I love used book shops. And when I say love, I damn well mean love; anything that offers me a Kane Book for less than a pound is pretty much saying ‘I do’ in my book. You just can’t buy that kind of passion, unless you happen to offer me a Kane book for under a…. oh, never mind!
Now, if you’re a bit of a fantasy connoisseur (and if you’re reading this you probably are) you’ve likely heard of Kane, or at least Karl Edward Wagner; the guy’s novels sell for an arm and a leg on Amazon and are showered with praise at every turn. So you can understand my excitement upon finding the book, and my anticipation when I opened it up.
The story follows Kane as he stumbles upon an intriguing ring during a raid. His interest piqued, Kane investigates further and finds that it is actually linked to a legendary giant gem named ‘Bloodstone’ which would, apparently, look really nice in his front garden. Needless to say Kane decides to look for it, and his search leads him to an ancient city somewhere in a forest, one that serves as a kind of no man’s land for two warring leaders: Malchion, and Dribeck.
What follows is some seriously top-notch sword and sorcery; the first few chapters are brilliant, filled to the brim with Gothic imagery and seductive sorceress queens, decadent civilizations, moon-lit brawls with lurid beasts; all the good stuff that made me fall in love with the genre. It’s got everything: mysticism, super-science, monsters, a lost city, and an ancient civilization.
And the first couple of skirmishes with a race of lizard men, the Rillyti, (who happen to be the very same lizard men who made Bloodstone) are all excellently done, filled with a real unpredictability, and a truly tangible sense of danger. It really reads like something you’d find in the pages of Weird Tales, alongside the latest Conan tale, or Solomon Kane’s newest yarn.
And it’s great fun. The kind that is a lot harder to find today (a few exceptions aside). At this stage, the thunder in its pacing was audible, the weight of its sword blows palpable, the dirt and grit and grime of its world was seeping into the room. And I loved every moment.
So why, Mr Wagner, why oh why, did you slow it down?
It would have been fine had you continued at that pace, maybe shaved off a hundred pages or so, and left it at that. But nope, you had to go off and explore the politics of a world I didn’t really care about, and give me a host of side characters instead of the one I, you know, actually bought the book for. Instead of ‘Bloodstone; a tale of Kane’ I got ‘Bloodstone; Kane’s big book of less interesting side characters.’
All right, admittedly, this lull in the middle did allow Wagner to do an excellent job of building up the character of Kane and making him into an enigma, a figure of mystery, one of deceit and uncertainty. At this point, you see, Kane is playing Dribeck and Malchion against each other whilst he gathers power and information for his big ol’ hostile takeover (which will make use of Bloodstone’s powers), but one never quite knows what he’ll do next or how he’ll do it. At times it was happening in front of me and I couldn’t see it until after it was over. It’s an absolute master class in character building.
And, my God is Kane an excellent character, possibly one of the best in fantasy fiction. He’s no hero but he’s intelligent, competent, unpredictable, ambitious, selfish and arrogant, but never unlikable. There’s a certain quality to him that causes him to dominate every scene he’s in, overshadow every other character, like Conan. He has a certain charisma that makes him utterly impossible to hate, despite that whole ‘taking over the world for fun’ thing.
Kane was the whole reason I ploughed through the second half. He was so enigmatic, so dynamic and interesting that I had to know more, I had to keep reading; the novel had spent the last few chapters building up Kane’s character, making him a shadow, a whisper, something to be feared, something no one really knew anything about.
But then the novel blows it all up in your face and gives you the finger. Kane reveals his plan in the most insulting way possible; boasting about how it was unbeatable and cackling like a cartoon villain as he does so. It head-butts one hundred pages worth of development and build up, throws it off a cliff and watches it die. They should have just put it in the blurb, at least that would have saved some time.
The side characters are all of a relatively high quality, but, irritatingly, they all pale in comparison to Kane, so it’s often hard to appreciate them. You have the aforementioned Dribeck and Malchion. Malchion is your typical warlord; haughty, brave, and loving nothing more than a fight, but he’s also ignorant, selfish and over-confident. Dribeck is more deceptive, more manipulative, like the snake to Malchion’s wolf. But he’s also, strangely enough, something of an idealist, with a very strong set of morals, something which he’ll have to change if he wants to win the day.
Then there’s Bloodstone itself, which is pretty much like Kane, except it’s a giant sentient gem that’s sat dormant for a few thousand years, you know, as you do. Now I don’t want to talk about the bloodstone too much, because doing so would lead to spoilers, and I hate spoilers, and I’m pretty sure you do too.
Anyway what’s interesting about these characters is that they all reflect an aspect of Kane. Malchion is Kane’s over-confidence; Malchion thinks he can handle whatever challenge is put his way, when he most certainly can’t. Dribeck is Kane’s more deceitful side; he promises a cult freedom if they help him, only to restrict them when they’ve served their purpose. And Bloodstone, aside from being like a bigger, better version of Kane, very much reflects Kane’s isolated nature.
All these characters feel like they belong in the story, like they belong in the world. They actually do something and, after all, what’s the point in having a character that doesn’t do anything?
I don’t know, but why don’t you ask Teres? She’s the daughter of Malchion and probably the worst character in the book. Which is a crying shame; because she is the one you’ll be spending the most time with.
She’s one of those characters — you know the type — a girl struggling to fit into a man’s world and become the son her father wanted. It’s not so much that she’s unlikable, just unoriginal, the kind of character I’ve seen countless times before in other books, video games and movies. When paired up with the likes of Kane — as she so often is — Teres stands out like a sore thumb, and comes across as even weaker and less original then she actually is. To top it all off, she didn’t feel like she fit in with everything else — there was nothing she did that couldn’t have been done by a better character, and the romance between her and Kane felt lifeless, hollow, and just plain meaningless. There wasn’t really any chemistry or spark between them and I never managed to grasp why one felt anything for the other. Teres was just one big, bulging plot device and nothing more.
But wait! Remember the fun I was talking about a few paragraphs ago? Yes, it comes back towards the end, and boy does it return with a bang. The last few chapters are filled with epic, desperate, frantic, struggles — all of which are bursting with moments so memorable, so mind-blowing they’ll have you running around with a plastic sword in your pajamas for a week. The danger feels real, the desperation on each side is tangible, palpable, and absolutely frickin’ delicious. It’s the special kind of awesome that leaves you, at least for a moment, open-mouthed in awe.
By this point in the story Bloodstone has reached maximum power and can pretty much do what it wants, and Wagner does an excellent job of pounding this into you, telling you and showing you, just how desperate matters are. But as successful as he is, Wagner puts himself in a difficult position with this; Bloodstone and Kane are both described as immense, world-consuming forces that cannot be stopped by anything, leaving his heroes deadlocked. And whilst this really emphasizes the desperation I mentioned earlier, it means some of the ways Wagner gets his heroes out of the jam they’re in feel a little lazy. We’re told, time and time again, that Kane is a genius, a special kind of mastermind… but he keeps over-extending himself so that he’s left vulnerable to the latest ploy of his enemies. It all reeks of telling, not showing, to me, and creates some really jarring inconsistency in terms of Kane’s personality.
Despite this, there are some real moments of brilliance in the last chapters of Bloodstone. These made the book for me; during these moments it truly felt like the fate of the world was hanging in the balance and a victory for Kane could have very grave consequences. Here the book manages to recapture the pulpy brilliance it found at the start, and lost in the middle.
And something has to be said about the prose; it’s marvelous — absolutely marvelous. And although one can see the Howardian influences the prose does its own thing, it isn’t some half-arsed impersonation, but something that’s had a lot of thought and effort put into it. And you can tell; it oozes atmosphere, it makes the Gothic castles and dank forests and decadent races come alive; all in a manner that suits the novel’s tone. This is a prime example of the difference good prose can make.
I loved Bloodstone, for all its shortcomings it holds a special little place in my heart. But as much as I loved it I can’t help but feel that this isn’t the best Kane has to offer, and that Wagner is capable of much more. I’d have to be damn lucky to find out, though.
Oh, and if you fancy learning more about Kane I highly recommend Fletcher Vredenburgh’s recent post on Night Winds. It’s right on the money.