The Reading Canary Tackles the Mystic Swordsman

by Arthur B

Arthur B reviews the Kane series by Karl Edward Wagner.

The Reading Canary: a Reminder

Series of novels - especially in fantasy and SF fiction, but distressingly frequently on other genres as well - have a nasty tendency to turn sour partway through. The Reading Canary is your guide to precisely how far into a particular sequence you should read, and which side-passages you should explore, before the noxious gases become too much and you should turn back.

Kane: One of Conan's Heirs

That particular brand of low fantasy that's referred to by fans as "sword and sorcery" is, to a large extent, all about the protagonists. While it is true that a few of the early pioneers of the genre, such as Clark Ashton Smith, didn't feel a need to include recurring protagonists, preferring instead to develop a recurring setting, ever since Robert E. Howard wrote his genre-defining Conan the Barbarian stories the presence of a well-defined main protagonist has become a key feature of the genre.

Appropriately, many - if not all - of these protagonists have been responses to Conan. Howard's contemporary, C.L. Moore, wanted to write about a female hero, and invented Jirel of Joiry. Fritz Leiber, beginning in 1939 but continuing into the 1970s, treated us to stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, who far from scorning civilisation as Conan does have a full and rich enjoyment of the finer things in life. Perhaps the most deliberate inversion of the Conan archetype is Elric, Michael Moorcock's product of the 1960s, whose physical weakness, emotional fragility and reliance on wizardry is in striking contrast to just about everything Conan stood for.

And then, in the 1970s, there came Kane, as much a response to Elric as Conan. Kane doesn't just embrace magic and the supernatural, as Elric and (to a lesser extent) Fafhred and the Gray Mouser did; he is, in fact, a supernatural entity himself, an immortal warrior doomed to wander the land. Kane is, in fact, one of the first human beings created. Not content with being a prototype of a slave race, he led a rebellion against the god that made him and the rest of humanity - and murdered his brother, who was opposed to the revolt. The parallels to the account of Cain in Genesis only go so far, however: Kane's creator is not the God of the Bible, but the sort of elder god who might or might not occupy the pantheon of the Cthulhu Mythos. And this elder god not only gives Kane a Mark so that all will know he is a killer - in this case, the Mark is that Kane's eyes are intensely disturbing, and it's impossible to look him in the eye for long - but makes him immortal, so that untold centuries later, after the old ones of Elder Earth are all dead, sleeping, or fled to fairer stars, Kane is still there, as young as he was when he rebelled, and can only be killed by violence. And since he introduced mankind to violence in the first place, he's pretty damn good at it.

Although Kane is depicted as a loincloth-clad barbarian in the cover art of many of Wagner's books (presumably to cash in on the popularity of Conan), he's only a barbarian in the sense that he predates civilisation and has a distressing tendency to destroy things, and he usually wears clothes - in fact, he wears armour when going into battle if he has any to hand. He is (as the "mystic swordsman" epithet implies) something of a scholar and a sorcerer - partially because he has an intelligent and inquiring mind, and partially because he has lived such a long and adventurous life that he can't help but become a walking encyclopedia. He works in a myriad of different trades - mercenary, thief, crime baron, monarch - and in the main is out for himself (but keeps an eye open for opportunities to avenge himself upon his maker). This does mean that he frequently ends up working for villains, or being a villain himself - he's by no means the hero of all of the stories he appears in - but he's read the Evil Overlord list and is often dismayed when his employers haven't. In addition, he does have limits, although they are somewhat more lax than most peoples'; he has no appetite for indiscriminate massacre of innocents, and he's incredibly cautious about dealings with demonic entities and the creatures of Elder Earth. Nonetheless, much of his trouble stems from his poor judgement when it comes to choosing sides.

Darkness Weaves

Originally published in an abridged version in 1970, the 1978 version (which I read) restored this novel to the author's original vision. Kane is recruited by Efrel - the deranged, mutilated, possibly-undead sorceress which, as you can see by the front cover, has a pact with the devils of the deep - to lead a rebellion in the island empire she resides in. She is the former wife of the Emperor himself, but was found plotting a coup with the Emperor's brother and was subject to a horrific punishment, which has left her a tattered vengeance-animated wreck of a woman.

In an interesting twist, it turns out that the formation of the empire was originally a response by the people of the archipelago to the predations of the pirate Red Kane two centuries ago, which we swiftly guess is Kane himself. As the title suggests, this novel explores the concept that violence and terror breed violence and terror; the Emperors who rule this empire that sprang out of a need for mutual protection have become tyrants, those who would oust them have turned to dangerous and brutal methods, the innocents who have been punished for the misdeeds of their parents harbour their own resentments, and so forth. Both sides, the rebels and the current regime, have their own internal divisions, to the point where it almost doesn't matter who wins the war: if the other side had prevailed, they've have still torn themselves and the empire apart in a glut of treachery. The catastrophe which concludes the book - and which means that nobody gets precisely what they want out of the whole messy situation - just happens to be one out of the many different ways things could have all gone to hell.

Kane occupies an interesting position in this book; as a mercenary, he's not too concerned about who he works for (although Efrel's methods finally become too much for him by the end of the book), and so he ends up being the villain's henchman (albeit one who's planning a coup so that he can take over the Empire himself) - and make no mistake about it, Efrel's a villain. The one character who could potentially be described as hero in this book is Lages, the nephew of the current Emperor who begins the book languishing in prison after his failure to avenge his rebellious father's death. Appropriately, then, Wagner shifts viewpoint characters frequently, so that we don't see the entire thing solely from Kane's limited point of view; in fact, he manages to incorporate an impressive number of different viewpoints into a 288 page novel without any of them seeming rushed or underdeveloped. Modern authors should take note.

Although it occurs quite late in the internal chronology of the Kane stories - in one scene Efrel is shown images a selection of Kane's previous adventures, some of which are documented in the rest of the series, by a demon she is interrogating - Darkness Weaves is an reasonable introduction to Kane, and an OK fantasy novel in its own right, but it's let down by one particularly uncomfortable-to-read scene that doesn't really add much. Specifically, there's one bit where Efrel rapes a captive princess. There's a vague justification for this disturbing hag-on-maiden scene - Efrel's going to steal her body, so the rape parallels the horrible invasive degradation involved in that - but it's still completely disgusting, and I don't quite see why it was necessary (especially since the climax of the book would work better if the reader didn't know about the body swap). Unfortunately, Wagner's unsympathetic handling of female characters continues off and on throughout the series; he does manage to get better, but it takes a while. While Darkness Weaves set the formula for the Kane novels, the two later books are superior presentations of it.

Death Angel's Shadow

This collection of three early Kane short stories is, alas, not quite up to scratch. The first story, Reflections For the Winter of My Soul - despite the silly name - is the best, and finds Kane (on the run from one of his misadventures as an archvillain's treacherous underling) holed up with a Baron's retinue in a snowbound hunting lodge, where a werewolf is slowly picking off the guests. With plenty of twists and turns, and a genuinely interesting backstory for the wolf, this is far and away the most polished of the stories in the collection - long enough to get across the tense, claustrophobic atmosphere without being quite so long as to outlast its welcome.

Sadly, the other stories seem to be much less polished. Perhaps Wagner wrote them in a hurry to meet some deadline, or perhaps they're from earlier in his writing career; although most of the Kane stories first appeared in Wagner's Midnight Sun fantasy magazine, I've had no luck finding out when the tales in Death Angel's Shadow were first published. Cold Light is altogether too long and becomes tiresome; the basic premise, in which Kane (currently tired of the adventuring life - and life in general - and resting peacefully in a half-deserted city) is hunted by a brutal crusader whose personal war against evil has turned him into a reflection of the villains he hunts.

While the basic idea of the story, which seems to be making a point that most of the so-called "heroes" of sword and sorcery fiction aren't especially heroic, is good - I especially like the poor henchman who begins to wonder whether this whole crusade isn't just a little bit fucked up when his liege orders the posse to gang-rape Kane's girlfriend because she's a filthy whore who sleeps with bad people - the execution is lacking. Part of the problem with this one is that the crusader's party is simply too big - there's nine people in the posse, and 100 pages isn't enough to adequately cover all of them but at the same time is far too long for the plotline presented! Reducing the hunting party's numbers and tightening up the word count on the story would help a lot! Also, the prose in this story isn't quite as good! Wagner's bad habit of using too many exclamation marks in too short a period of time really begins to grate! This is very annoying! As a reader, I don't like feeling like the author is shouting at me! It's a major weakness in Wagner's prose!

The same poor prose characterises Mirage, a brief story which seems wildly pointless. It goes a little like this: Kane meets a vampire who seduces him in a clumsy sex scene and drains him of blood. Kane hangs around for a bit and lets the vampire drain him. He doesn't die because he can only die through violence, and he eventually realises that he cannot escape his doom to walk the Earth for all eternity simply by letting a vampire to kill him. He tells the vampire to go fuck herself and leaves. He mopes a little because he is immortal and he sad that he is immortal.

With two thirds of Death Angel's Shadow being dross, I can't recommend seeking out this particular volume. If you happen to find it cheap, like I did, it's worth picking up for Reflections For the Winter of My Soul, but that's it.


The second novel is a vast improvement, leagues ahead of Death Angel's Shadow and even Darkness Weaves. This time, Kane is in full-on villain mode: he's discovered the key to reawakening a vast alien crystalline intelligence from before the dawn of mankind (it's the Bloodstone of the title). What is he going to do with it? The same thing he does every novel - try to take over the world!
They're Bloodstone
They're Bloodstone
and the Kane, Kane, Kane, Kane, Kane...
Although the first half of the book focuses on Kane - especially those covering his adventures trying to reach Bloodstone in the middle of a toadman-infested swamp - there is a gradual (and neatly handled) shift partway through, so that for the second half the novel the protagonist is in fact Teres, daughter of the ruler of one of the city-states of the Southern Lands that Kane is trying to manipulate. Teres is totally awesome. She's a warrior princess with the Grey Mouser's keen intelligence, Jirel of Joiry's fighting prowess and sensible armour, and Conan's appetite for female sexual conquests.

Actually, let me talk for a bit about that. Wagner's treatment of Teres's sexuality is at points sensitive and carefully-handled, at other times crude and slightly silly. We are introduced to Teres as a confirmed lesbian; we know this, because she's gambling with her father to see who gets to break in the new slavegirl first. At this point, and at several other times early on in the book, Teres appears to be a reverse stereotype; in the previous books Wagner's female characters tended to be scenery, damsels in distress, or rape-bait - possibly all three - and so it seems that Teres is at least partially meant to behave more or less as the opposite of Wagner's usual female characters. As a result, until Wagner decides to develop her character further she exists firmly in caricature territory.

At the same time, sometimes she ventures beyond there. Midway through the book Teres finds herself sleeping with Kane after she ends up blundering into Bloodstone's hidden city-complex and Kane takes her into custody. This isn't a matter of "Oh, she thought she was a lesbian until the love of a good man cured her"; nor does it appear to be rape. What happens is that Kane explains to her what he intends to do with Bloodstone, and solicits her support; Teres finds herself seduced by the promise of absolute power, and to her confusion also finds she is attracted to Kane. That might be due to the feverish, dreamlike atmosphere of the swamp city, or the allure of global domination, or Stockholm Syndrome, or simply Teres being caught off-guard by meeting one of the few men who isn't phased by her status as a powerful woman. (Kane is immortal, remember, and so presumably was around before traditional ideas of male and female roles were developed.) After she flees and reaches safety, Teres is genuinely conflicted as to whether or not she was actually attracted to Kane (and incidentally she does sleep with women afterwards, so he's not "cured" her of the gay or anything like that); eventually, she realises her feelings for him were genuine, but by that point he has done such terrible things that she cannot forgive him. This is frankly more nuanced than I expect most of Wagner's female characters to be; I can only conclude that he realised partway through writing the novel that Teres had the potential to be more than Angry Dyke Princess, and moderated his handling of her accordingly. If only he'd gone back to revise that ridiculous gambling scene...

Let's get back to Kane, because in this novel he's a decidedly unsympathetic character. Like I said earlier, I think that Kane is meant to be the anti-Elric, just as Michael Moorcock designed Elric to be the anti-Conan; Kane, like Elric, has an essential flaw to his personality - but while Elric's flaws normally cast him as the anti-hero, in Bloodstone Kane's faults make a true villain out of him. Elric's problem is his utter dependency on factors outside of himself: his pact with Arioch the Chaos God and his possession of the demon blade Stormbringer gives him vast occult and martial prowess, but both ultimately manipulate him; his relationships with his few friends keep him sane, but ultimately end in tragedy because he is unable to control his power. Kane, naturally, is the reverse. He is an immortal who is a master swordsman and a wizardly genius in his own right. His problem is his inherent inability to assign any value to anything or anybody outside of himself - because for him, everything is utterly transient. Although he is responsible for freeing humanity from its insane alien creator, he only cares about his own personal freedom and thinks nothing of enslaving others; although a few women, like Teres, can reach him emotionally, inevitably such relationships fail because, well, there's more than a bit of an age gap.

Nowhere in the Kane canon is Kane's essential moral failure so clearly illustrated but in Bloodstone - and it helps that this is a kickass sword and sorcery adventure as well, with fun prose and exciting fights. Wagner is having a lot of fun here, throwing off sly nods to everything from Forbidden Planet to Pink Floyd song titles, whereas in some parts of Darkness Weaves he appeared to be struggling with the prose, and some of the stories in Death Angel's Shadow seemed to be written at least partially as filler for Wagner's fanzine. This time Wagner is firing on all cylinders and having the time of his life, and it really does show. Bloodstone is the best entry in the series yet; perhaps, by the end, it will turn out to be the best of all. It's essential mid-70s fantasy and I'd recommend it without hesitation; my only complaint is that Wagner never wrote a spin-off series about the further adventures of Teres.

Dark Crusade

Of a similarly high standard is Dark Crusade, in which Wagner makes use of multiple viewpoint characters to decrease the page count of the book - a trick that no other fantasy author seems to have adopted, to the detriment of the genre. By cleverly skipping from character to character, Wagner manages to avoid tediously narrating every damn thing that happens - many important but not necessarily interesting events happen entirely off-camera, allowing the story to cover a period of years without ever becoming bogged down. Dark Crusade is the story of a society, not one particular individual; it tells of how a backwater kingdom is convulsed by the resurgent cult of Sataki, a sinister group which has recently gained a new prophet in the form of former bandit leader Orted ak-Ceddi, and how through terror, mob violence, and the occult powers wielded by Orted it brings the nation to its knees. Kane enters the picture at around this time; having been exiled from a nearby kingdom due to an unfortunate political turn of events, Kane realises that if the Dark Crusade is to succeed in its aims of world domination it needs a capable general to train up a proper army, and duly offers Orted his services - with the aim of using the Dark Crusade to take over the world himself. What he doesn't take into consideration until it's too late is the possibility that Orted might, in fact, be the agent of a god...

The three main viewpoint characters in Dark Crusade are Kane himself, Jarvo - the general who forces Kane into exile at the beginning of the book, and later desperately tries to counter the advance of the Dark Crusade - and Erill, a mime artist who becomes determined to strike a blow against the Dark Crusade after being magically compelled to open the gates of a city to it, and (along with her fortune-teller friend Boree) is probably one of Wagner's most well-observed female characters - they manage to be empowered and proactive without veering into Conan-with-tits territory, and they don't get raped once. (Well done, Karl.) It's through their eyes that we see the utter ruination that the Dark Crusade brings to the nations it conquers and the people who believe in it. Although Orted is serving an extradimensional alien, the motives of Sataki are all too human - raw, unrestrained greed - and the downward spiral and ultimate self-destruction of the Crusade is well-presented. That said, occasionally Wagner feels compelled to take an occasional cheap shot, usually when he's depicting how the Crusade is affecting children; first there's a scene where kids are playing football with the head of an executed unbeliever, then they play "crucify and burn the unbeliever" with a real kid as the victim (with the blessing of the secret police), and then they show up fighting in the final battle. These scenes are undeniably effective, but they're also undeniably cheap shots - skilfully delivered, yes, but cheap shots nonetheless.

Wagner never quite loses sight of his viewpoint characters, however, and their individual story arcs all come to satisfying conclusions; my favourite plotline is Jarvo's doomed infatuation with a princess who proves to be completely unworthy of his affections, and how he finally comes to his senses and realises that he's wasted most of his life chasing after her, but I also like how Erill's happily-ever-after is implied but not shown, and how Kane finally properly suffers for his wilful collaboration with evil this time around. In all of the Kane novels, Kane ends up being either a villain or a villain's treacherous henchman, but only in Dark Crusade does he get anything resembling his just desserts.

Night Winds

The second collection of Kane short stories, Night Winds is far superior to Death Angel's Shadow, not least because it showcases a more diverse range of Kane stories than those we have seen previously. Especially interesting is Undertow, the first story in the collection and set chronologically much earlier than all the other Kane stories; in this, Kane is behaving pretty much like a standard sword and sorcery wizard, living in a big black tower in an ancient city and menacing a damsel in distress. Of course, there's a horrible twist to the tale which puts Kane's horrible treatment of the woman in context, but not before the girl in question ends up leading a whole bunch of men to their deaths as she tries to escape Kane's clutches.

Many of the other stories follow a more standard formula - Kane stumbles across a place he formerly visited ruination upon and has to deal with the consequences. Particularly striking amongst these is Raven's Eyrie, in which Kane and his bandit gang end up stumbling across an inn they had raided seven years earlier - and find themselves betrayed to the authorities by the innkeeper, who was raped by Kane in the course of that raid, and has a special plan for Kane's daughter. While it does win plaudits for confronting the fact that Kane is a horrible brute, it loses points for its unsympathetic portrayal of his victim; so what if she sees Kane's daughter as an opportunity to get black revenge upon him? Is she really so evil for rejecting a daughter she never wanted and who reminds her of the most devastatingly horrible day of her life every time she looks at her?

I suppose that's my real problem with the Kane series; nothing really changes, and there's no end in sight. Kane never grows or develops as a character - that's the point, he's not really able to - which I suppose is why ends up being a supporting character as opposed to the actual protagonist in the novels. Other sword and sorcery heroes did develop as their respective series progressed; Robert E. Howard intended Conan to become a king from the very start, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser got older and wiser as Leiber aged, and - most brave of all - Michael Moorcock actually wrote a novel where Elric ends up dying at the end. Of course, Moorcock knew full well that he could jump about the timeline to his heart's content, writing new Elric stories here and there (and he's done so, not always with the best results), but I think it is beneficial for an author to have some idea of where his character is going to end up.

Kane is not going to end up anywhere. He is alone and wandering around in a world of fragile, transient shadows, none of which survive for more than a fraction of Kane's lifespan. He can be killed by violence, and he inspires and instigates more than enough of that; is it too much for ask for Kane to finally, ultimately, and decisively have to face the consequences of his actions for once?

Night Winds offers, at points, a glimpse of the possibilities the Kane concept offered but were not fully explored in the novels. This is a shame; I wish that Wagner had found some way to move away from the "Kane collaborates with a warmonger, rebels, fails, flees" formula. Like so much of the Kane saga, however, it bears the mild taint of Wagner's unsympathetic treatment of women, a taint which only Dark Crusade is really free of.

Ferretbrain Fantasy Rape Watch

Women getting tortured, raped, and abused in a land where the worst that male heroes can expect is to get slapped about a bit. Authors who think nothing of having their protagonist cut down a bunch of pacifists because they were in their way of the protesters' hatred of "moral clarity", and who gleefully describe their hero's noble decision to kick a little girl in the face so hard her jaw comes flying off. Stories which expect us to react with glee and joy when someone we don't like is brutally, realistically tortured. GOR NOVELS.. Fantasy is full of shit which simply wouldn't fly in a genre which had a modicum of self-respect; the Rape Watch is where the naming and shaming happens.

Wagner's a worthy subject for the Rape Watch; his treatment of women sometimes leaves more than a little to be desired, although the Kane stories as a whole display an arrogant disregard for the lives of human beings of all varieties (presumably because the protagonist is a sociopath). Let me count the ways...

Women raped, tortured, and/or killed: Vast numbers, stretching back to the dawn of time.
Men raped, tortured, and/or killed: Vast numbers, stretching back to the dawn of time.
Gang rapes, depicted and implied: 2.
Number of the above in which Kane possibly took part: 1.
Rape victims who end up becoming villains because funnily enough they have a little trouble getting over it: 1.
Number of the above who were raped by Kane: 1.
Princesses raped by the rotting carcasses of Satanic hell-witches: 1.
Slavegirls who possibly didn't consent to being molested by Teres but apparently end up liking it: 1.
Number of times Teres has consensual sex (well, consensual on her part) and enjoys it: 3.
Number of times someone tries to rape Teres: 1.
Number of characters who survive attempting to rape Teres: 0.
Female characters who use their filthy whorish feminine wiles in order to get what they want: Depressingly common.
Named female characters whose sexual history/preferences/attributes do not end up becoming relevant to the story: 1.
Named male characters whose sexual history/preferences/attributes do not end up becoming relevant to the story: Heaps.
Number of times Kane makes friends with warmongering witches/prophets/rocks: 3.
Number of times Kane betrays said warmongers: 3.
War crimes Kane commits or is an accomplice to: Vast numbers, stretching back to the dawn of time.
Number of times Kane actually gets what he deserves: 1. Maybe.

The Kane series overall rates at 0.25 Goodkinds. Kane is basically a disgusting individual that we are expected to sympathise with half the time. Wagner is a decent author and is able to convince us to do so, but then something bad happens and we feel dirty for feeling anything but contempt for the brute. Furthermore, Wagner simply isn't very good at handling female characters, and only produces characters who don't verge on the stereotypical in Dark Crusade. (The secret, Karl, is in not defining women primarily in terms of their sex lives.)

The Canary Says

Dark Crusade is far and away the best and most grown-up Kane novel, and the only one in which Wagner's occasional misogyny isn't in evidence. Although both men and women suffer horribly in the Kane novels (sometimes at Kane's hands), the more I read of the series the more I have trouble ignoring Wagner's tendency to portray women as sluts and whores who use their femininity as a weapon. To be fair, I can enjoy visceral, violent sword and sorcery by looking beyond the prejudices of the author - I can ignore Robert E. Howard's racism to enjoy the Conan stories, for example. On the other hand, Howard was writing in the 1930s, while Wagner was writing in the 1970s. There are points where Wagner crosses the line, and he should damn well know better. Bloodstone is good, if you can ignore the occasionally-silly portrayal of Teres. Darkness Weaves is a bit too rough, even in the revised edition, and the short stories never quite reach the heights of the novels (partially because Kane is the protagonist in most of them). All of the books are out of print these days, but you should be able to find them cheap on E-Bay; don't pay the ridiculously high prices for Nightshade Press's hardcover compilations, the stories simply aren't worth it in the end.

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Comments (go to latest)
Craverguy at 03:00 on 2015-10-03
My local library system may have a frustrating acquisition policy when it comes to Warhams (seriously: who buys only book two in a trilogy...twice?), but they do have an omnibus of all three Kane novels. Hold...placed.

They don't have either short story collection, but from the sound of this review, I'm not missing anything terribly vital (or particularly good, with only two or three exceptions).
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