Bloodstone by Karl Edward Wagner

bloodstone

 

If someone recommended a book to me that combines Sword and Sorcery with aliens and space ships I would have nodded my head in appreciation and made a mental note to never ask them for recommendations ever again.

And yet that is what Bloodstone, one of Karl Edward Wagner’s five books on his immortal anti-hero Kane, features. Kane, cursed by an insane Eldur God to forever wander the earth after murdering his brother, does so in a sour and evil manner. Whereas Conan, a character in many ways close to Kane, solves everything with violence and hates magic, Kane often resorts to violent magic as well.

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In this book, really almost a novella, Kane is once again seeking to conquer, but this time he is thinking big. In the first of the Kane books I read, a collection of short stories called Night Winds, he was often trying to conquer a single kingdom but here he has set his sights on the entire world.

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To do so he is playing two nations against each other and using one to help him find and exploit an ancient city that was founded by a now almost dead alien race and then use the technology to help his erstwhile allies beat its foe. His allies in theory, at least .

In this book you see that numerous alien races had visited the planet long before the ascent of man, and that remnants of them can still be found. You also see Kane in a role that is often just hinted at in the short stories, as a man behind the scenes pulling the strings of others. Wagner does all of this in a smooth and believable manner, slowly evolving the aliens role in a believable manner and adding a few interesting twists.

One of the things I liked about Bloodstone was that it had a host of full fleshed characters and Wagner has the ability to paint a portrait of a person quickly and yet give you a clear image of them. Important since more than a few die pretty quickly after you meet them!

I greatly enjoyed the book, but I think that Night Winds was more stylistically more to my taste, but I can see how others might enjoy this story better. One thing about Kane. The man is untold years old, always seen plotting to conquer a town, a city, a region or a nation. Yet he always seems to fail. I wonder if this is intentional or just part of the development process and that if Wagner have lived longer we would have seen him as a planetary ruler?

Darkness Weaves by Karl Edward Wagner

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Since my buddy had dropped off a couple of Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane books and I wanted to make sure I returned them in a timely manner (unusual for me) so I read a second one, Darkness Weaves over the weekend. I have seen this book listed as one of five that Wagner wrote, and also as book #7 in the Kane Series, so not really sure which.

It is one of the two full length Kane novels that Wagner wrote, the other being Bloodstones. It is centered on Efrel, a princess from Pellin, one of the many kingdoms that comprise the extensive Thovnosian island empire (think hundreds of islands) and who is plotting a revolt against the ruler.

The story follows Kane as he flees to Pellin, where Efrel is believed to be dead after being tortured by the emperor. She is a sorceress and consorts with dark powers and elder beings who are believed to be gone or not remembered. Kane has a past history with the empire, including evil actions that led to its formation.

The books has what you would expect, magic, warfare, betrayal, naval and land combat, insanity, strange animals, occult rites, elder races, submarines and lasers. Well I really did not expect the last two but they were present. It has touches of a Lovecraft feel but seems to miss the dread and darkness that Lovecraft has in his stories, and Wagner has in later tales

From the start there is an air of inevitability to the story. Kane is hiding out due to some unmentioned evil, but he escapes. He flees by ship followed by faster ships, but escapes. He faces far superior odds in battles and prevails. He betrays his employer and escapes. There are also a few unexplained items that I wish were clearer. A god appears very briefly, makes a few comments and disappears for the rest of the book. Kane is pursued by authorities of the Lartroxian Combine, it would have been nice to know what he did to have it so dedicated to his capture- all of the roads have been blocked for months and it sent two of its biggest and fastest ships in pursuit.

I found it to be nowhere as inventive or original as the short stories but it seems that it is the first book that he wrote on Kane and it is pretty good. It moves smoothly and the characters are well defined and believable. Arabas the Assassin, Imel, Kane, Efrel and others all have real motives for their actions, which I like.

Going forward I will probably move away from Sword and Sorcery for a bit, a term I found that Wagner hated, but seems to have been coined specifically for his writing and revival of Robert E Howard. I do expect to read the others in this series at some time to see how they progress.

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Night Winds by Karl Edward Wagner

Frak

 

One of the first genres I became interested in was Sword and Sorcery inspired primarily by  Robert E. Howard’s Conan (with literary assists from Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp) and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser books, with plenty of help from other authors. I think in part what attracted me was the covers of the Conan books. Done by Frank Frazetta they featured muscle bound warriors with weapons and voluptuous women with veils and in the days prior to video games what could be more appealing to a 14 year old boy?

Decades later I rarely visit that subset of the fantasy genre, but a friend asked me if I had ever read Wagner’s Kane: The Mystic Swordsman books. I had to be honest and admitted that I had not even heard of them and wondered if he was confusing Howards Solomon Kane stories. After a look that implied I was an idiot he went on to patiently explain about the books and offered to lend me one.

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So that is how I ended up reading Night Winds, a series of short stories about Kane. Kane is based somewhat on the biblical character who has been cursed with immortality after murdering his brother. In parts a wizard and a mighty warrior, he has seen it all and done it all, if all is evil.

In doing a bit of research I found that most everybody compares Kane to an evil Conan. While I could see the similarities I think that is simply trying to shoehorn one character into another’s space. I found him to be very different.  Kane is a much more complex character to start with, willing to argue philosophy with giants and poetry with poets. He is very much the antihero however. His word is not his bond. He murders, rapes and rains ruin on lands as he sees fit. While a mighty wizard, magic in this series is not something that can be quickly or easily used and so when faced with otherworldly foes he often has no recourse but to face them, and then it is luck, not skill that enables him to escape.

Wagner had a close understanding of Howards work, and apparently even wrote in that universe on occasion, but these stories were not just imitations. The first story in the book “Undertow” was much closer to something Jack Vance would have written in his Dying Earth series. Others in the book had a much more horror story bent, leaning towards Lovecraft and that type of story, exemplified by “Sing a Last Song of Valdese” and “Dark Muse.” In both of these Kane is as much an onlooker as a player.

The stories are usually two stories intertwined, and as could be guessed with an immortal character one story is often in the past, but not always. There are very interesting twists in many of the stories and for the most part I enjoyed the writing as well, however at times he seemed a little over the top with purple prose.

I really enjoyed the book, even with the main character such an evil person, with little to redeem him. I am looking forward to reading more and after looking at the high price the books sell for I hope my friend has the complete collection!