Saturday, February 29, 2020

Book Reviews: Dark Crusade, Darkness Weaves

Dark Crusade and Darkness Weaves
by Karl Edward Wagner
The late Karl Edward Wagner was an author, editor, publisher, poet and graphic novelist who originally trained as a psychiatrist. Wagner wrote fantasy, sci-fi, and horror stories. Wagner may have been best known for his Kane stories. These tales weren't always consistent in which world they were set. Generally it's a world that's not our own but occasionally Kane is shown in modern Earth. 

Kane, the allusion to the Biblical character is deliberate, is one of the first humans to exist. Kane claims that Adam was his father and Eve was his stepmother. Kane rebelled against the insane God who created humanity. Kane murdered his brother when that brother supported the deity.

The enraged God cursed Kane to wander the world, knowing neither age nor disease, until Kane succumbs to the violence he introduced. Kane has his own marks of evil: red hair, left handedness, and most notably disturbing cold blue eyes. Kane radiates violence and insanity to anyone who meets his gaze. Kane CAN be disabled and killed but it's very hard to do as he quickly heals from all but the most damaging wounds.

Kane is NOT a good guy. Kane doesn't experience the world as other humans do. Time and morality are meaningless to Kane. Kane staves off boredom and depression by using magic, technological knowledge, or violence to achieve temporary dominance. Kane is an anti-hero, a villain protagonist. 

Wagner makes him barely sympathetic by (a) creating worse antagonists and (b) having most of Kane's obviously immoral actions take place in the past. People remember evil sorcerers or pirates named Kane when they meet him before convincing themselves that the muscular man they see couldn't possibly be the man from the legends. I was reorganizing a few things in my library and decided to reread these stories, which I must have had since eighth grade or so.
Dark Crusade
This is a shorter tale, almost a short story in which an ancient supernatural entity decides that the time is right to incarnate in a human bandit and conquer the world. 

Unfortunately for this demon-god its armies, really more frenzied mobs of true believers, are initially easily routed and massacred by the less numerous but far better armed and trained heavy cavalry of neighboring nations.

Enter Kane, who promises to build an competent army for the man that he thinks is just a bandit with a Messiah complex. Kane has no intention of leaving this "crazy man" in charge.  Kane thinks he will build the empire and then take it over for himself. It's really just a countdown as to which man can betray the other first. 

Kane soon discovers to his shock that the bandit really is no longer human. The possessed man casts no shadow, knows things he shouldn't and is impervious to metal. And this creature's motivations are things that even Kane couldn't have guessed. But Kane is a sorcerer as well as a swordsman. And he has a few tricks up his sleeve.

There is an alternately funny and tragic subplot about a brave but naive general who falls in love with a lady and places her on a pedestal while she friend-zones him. There is also a tomboy character reminiscent of Arya Stark.

Like the later created GRRM character this woman is heavily motivated by revenge. Those two aside, there's not a tremendous amount of characterization here. This story is moved by plot, not character. There is some commentary about religious fanaticism.

Darkness Weaves
This story is more fleshed out than Dark Crusade. Darkness Weaves gives some explicit nods to cosmic horror writers, most obviously Lovecraft. It's set in an archipelago that is equally reminiscent of the South Pacific or Eastern Mediterranean. 

Shortly before the story's events take place the High King Netisten Maril married the beautiful princess Efrel, who hailed from the creepy island of Pellin. Pellin is where the statues and monuments of a long gone inhuman race are most common. 

Much like Cersei Lannister, Efrel intended to install her relatives and loyalists in positions of power at the Empire's center. Her husband Maril vetoed that plan. In revenge, Efrel took up with Maril's brother, hoping to bind him to her and launch a coup. But Maril had an extensive spy network.

Maril caught his brother and Efrel in bed together. After a brief combat he killed his brother and imprisoned Efrel. After executing conspirators and their families, Maril had his adulterous wife Efrel tied to a bull and dragged nude thru the streets and countryside. 

Everyone thought her dead. But Efrel didn't die. Secretly returning to Pellin, the horribly maimed and now hideous Efrel made alliances and plotted her revenge. Efrel possesses magical and other abilities beyond those of most humans. 

To lead her fleet to victory Efrel finds and hires the man who two hundred years accidentally created the empire in the first place, Kane. Both Efrel and Kane keep secrets. They do however share Efrel's bed, something which almost disgusts the jaded Kane. Efrel takes actions which Kane doesn't understand, which is exactly how Efrel, teetering on the brink of insanity, wants it. Kane and Efrel seek intelligence on each other from dangerous sources.

The writing is not dense, but sturdy and direct. There are many double crosses and even triple crosses. Although it's a longer book I think Darkness Weaves flows better than Dark Crusade. The ending is more satisfying.

Both books are quick easy reading that can be completed in a few hours. This is adult fantasy. Sex is a key motivation for many characters. These are not books to read if you're searching for allegories or analogies to modern life or politics. These are escapist tales.

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