Thursday, December 8, 2011

Enjoying the Unique Character of Karl Edward Wagner’s Dark Crusade

Why has swords and sorcery languished while epic fantasy enjoys a wide readership? In an age of diminished attention spans and the proliferation of Twitter and video games, it’s hard to explain why ponderous five and seven and 12 book series dominate fantasy fiction while lean and mean swords and sorcery short stories and novels struggle to find markets (Black Gate and a few other outlets excepted).

During a recent reading of the late Karl Edward Wagner’s Dark Crusade (1976) a potential answer coalesced: Many readers want and expect deep characterization in their fiction, and it’s simply not a particularly strong suit of the swords and sorcery genre (or at least of classic swords and sorcery, circa 1930 through the early 1980s). Wagner is one of a handful of classic swords and sorcery authors to whom history has not been particularly kind*. His dark, God-accursed hero-villain Kane deserves a place alongside Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in the roll of great genre heroes, but is sadly left off many “best of” swords and sorcery lists. Relegated to the status of cult figure, Kane is the darling of heroic fantasy connoisseurs but unread of by many casual genre fans, and unheard of by most of the larger fantasy fan base.

Kane and many of his swords and sorcery ilk are not what most modern readers would consider fully realized characters. You just don’t get anything close to the same level of introspection and cradle to the grave development of Kane in Dark Crusade as you do of, say, Kvothe in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website.

19 comments:

Atom Kid said...

I've owned a couple of the Kane books for years now but have yet to read them. The only book by Wagner that I've read was his Conan pastiche, which was pretty good.

Now I've got to get out my copy and finally start reading it.

Falze said...

it’s hard to explain why ponderous five and seven and 12 book series dominate fantasy fiction while lean and mean swords and sorcery short stories and novels struggle to find markets

Well, here's one reason that has impacted my buying choices at time...if I'm going to plop down $8 or $9 on a book, do I want 200 pages or 400 pages with the possibility of more to come?

Trey said...

Good essay, Brian. Kane is one of my favorites. I have one correction, though. Wagner didn't have a PhD in psychiatry--such a thing doesn't exist, as psychiatry is a field of medicine. Wagner had an MD and essentially worked as a psychiatry at the state hospital in NC (I assume it was Dorothea Dix, but I don't know this for certain), but never completed a residency in any specialty.

PhD's are psychologists. :)

Taran said...

I'd argue with the assertion that modern epic fantasy series feature more well-developed characters than S&S heroes--there's plenty of ponderous fantasy tomes with absolutely dreadful characterization at or below the level of any run-of-the-mill Sword & Sorcery story; except the action is split with long conversations over tea or in the bath about essentially nothing (It's character building, see!). It might be a case of telling the story the wrong way--with the market as it is, ballooning a novella worth of material into a trilogy by adding tea scenes is all too common.

Of course, for the best of high fantasy, you're right. And I haven't read any S&S with strong character development (unless you count The Book of the New Sun, which is very S&S-like in some ways but goes off in an entirely non-S&S direction in others) Yet a large chunk of high fantasy doesn't really have the deep characterization you say readers are expecting, just repetitive drivel and characters who don't change in any meaningful way.

JoeGKushner said...

another shame is that in this era of electronic awesomeness, his works are not available in any e-format and his books are for the most part out of print.

Brian Murphy said...

The only book by Wagner that I've read was his Conan pastiche, which was pretty good.

Most seem to think The Road of Kings is the best Conan pastiche. I really need to track down a copy.

Well, here's one reason that has impacted my buying choices at time...if I'm going to plop down $8 or $9 on a book, do I want 200 pages or 400 pages with the possibility of more to come?

True, especially when my 1983 reprint of Dark Crusade was an affordable $2.95 (not sure how that adjusts for inflation). It would make a difference today if it was priced at $9. But, I would still want those other 400 pages to be worth reading...

PhD's are psychologists. :)

Crap... I'll make that fix. Thanks Trey! You sound like you know a thing or two about the field...

Yet a large chunk of high fantasy doesn't really have the deep characterization you say readers are expecting, just repetitive drivel and characters who don't change in any meaningful way.

That's a good point Taran. The idea for this essay came to me while reading Dark Crusade and simulataneously listening to the audio book of Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind... hard to imagine two more polar opposites. Then I started thinking about Ged in Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea, Garion in the Belgariad, etc. But I agree, what passes for "character development" in some fantasy is pure padding and could/should be excised.

another shame is that in this era of electronic awesomeness, his works are not available in any e-format and his books are for the most part out of print.

I don't own an own e-reader (yet) but it does seem a lower risk solution to get his stuff back in print.

Trey said...

@Brian - In a weird coincidence, I was in Chapel Hill to interview for the psychiatry residence program when I happened into a used bookstore and found the Powell edition of Darkness Weaves. My first exposure to Wagner came while walking in his old haunts!

Wagner really should be electronically available, but I've also long had the dream of graphic novel adaptions of some of the Kane stories.

Omlet said...

Kane is my fave character ever made. I own almost every book about him :D

Todd said...

I believe they are working on a Kane movie, an adaptation of Reflections for the Winter of My Soul.

That could be bitchin. or not.

Andy said...

I think the movie is dead in the water. There really hasn't been any news about it since the initial "hey, we're making a Kane movie!" announcement.

Paul R. McNamee said...

FYI; I am currently reading a historical novel, The Religion by Tim Willocks. It's set during the siege of Malta.

There are passing moments when the protagonist, Tannhauser, reminds me so much of Kane, I get chills.

It's almost what Kane would have been if he were historical, not fantasy, I think.

Your milage might vary - but the novel is darn good itself, anyway.

Brian Murphy said...

Trey: I actually didn't know that psychiatry was your vocation. Cool. Great story about finding Darkness Weaves.

I think the movie is dead in the water.

I think so too. I started hearing about it a few years back, maybe 3-4, and it's been silent since.

I am currently reading a historical novel, The Religion by Tim Willocks. It's set during the siege of Malta.

Sounds pretty good Paul, I'll have to write that down.

Lagomorph Rex said...

I've read a few bits and peices of the Kane series that I've picked up over the last few years. Most of it left me cold. Don't get me wrong, its certainly inventive, I just don't care for the character of Kane himself. Now if he were the villian.. rather than the protagonist of the stories.. I'd say that KEW had knocked it out of the park..

I must be the only one who didn't really care for Road of Kings either. Blasphemy I know.. but I actually liked the Offutt and DeCamp pastiches better than the Wagner and Anderson ones..

Something about large bearded authors I suppose.. since I'm not particularly big on GRRM or Mike Moorcock either.

Pericles said...

Brian, thanks for this piece. It pretty much describes what I've thought about Wagner and the fantasy field, but could never quite articulate.

And KEW is too fine a writer to languish forgotten.

Tim Mayer said...

I read my first Kane novel, BLOODSTONE, when it first came out in the 70's. I've been a Kane follower every since.

Brian Murphy said...

You're welcome Pericles, I appreciate the kind words. It's funny, I started writing it as a traditional review, but as I got into it took me to a different place. That's one of the things I enjoy about writing: It's a process of discovery, not just recanting known facts.

Tim: I don't suppose you still have a first edition copy?

Lagomorph Rex said...

Ya know I was just browsing the Internet and it's really no wonder KEW is so under-appreciated or little known..

Paperbacks of Night Winds and Death Angels Shadow (The only two I don't own) are between 20 and 40$ each... Whoever controls his literary rights are missing a wonderful opportunity to get his material re-published in a single volume (or maybe two volume) set from some one like TOR or Del Rey.. I may not care for the character, but they were certainly well written and well crafted little tales.

Andy said...

I don't know what the hold up is on Wagner reprints. I think an editor at Paizo said they left inquiries with the estate about doing Kane reprints as part of the Planet Stories line and they never even got a call back.

Brian Murphy said...

Andy: If true, that's too bad. Planet Stories would have been a perfect fit.