Sword or Sorcery?

How can I wear the harness of toil
And sweat at the daily round,
While in my soul forever
The drums of Pictdom sound?

Robert Howard – The Drums of Pictdom

I am a fan of Sword & Sorcery. I am a big fan of Robert Howard’s Conan and completely in love with Karl Wagner’s Kane, and there are a good number of things I really like in Michael Moorcock’s Elric. I also am not much of a fan of what is in this current decade called Epic Fantasy. (Probably going to be named something else again soon.) It’s mostly the 1,000+ page trilogy format that isn’t doing it for me. It’s not so much the number of pages, but the broad scope and also the endless cliffhangers that keep you waiting for answers for years and decades. At the same time, I have searched my feelings and know it to be true, I don’t have the ability to commit to multi-installment works that will leave readers hanging with an unfinished story when I lose interest halfway through. But in Sword & Sorcery you generally get very tight stories with a clear focus on actual stuff happening, combined with a short length format. It was actually my first reading of Conan that made me consider writing as a medium for my creative ideas in the first place. So writing Sword & Sorcery seemed the obvious choice.

But success has been very limited so far, with a long break in which I pretty much forgot about the whole idea entirely. The format of Sword & Sorcery, with it’s length and scope certainly seems like the right one for me, but I am having doubts if it might be the genre that is holding me back. Conan is fun and Kane is great. But while they are both very entertaining characters to read about, it’s more with a morbid fascination. (Which in the case of Kane seems to have been Wagner’s intention.) Everything that they stand for does nothing for me or is outright repulsive. While I consider Conan to be honorable and behaving rational in the environment he inhabits, his values mean nothing to me. And for Kane there is one simple word that perfectly describes him. Evil. Like the Joker in The Dark Knight, observing him is fascinating and I dare say meaningful, it is not the exploration of evil that fuels the flames of my creativity and imagination.

While Robert Howard was a great writer, I am not Robert Howard. The drums of pictdom are not sounding in my soul. Conan is fun, but he is not moving me. Neither daring the world to try to impose its will on me and then crushing it to assert my individual autonomy, nor struggling with living in a society that doesn’t value or respect my personal inner life are things that are reflecting my own ideals and aspirations. The craving for conflict and need to prove my worth that is so central to the Sword & Sorcery genre has nothing to do with what I value and consider meaningful.

Instead, the works that have much more relevance to me are things like Princess Mononoke, Avatar, and The Empire Strikes Back. Which now that I think about it are all about striving to be good and freeing yourself from greed, hatred, and delusion. (It’s all Zuko that interests me in Avatar, I don’t care much for Aang.) Then there is also Raiders of the Lost Ark (which I admit has a lot of pulpy action concealing a much more interesting subplot), Ghost in the Shell, Mushishi, and Seirei no Moribito. And one very significant work for me is Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher and the videogame series that expands on it. In many ways, The Witcher exists within the context of Sword & Sorcery. It has all the ingredients, but it doesn’t become a story about a great warrior displying his might and challenging the world to try and fight him. Instead, in many ways, it is a rejection of these things. Geralt is an awesome badass warrior with inhuman powers, but he is a character who looks inward is a compassionate and humble as you can expect a man to be in a world where it’s going out of style. It’s a series I have not been thinking about much in terms of my own writing because the setting has a very medieval European style with a culture in which people are deliberately thinking and acting in the terms of Europeans from the 1990s, while Kaendor is meant to not be just uneuropean but actually unearthly and I want to attempt to portray a different mindeset “inspired” by ancient peoples. But I think thematically it’s actually quite appropriate as a comparison or reference point. In its issues and meanings itis one of the closest works to what is driving my own need to tell stories. And it does so in a world of magic and monsters, which is a really nice bonus.

I am still not entirely sure what shape precisely I want to go for with A Wanderer of Kaendor. But I feel that using Sword & Sorcery (and Raiders of the Lost Ark) as my main reference point has become more of a crutch than a means to go forward. Princess Mononoke might actually be much more helpful as an example for a combination of magic, monsters, action, and stricing to do the right thing and become a better person. (And I even like the scale and scope of that story.)

5 Important Books

A discussion on Fantasy Faction raised the idea to put together lists of the most important books to your aspiration to write fantasy. As a means to get some clarification for yourself to understand what actually drives and inspires you, and to look closer at them to find clues to figuring out what is your prefered style. I first thought it would be very easy to name five books that I really enjoyed a lot, but when it comes to books that have been important and influential, this does actually become a bit harder. In the end I was able to come up with five books that left very strong impressions on me, and of which I feel quite certain that they really are the five most important.

In chronological order:

  1. Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver by Michael Ende: There are three books by Ende that we had read to us at an early age, which were Jim Button, The Neverending Story, and Momo. All three are amazing books, but in hindsight Jim Button was the one I liked the most. It’s an adventure story that has the heroes travel to many weird places and encounter lots of strange people and experience all kinds of amazing things. And how can you beat character names like Sursulapitschi, Mister Shufulupiplu, and King Alfonse the Quarter to Twelfth. It’s not as bleak and The Neverending Story and Momo, which are highly existential works, though there is still some actually quite heavy stuff going on that was inspired by the Nazis and World War 2.
  2. Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn: This book isn’t on this list because of it’s quality, but for the impact it had on me as a fantasy fan. I never make a secret of how massive an influence Star Wars has had on me, and during those great years in the 90s I was also reading a good number of books in addition to playing lots of games. I think when the new movies came out, me and my brother had read about all the novels that had been released in German up to that point, except for those written for children. And among these books there clearly is no contender for the throne other than Heir to the Empire. It was the book that laid the foundation for Star Wars being more than just three fun movies, but a massive setting with a huge body of works. And it was also one of the first that we got. And in addition to that, it also is actually a really decent book. It’s good and still quite fun to read. I’ve read it again a while back but still somehow have not turned my extensive notes I took into a proper review.
  3. Conan by Robert Howard. All the Conan stories fit neatly into a single volume which is why I am treating them as one book here. Conan is the starting point of Sword & Sorcery and set the gold standard by which any other works are still being measured. The scale goes from 0 to Conan. Despite being the first real Sword & Sorcery series (though Howard’s proto-Conan Kull did get two story released a few years earler) it set a standard that has never been reached again. Really, what can you say about Conan? It’s amazing. Reading Conan was what got me into Sword & Sorcery and also gave me the inspiration to try writing myself as it shows how great a story can be within a format that I feel I could be able to tackle myself.
  4. Death Angel’s Shadow by Karl Wagner: While Conan has never been rivaled, Kane is perhaps the one that ever came the closest. Death Angel’s Shadow was the first Kane book that I read and I was nothing but amazed by it. Reading Conan made my love Conan. Reading Kane made me love Sword & Sorcery. Hard to describe the greatness of this series in a few sentences, so I am simply linking to the three full reviews I did here.
  5. The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski: I encountered the Witcher in the first game adaptation of the series and was so impressed by it that I eventually gave a try to the books. The first one of which is The Last Wish. Like the previous two works I listed, this book is a collection of stories but one that acually has a very tight chronological order that give it more of an episodic character than a collection of different works. It’s a really damn good book. The series has the best written characters I’ve encountered in a book so far, really no contest there. Like Conan and Kane, it’s also quite existential, which makes the conflicts the characters find themselves in feel so much relevant and meaningful. As with the previous series, I’ve written four reviews about it so far.

Looking at the completed list, I noticed something that really doesn’t surprise me at all. Except for the first entry, all the others are from series that I have given their own categories for posts here. And they are the only four series that I have treated that way. Looking at the categories list on the right could have speed this up by a bit.

Book Review: Night Winds

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.

Undertow is the first story in the book and I think an excelent choice to start with. It was the first time I’ve read a Kane story last year and it’s a great introduction to the character. Somewhat unusually, Kane has only very few and short appearances in this story. Instead we mostly follow other people talking about Kane, who is currently the sorcerer king of the city. This works surprisingly well and does a great job at establishing Kane as a really mysterious and dangerous character, because they are all completely terrified of him. It worked for Sauron and it works for Kane.

In Two Suns Fading we have Kane just after he got fed up with his last empire and simply walking out into the desert, leaving all his advisors and generals to figure out what to do next by themselves. It probably will all fall into chaos and bloodshed, but Kane doesn’t care. In the desert, Kane encounters a lone giant who is on a quest to find the tomb of an ancient giant king, and with nothing better to do Kane decides to join him. It’s a relatively short story and not one of Wagner’s best, but still pretty entertaining.

In The Dark Muse, Kane has made himself an underworld boss in some desert city, where for some strange reasons he has become a good friend and generous patron to a famous poet. This seems rather uncharacteristic at first, but so what? It’s Kane! He’s lived almost forever and is a highly intelligent man who can be quite cultivated when he wants. Surely he has been doing much stranger things through the ages. The two come into possession of a strange sorcerous artifact that has the power to send a person into the realm of dreams, and also nightmares. Kane’s poet friend really wants to try it out in hope to finding inspiration for an incredible masterpiece, but when they begin things do turn very strangely and dangerous.

Raven’s Eyrie takes place in wintery forrested hills, where a badly wounded Kane and the few surviving members of his recently destroyed gang of bandits are running from a band of bounty hunters close behind them. And it is also the night of the Demonlord’s Moon, so they have little choice but to take refuge in a small and isolated inn that Kane had previously raided some eight years ago. The owner is one of the few survivors who didn’t get masacred by Kane’s men and senses an opportunity to get her revenge. This is one of these great stories where there aren’t really any heroes but instead you have just a group of terrible people doing horrible things to each other out of hate and greed. But Wagner manages to still make it a strory that is very enjoyable to read, as he generally doesn’t go overboard with the violence and gore. It’s a dark tale and a somewhat bleak tale, but it doesn’t revel in unnecessary suffering.

Lynortis Reprise is probably the creepiest Kane story I’ve read so far. The plot is very simple and there isn’t really much happening, but the real star of this story is the location where it takes place. Lynortis and the surrounding area are the remains of a battlefield where thirty years ago tens of thousands of soldiers had laid siege to a city for two years. It is overgrown with weeds and bushes and littered with broken siege engines and mountains of skeletons, and riddled with craters, trenches, and tunnels, and the ruined remains of what once were farms and mannors. It really reads like Wagner had just been working on a World War I horror story before writing this. Kane encounters a group of old mercenary companions who are looking for a treasure they believe to be hidden somewhere in the ruins of the city and Kane eagerly accepts the offer of joining them. There is probably more gold and jewels than they can carry and they also need to be quick as there are others hunting for the treasure as well. However, treasure hunters are not the only people in the area as there are still some survivors of the battle living in some of the ruins and there are also things in the tunnels below the ground that one character refers to as the half-men. That’s already an ominous name, but the meaning behind it is even more disturbing than one would probably expect. In many ways the story feels somewhat experimental and is presented different from the other stories in the book. Sometimes it works quite well, at other times not so much. But it’s still a very interesting read. The following is probably one of my favorite paragraphs I’ve read:

Spewing tentacles of incandescent death blossomed over the roadway. Where it stuck, men flamed into cinder. Searing fragments reached out like lethal fingers, burning all they touched. Men and horses shrieked in pain and terror, bolted over the outer wall in blind panic. Flaming bodies pitched over the edge, falling like stars into the darkness far below.

This story also surprised me by having a simple but really good twist that I totally did not see coming. And the way it is presented you have several opportunities to figure it out yourself instead of having a character step forward and saying it directly, which I think makes it hit a lot harder when the pieces suddenly come together in your head. Only when I caught it did I realized that I had already missed two previous hints that could have given it away. Putting this story close to the end of the book was another good choice in organization as you really have to be familiar with Kane to make it work. If this were the first or second Kane story you read, it would probabaly just be strange and look like poor plotting. But this way it was a great wow moment when I made the realization.

The last story is Sing a Last Song of Valdese, which again is relatively short compared to the others. It’s a nice little spook story about a group of seven travelers spending the night in a small inn in the middle of a wilderness haunted by bandits and ghosts. It’s really a pretty straightforward horror tale rather than an adventure story, but it fits the world of Kane. Nothing amazing and it probably could have been expanded into something much more refined, but I like the idea behind it.

Not surprisingly, I really like this book. It’s just as good as Death Angel’s Shadow and a step or two above Bloodstone. If you like Kane you should obviously read it. If you haven’t read any Kane stories but want to, this one is a very good pick to start with as well. I very much recommend it.

Book Review: Bloodstone

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.

Book Review: Death Angel’s Shadow

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.

Reflections for the Winter of My Soul is the longest of the three stories, and I have to say the title really works for me. Is it pretentious? Of course it is. But I think good Sword & Sorcery has always to be at least a little bit preposterous and boastful, and I think this is off for a pretty good start. In the story, Kane is fleeing from enemies that outnumber him and ends up in a sudden snowstorm, from which he is miraculously saved by stumbling on a a small keep in the middle of the desolate wilerness. The lord of the castle has him nursed back to health and welcomes him as a guest, but immediately it becomes apparent that there is something darker going on in that place. Which is almost exactly the same opening and setup as William King used deacdes later in Stealer of Flesh. However, the two stories end up going in very different directions and Kings Kormak is pretty different in character from Kane, even though not necessarily in appearance, so I am letting that pass.

Cold Light is a very different story which has Kane hiding out in some remote and mostly abandoned city in the desert as he is slipping into another of his many phases of passive apathy that haunt his immortal existance. However, he is pursued by a group of crusaders who have vowed to rid the world of the murderous beast that is Kane, and greatly outnumbered he has to rely on his wits to defeat them.

Mirage is considerably shorter than the ther two stories, being more of a length that you’d expect from Howard or Leiber, but still an interesting read. Badly wounded after he was part of a failed rebellion and left for dead on the battlefield, Kane stumbles onto an old castle in the hills which is ruled by a mysterious lady.

I really like this book. While Wagner may not have been a great master of words, this is really solid writing here with some real substance and depth to it. My impression of him is that of “a man of simple words, but of deep thoughts”. His language is utalitarian, trying out a few elegant words here and there, but not getting too flowery or displaying any delusions of grandeur. At times his characters are explaining their thoughts and plans to such detail that it drifts into monologueing, which feels a bit stiff, and for Sword & Sorcery stories there is surprisingly little happening. I criticized plenty of other stories for a lack of action, but I think here Wagner really strikes a pretty good balance that works well for the kind of stories he is telling. Yes, they a grim and broody, but in an interesting and original way, that doesn’t feel like immitation of something the writer saw lots of other people do without understanding it. Perhaps it even was Wagner who those other writers later tried to immitate.

One thing I really like about the stories is that Wagner leaves a good amount of mystery. Kane is immortal, but he still bleeds and feels pain like any other human, and he greatly fears being overwhelmed in battle. Though he clearly hates his unending existance, he still clings on to live like a mortal man. But why he does, or the exact nature of his curse is never explained. There are plenty of hints in this book that tell us who Kane is. But that still doesn’t tell us anything about what he is or the greater story of his life beyond these few snapshots of a few days. Too many writers give away too many of the mystries of their stories, but Wagner does not. I really like that and the stories are so much richer for it.

I am usually not a fan of action scenes. Most fight scenes quickly bore me and when I watch The Fellowship of the Rings or The Two Towers on DVD, I often turn them off when the big fight scenes at the end start. I’ve seen them once, I know what happens. They no longer entertain me. I don’t even have The Return of the King of DVD, though I actually once went through a friends DVDs and discovered that he doesn’t have it either. That movie is nothing but boring battle scenes. It’s not that I dislike fighting or violence in fiction, but most of the time it’s just swords and explosions. That’s window dressing, but the actual story of fight scenes is really what it does to the people and their emotions. And most action movies and plenty of fantasy books just don’t get that at all. Kane does. There is very little description of how the fighters move and what they do with their swords. When there are fight scenes, and for a merciless killing machine like Kane there are really not that many, they mostly take place inside the characters head. And a very interesting choice that Wagner made was to keep Kanes skill at fighting to relatively realistic levels. When Kane is hopelessly outnumbered in Cold Light, the army of crusaders that has set out to destroy him has already dwindled down to just nine men. And even when he manages to get three of them alone into a trap, he still takes only one shot at one of them and then immediately makes his escape before the other two can react. Kane is immortal and a slayer of thousands, but he won’t take on three armed men at once. This is very different from what you usually see in fantasy, especially Sword & Sorcery.

But what probably impressed me the most about Kane is how much the stories are dealing with the dark deeds of humans and following a protagonist who most probably is much worse than the people he is fighting, while Wagner still manages to remain very much detatched and impartial. From everything we are told, Kane commited countless horrible crimes and attrocities without feeling any remorse for them. But we don’t see him do them and even in his own thoughts Kane never justifies or explains them. He is described as a monster, but when you watch him, he doesn’t feel like a monster. When Howard writes about Conan as a pirate or a bandit leader, whose men murder or plunder, Howard always appears to think Conan is really totally cool, and presents it in a way that assumes that of course we also would think that he is totally cool, which I personally often feel somewhat ambigous about. Yes, he wants to write about a man who lives in a time of foreign values, but it that is what he intended it to come across as, Howard didn’t do a good job in that regard. Wagner is very different. Kane is a great character, but objectively speaking he is a terrible person. Yet when Wagner writes about him, I don’t get any impression that he wants us to either hate or admire Kane. Kane is just Kane. The same goes for many of the enemies Kane is facing. Except towards the ending, which I felt a bit weak for that reason, Cold Light is really very unclear whether the crusaders who are hunting Kane are supposed to be heroic or just as evil as him. But I think they are not supposed to be anything. They just are what they are and do what they do. Towards the end some of the characters take the clear stance that many of their deeds really were evil and reject them, but that is what those characters are thinking. But Wagner really had a talent of keeping the voice of the author out of this. Terrible things happen. He does not judge them, nor comment on them, and as a result the stories never get preachy. When I read Kane, it does not seem to me that Wagner is indifferent to evil and brutality, and at some points you can see that he knows what good and decency are. But he appears to have had the confidence in his readers that they would be able to think about the contents of his stories themselves and make up their own mind, without telling them what it means and what they should think. And that at the same time he also manages to not make it appear as if he admires or glorifies Kane in any way, and I think that is a talent I have not seen any writer display before in such a way, and which really makes me enjoy the stories very much.