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.