Friday, 1 June 2012
'Dark Crusade' - Karl Edward Wagner
Those were the days for me, days when you could pick up three or even four books for less than a pound. Not like it is today when you'd be very lucky to pick up a third of a book for that price (what is the world coming to etc, I feel old...) Those were also the days for me in that those bookstalls formed a large chunk of my 'fantasy education'with cheap books waiting to be read by a boy who just couldn't get enough sword and sorcery or epic quests.
I came across Alan Dean Foster's 'Shadowkeep' on those trips to Norwich market, compulsive reading for the fourteen or fifteen year old me and the only book of his that I've read all the way through without getting horribly bored. John Jakes' 'Brak the Barbarian' series were another find in those teetering piles of books, hopelessly derivative but with a vein of horror running through the books that makes them stand out from the rest of the pack. I really need to find my copies and give them another read through...
On one visit I had something like 10p left to spend and came across a book called 'Dark Crusade', a book where the cover showed a guy stood at the top of a pile of corpses gazing into the infinite under a cold black sun. I was sold pretty much straight away :o)
Before we get into the review itself it's worth pointing out that Karl Edward Wagner's 'Kane' books are long out of print and can be quite costly to get your hands on. Even the Nightshade collection, published in 2002, is going for silly prices on Amazon. The lesson here? If you see them in your local secondhand book store (where they should be much cheaper than online) then pick them up before someone else does!
'Dark Crusade' is actually the fourth book in the series, I think, but the first one that I picked up, all those years ago, (and the only one I've read so far) so it features first here. I actually lost my original copy, years ago now, but came across another copy recently and consider myself very lucky to have done so. 'Dark Crusade' is as dark a read now as it was all the way back then...
The cult of Sataki has risen again with Orted Ak-Ceddi at its head, a former outlaw who has been touched by the power of a dark god and wants to usher in the final age of mankind. No-one can stand before Orted's cultists and the jungles of Shapeli soon fall under the hand of Sataki. The southern kingdoms prove too much for Orted's horde though and he knows that a more disciplined approach is needed for the ultimate victory of his god. Enter Kane, near immortal and the only man who can command the calvary Orted needs. Orted has seriously underestimated Kane though who has his own designs for the cities that fall to his armies. Has Kane underestimated Orted though? He has and the final battle will leave no room for a victor...
I've read a lot of dark and gritty fantasy in my time and I've still to come across anything that approaches just how nasty and unsettling 'Dark Crusade' can be. If you think you're pushing boundaries with tales of royal incest or books where even the good guys can die then you have a way to go yet. Wagner's world is a bleak and pitiless place where everyone is the worst kind of bastard and totally out for themselves. There is no such thing as redemption here, just initially well meaning actions that hide a dark desire for bloody revenge. Wagner's characters are inherently selfish and out to advance themselves over the corpses of others (and will make no bones about it). Some books are books where you're happy to visit the setting but secretly glad you don't have to live there. 'Dark Crusade' is a book where the squeamish will wonder what they are doing even visiting. It's a book though where searing honesty offers you an insight not only into the characters but the mind of the author himself. A book where children ape the actions of their elders to lethal affect and adults will act on base desires in an instant.
Chief among these characters is Kane himself, a man who has lived far too long and who will manipulate affairs of state as much to stave off the boredom of centuries as to gain power for himself. Kane is all about gathering power to himself though and we are left in no doubt as to why he allies himself with Orted and what this will ultimately mean. Kane despises traitors but will happily betray whoever is in his way...
When you have lived for centuries, all that is left is to through yourself into the midst of battle and try to feel something again. Wagner shows us this to great affect with what feels like constant instances of combat tempered with what Kane is thinking as it all happens around him. It's an intriguing mixture of brutal force and dark introspection that makes for a compelling character all too easy to follow, no matter how dark the path is (and it gets very dark, especially at the end).
The world this is all set against isn't as detailed, as the characters living in it, but there are lots of hints of ancient civilisations that lend a real sense of age to the background. Wagner's use of the word 'supercontinent' (albeit sparingly) also hints at just how large Kane's world is and lends yet another layer of futility to the machinations of the people scurrying about on its surface.
'Dark Crusade' is like a shot of espresso then. It doesn't look like much (very slim book) and tastes very bitter initially. That taste is a distinctive one though and you can't help but want to have another taste and another taste after that. Can you tell that I like drinking espressos? ;o)You can expect to see more Kane stories reviewed here in the near future.
Nine and a Half out of Ten