I have spent the first half of the year pontificating about the nature of Sword & Sorcery, but now I have decided I will go through and do some book reviews in the genre for a while. As I have already done write-ups of some of the more seminal and influential stories in the canon, now I intend to go about things rather differently. I have a large collection of S&S and pulp novels, many of which I have either not read, or not read very recently. So for these reviews I will reach into the grab-bag, as it were, and pull out a relic to consider.
Karl Edward Wagner was more influential as an editor than a writer, but his Kane books and stories remain his most well-known legacy. Kane was, rather like Elric, invented as a kind of antithesis to Conan, and Wagner detailed his adventures in three novels and a few collections of stories and novellas.
The first Kane book was published in 1970 by a small press as Darkness Weaves With Many Shades, but Wagner was unhappy with the changes the editor made to the text. It didn’t get a lot of distribution, and was eventually corrected and re-released as Darkness Weaves in 1978. Then there was the collection of three novellas released in 1973 under the title Death Angel’s Shadow by Warner Books. Warner obviously believed in Wagner, and they commissioned a full-length Kane novel and also enlisted Frank Frazetta to produce a cover for it, and the result was Bloodstone in 1975.
Despite that the character had been knocking around for years, and had appeared in book form before, this was really the first mass-audience introduction to Kane. The publisher pushed the book pretty hard, and the fact that you can still find copies to this day says they printed a shit-ton of them. And as an introduction to the character, Bloodstone is . . . odd.
Because while Kane was always depicted as an antihero, in this novel he is really a straight-up villain. The book opens with Kane acquiring a weird bloodstone ring, and then he spends some time researching it, finding out where it came from. Then we switch to him serving as a kind of spy for two opposing kingdoms, and the book spends a lot of time with him doing a kind of Yojimbo thing where he works for both and plays them off against one another. The two kingdoms are rather drab, faux-medieval realms and don’t contain any really interesting characters. It’s not exciting and we don’t really know why he, or the novel, are spending time on this.
So what Kane has done is discover that the ring is the command device for an ancient, evil intelligence called Bloodstone that lies in a ruined city inside a swamp guarded by degenerate frog-men. This angle is very Lovecraftian, as the thing is described as though it is an artificial intelligence made by aliens who later tried to destroy it, but were enslaved by its power. Other aliens chased it away in spaceships and it crashed on the world of the book, was buried in the muck of a swamp and attended by the enslaved aliens as they regressed into barbarism.
Having unlocked its power and thinking he is in control of it, Kane is essentially fomenting war between the nearby kingdoms so they won’t unite against him when he comes to conquer them. The whole plot is rather convoluted, and the small scale of the kingdoms in question makes his plot seem rather petty and sad. The last part of the novel is essentially a war between the remains of the kingdoms and Kane as he tries to hold them off until Bloodstone reaches full power. He sends his frog-men after them, and comes out wielding magic/sci-fi powers that let him shoot lasers from his ring and suchlike.
It doesn’t have much resonance or drama because the powers Bloodstone has seem arbitrary and are rather vaguely defined. The defenders marshal some of their own magic to fight him, but this is also left unclear and the source of this power is also ill-defined. So a lot of the battle scenes are just space magic MacGuffins shooting lasers at each other, and you lose the human scale and any sense of real tension, since everything just seems like it is made up on the spot and has no rules.
The end just comes when Kane realizes Bloodstone intends to enslave his mind and control him as a puppet – which seemed obvious and really makes him seem dim that he does not figure this out sooner – and he goes in to try and destroy it. He essentially does this by messing up the controls until Bloodstone explodes. Because we all know how dramatic it is fighting a computer by pushing levers.
Wagner tries to infuse some drama into this by hinting at Bloodstone’s origins and the great age of his world, sketching ancient vistas of weird races and decadent empires that would be cool to see, rather than the rather mud-intensive world he decided to detail in the novel. (Seriously, there is so much mud in this book, between the dirty, sad kingdoms and the swamp it is just mud mud mud.) Kane using this ancient power to war with a huge, mighty empire could have been awesome, also maybe having a slave race that were not frogs. Frog men are silly, not scary, no matter how hard you try.
The writing is passable, but no better than that. In the novellas Wagner showed he could write evocatively, but Bloodstone seems rushed. The characterization is weak at best, the action is bloody but unexciting, and the style has these swoops up into a very affected, elevated diction that is supposed to sound erudite but just comes across as strange. This is a weird, rather off-putting book where the ostensible protagonist is off-screen for 75% of the time, and is the straight-up villain for most of it. I get that Wagner wanted to tell a different sort of story than the usual kind of heroic fantasy, but I think he could have done a lot better than this.