Monday, March 24, 2008

Dark Crusade

I had been saving Karl Edward Wagner's novel Dark Crusade for a rainy day. That day came yesterday. See, Dark Crusade was the last tale of Wagner's anti-hero Kane that I hadn't read. I'd read all the short stories and the other two novels. I knew that once I read Crusade, there would be no more stories about Kane. So I put it away and waited. The dearth of good reading material I mentioned a post or two back finally made me delve back into the dark imagination of Karl Edward Wagner. I wasn't disappointed.
When a former outlaw re-emerges as the prophet of the dark god Sataki, Kane initially thinks that the man is running a scam, using his position to justify his 'Dark Crusade' against unbelievers and raking in a tidy profit. The ever amoral Kane wants in. But as he takes over the prophet's undisciplined army and begins to whip them into a formidable fighting machine, Kane comes to realize that there may really be a god behind the prophet and that Kane's own scheme to usurp the man's power may have placed him in opposition to a threat that even Kane can't deal with.

I mentioned before, in my review of another Kane novel, Bloodstone, that I felt that sword & sorcery's natural medium is the short story and that most novel length S&S tales fall flat. Wagner goes a long way toward proving me wrong as Dark Crusade never really wavers. There's a sense of brooding menace that manages to permeate the entire novel. True, Wagner spends a bit more time with some of the supporting cast than I would like, but I think that was his way of making Kane more mysterious and threatening. Kane seems far more dangerous and unpredictable when he suddenly appears and I found myself anticipating the chapters where he took center stage. There are some amazing large scale battles in this one too. I wish Wagner was still alive so that I could ask him what sort of research he did for the battles. His descriptions of the strategies and the battle order and the complex movements of large groups of troops carry a lot of authentic sounding detail.
Of the three Kane novels, I still probably liked Darkness Weaves the most, but Dark Crusade is right up there. The thing that impresses me most about Wagner's novels (and this is true of his short stories as well) is that he never really repeats himself. Dark Crusade isn't anything like Bloodstone and neither book is like Darkness Weaves. Only Kane remains a constant. Unfortunately there is a finite and all too small supply of stories about Kane. And now I've read them all.


John said...

I agree with you about darkness weaves. I think it is his most engaging novel. I posted once before on your comment about Wagner and the short stories. It is truly sad that there is not more to the Kane collection. I am impressed you waited so long to finish the set. If you read Exorcisms and Ecstasies, there are several homages to Wagner. They are all about how he could have been so much more. The most moving one is by David Drake. It is called "The Truth insofar as I know it". He laments Karl's later lack of productivity, and concludes "I don't know what happened. I was there the whole time, seeing Karl five or six days a week, and I don't have a clue". I guess my question is, if Karl had struggled less with his demons, would his stories be so haunting and engaging?

Charles R. Rutledge said...

I did much the same with the short stories, spacing them out and I waited almost a year before reading my final one, 'Cold Light'. I remember reading Drake's essay in Exorcisms and Ecstasies, and I agree. I've known a lot of creative people with amazing talent who simply couldn't sit down and produce. Artist Roy Krenkel comes to mind. And yes, it was probably Karl's nature that both allowed him to write what he did but also caused many of his problems. True of us all, I guess.