Monday, March 24, 2008
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.