Monday, April 28, 2014

Karl Edward Wagner's "Kane: the Mystic Swordsman"

Gods in Darkness has been sitting on my bookshelf for a few months. The ongoing spectacle of the SF/F industry tearing itself apart over authors who inflict feelbad with their crimethink made me take up the classic novels of Kane with a mind toward paying attention to the author's assumptions and voice. The author, Karl Edward Wagner, describes his views as "nihilist, anarchist, and absurdist." He was trained as a psychiatrist and died at age 48 after his liver exploded from long term alcohol abuse. His views are near the total opposite of mine, so I was eager to see how his fiction would hold up. Minor spoilers ahead.

The character of Kane is based on the biblical Cain: the man who introduced violence into the world when he murdered his own brother. In Wagner's cosmology, mankind was created by a malevolent god who wanted some mortal playthings. Kane defied the god and was subsequently cursed to immortality. Kane never ages and he has supernaturally enhanced healing, but he can still be killed by "the violence that he himself created." There is no sense of hope in Kane's world, so he spends countless centuries in a neverending search for ways to give his life meaning. This means he repeatedly fights, conquers, loses, repeats. Kind of like Brock Lesnar.

Gods in Darkness is an anthology of the three novels about Kane. The obvious literary comparison is to Robert E. Howard's Conan the Cimmerian, but Wagner never read Howard until after Kane had become an established character. There are major differences between the two. The literary Conan is different even from Arnold's iconic portrayal. Howard's Conan began his adventuring career as a thief. He had a rough sense of honor and a phobia for all things magical. Conan never thought too much about why he did what he did. In his youth he wanted money, women, and adventure before maturing into the man who took the throne of Aquilonia. Kane is a practiced sorcerer who trained himself to have enough psychic power to resist the spells of other magic users. He's more Machiavellian than Conan, frequently playing two sides against the other. Kane ingratiated himself to powerful rulers and wizards, offering to bring his long experience in warfare to the position of commanding general of their armies. When the time was ripe, Kane switched sides and turned his victorious armies against his nominal commanders in order to take everything for himself. The first novel, Bloodstone, follows Kane as he murders and backstabs his way to the eponymous MacGuffin and attempts to use it to conquer the entire world. It doesn't work out of course, but it establishes Kane as a full blown villain protagonist.

Taken purely as stories, I enjoyed all of the Kane novels. Wagner's prose would have fit in perfectly with the old adventure pulps. Kane is morally appalling as a person, but as a character I felt compelled to follow his exploits to the end just to see if the magnificent bastard could pull off his Xanatos speed chess. Kane's opponents are seldom admirable characters themselves, but it's a real pleasure to see them grapple with this prehistoric maniac.

Wagner's personal views definitely influenced his literary work, but he was a good writer. His stories are fun. His characters are interesting enough for me to care about what happens to them. I dislike a lot of modern "pink" SF/F because the stories and characters come second to the author's hammering home their message about how blind black bisexuals are morally superior to all of us raciss, sexiss, homophobic, transphobic cisgendered white guys. I don't ask for much in my fiction. Give me stories about badass dudes using violence for great justice.


  1. Well said, Aleksandr. Interesting that you introduced Brock Lesnar into your review, as I've said since I first saw him fight in MMA that he would make a perfect Kane. He not only looks like Kane (I can say with some authority, since I was the first person to illustrate him, to Karl's approval), he also looks quite a bit like Karl himself.

    I very much enjoyed your observations.