to discuss. So maybe I can get myself to endure it and maybe it gets better towards the end. I also want to write a review of the Thraw Series by Timothy Zahn in the next few days.
A while back I reviewd Death Angel’s Shadow by Karl Wagner, which I really quite liked. So I picked up Bloodstone, which was published two years later, but being a somewhat obscure series from the early 70s I have not the slightest clue in which order they were originally written. I have a feeling that Bloodstone might actually be a bit older, and perhaps even the first story of Kane.
Bloodstone is a single full-length novel which begins with Kane coming into possession of a strange old ring with a large green and red bloodstone. It awakens some long lost memories in his immortal mind and leads him to start another one of his enigmatic plans of conquest. In typical Kane fashion, even though he is the protagonist of the story, Wagner doesn’t tell us anything of what Kane is knowing or planning for most of the time. Usually witholding important information from the readers which the characters obviously know ranks at the very lowest level of cheap writing tricks for me. But with Kane Wagner is always consistent and we’re always kept in the dark of what is going on in his head. In fact, for large parts of the book Kane is completely absent and as in the other stories, the plot mostly follows other people who had the unfortunate fate to get caught up in his wake as he leaves a trail of destruction wherever he goes. Of those other characters we do learn a lot and their thoughts and plans are usually revealed very quickly. It’s a very daring and couragous method of telling a story, but one that Wagner manages to pull of successfully and it works really well.
In Death Angel’s Shadow and Undertow, I always had the impression that Wagner was not a man of great words who uses relatively simple language to talk about very complex and fascinating things. In Bloodstone, it seems more like he is trying too hard in channeling Lovecraft and Howard and pretty much every paragraph has at least one word which I don’t know. I always understand what he means out of the context of the sentence within the scene so it doesn’t hurt too much, but I think he clearly went overboard with it in Bloodstone. His other (and I presume later) works are much better in this regard. The other thing that I noticed negatively is that the story drags on for too long. Especially when it comes to describing the big fight scenes, but also when another mysterious location is visisted. I love well written description that go into a lot of detail to bring the sights and atmosphere to life, and the lack of such is something that often find frustrating in many fantasy stories I’ve read in recent years. But in this case Wagner is often not adding anything new and just repeats more of the same things he already said. With the big battle scenes I was sometimes tempted to flip ahead three or four pages, but I have to say that I generally get very easily bored by battle scene all the times. I usually skip the battle scenes when watching The Two Towers and I don’t even have Return of the King on DVD. So maybe it’s not actually that bad. Overall, this books seems not particularly strong when it comes to the degree of skill at the craft. Language a bit too cheesy, pacing could be a lot better, and the characters are not particularly deep or complex.
But all that doesn’t bother me at all, because it’s the plot where Bloodstone really show. Like the other stories I’ve read, Wagner once more showed that he had a really good instinct for creating plots that don’t tread down the old paths. At several points in the novel I got the feeling that everything seemed close to resolution, but when you’re only a quarter into the book, you know that it obviously can’t be the case. Part of this comes from the fact that we never really know what Kane is planning in the long term and we only follow his antagonist or allies as they are dealing with the issue currently at hand. But any time it seems like the adventure has been wrapped up, Kane plays his next card and reveals another step in his grand plan to the rest of the world. In a TV show or comic this could probably get pretty frustrating, but as Bloodstone is a single volume novel you know how much more you can expect to follow. There are plenty of nice twists, with probably the best one being the one at the end. It’s a rather unusual approach you’ve probably not seen before very often, but it doesn’t come out of nowhere and you probably see it coming two sentences before it happens.
Kane himself is mostly Kane as we know him. A brilliant schemer and utterly selfish bastard. But while his planning and manipulating in this book is very nicely done, his character is not quite as fascinating and disturbingly ambigous. In Death Angel’s Shadow, it is made very clear that everyone who know about Kane thinks that he is a terrible monster in the shape of a man, and everything we learn about his thoughts actually supports that assesment. Not that he’s eating babies and impaling people on big spikes, but it is very clear that his mind has absolutely no regard for anything that normal people would consider just or decent and that he walks on the corpses on innocents without any second guess. This element of his character, which combined with his compelling charisma makes him such an intriguing character, is mostly absent in this book. Here he is simply selfish. If you havn’t read any Kane stories before and then read Bloodstone, you’d probably not feel anywhere near as fascinated by him as I do. If this is indeed one of the first stories Wagner wrote about the character, he’s getting a lot stronger later on.
What I found very interesting about this book is that it finally reveals why Kane does anything that he does. In Death Angel’s Shadow that was always a great mystery. Why does he consider his immortality a curse and why does he live the kind of life he does if he could do pretty much anything he could ever want to? In Bloodstone, this part of his character is explored only briefly, but deep enough to get a pretty good understanding of how he ticks. It’s not really complicated at all and makes a lot of sense. If this is actually a good thing I am not sure. I really loved the walking mystery that was Kane in the stories I’d been reading before, and as of now I can not say if understanding his way of thinking makes his character more enjoyable or less. I probably have to read another collection of stories before I really know.
With all that being said, I still really loved reading this book. And I do recommend it, but with some considerations. If you havn’t read any Kane story before, I don’t think this is a good one to start with. It’s still a pretty good book, but it doesn’t really showcase how good Wagner could write this character. Even if the series of Kanes stories is something you’d love, Bloodstone might not be the book to win you over. If you know Kane and consider picking up this book, I fully recommend doing so. But if you are thinking of giving the series a try for the first time, better start with something else. Death Angel’s Shadow would be a good start, for example.
I think I first read about Karl Wagners Kane a few months ago at Black Gate, and I thought it sounded very interesting. Stories of a true anti-hero whom many consider to be a monster, who is both a great swordsmen and very powerful sorcerer, yet still a character of great depths and deep reflection. I’ve read the story Undertow in The Sword & Sorcery Anthology and while not great, ot really made me want to read more of Kane.
So I picked up Death Angel’s Shadow, which is the first collection of Kane stories I am aware of, but that doesn’t have to mean that these are also the first written ones, and I believe they actually are not. So who is this Kane? He is a very muscular and skilled swordsmen, but that is where the similarities with Conan already end. Both Kane and Wagners writing are a very different story from Howards classic barbarian hero and his countless imitations.
Kane was not a man easily mistaken for another. His red hair and fair complexion, his powerful bearlike frame set him apart from the native Chrosanthians in a region where racial features leaned to dark hair and lean wiriness. And his rather coarse features and huge sinewed hands did not make him too exceptional from the mercenaries displaced from the cold lands far to the south. It was his eyes that banded him as an outsider. No man looked into Kane’s eyes and forgott them. Cold blue eyes in which lurked the wild gleam of insanity, hellish fires of crazed destruction and bloodshed. The look of death. Eyes of a born killer.
Kane is an immortal who has traveled the Earth for countless centuries, cursed by ancient gods to never find any peace in death. He is a great warrior, but also a very powerful sorcerer and through the centuries has ruled over many different lands and made his name known throughout most of the world as a tyrant, conqueror, and bandit. He is a man who is feared, and expects to be feared, and has no illusions or guilt about the death and attrocities he brought upon the world. Yet what we see of Kane, at least in this book, is not a mindless raging killer, but a man of many different aspects. Continue reading “Book Review: Death Angel’s Shadow”
Now this title is a boast as big as it can possibly get. Swords & Dark Magic called itself the new Sword & Sorcery and fell disappointingly flat in that regard. “The Sword & Sorcery Anthology” can only be read in two possible ways: Either “The Complete Collection of Sword & Sorcery”, which obviously it isn’t, or “The Ultimate Sword & Sorcery Anthology”. I am more than willing to judge a book by its content, but when the publisher puts such a claim into the very title of the book, I will judge it by that measure as well.
Since getting through this book is taking a lot longer than I thought, I’ll split this review into two parts, covering half of the stories each. (The second half may take another week or two, though.)