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April 12th, 2005

Last Wednesday, 6 April, I finished reading Karl Edward Wagner's Bloodstone (NY: Warner Paperback Library; 1975; 303 pps.), which is either the second or third novel featuring his "Black Prometheus," the red-headed, red-bearded, red-handed warrior/scholar/wizard named Kane. (The first novel is apparently either Darkness Weaves With Many Shades or Death Angel's Shadow; Kane has also appeared in an additional novel [Dark Crusade], numerous short stories, novellas, and poems. Night Shade Books has republished the complete Kane novels, stories and poems in two omnibus editions: Gods in Darkness and The Midnight Sun, respectively. (Sadly, both books are now out of print.) Bloodstone was my first encounter with Kane, or indeed with Karl Edward Wagner.

Kane is not your run-of-the-mill mighty-thewed barbarian; for one thing, he's apparently the biblical Cain, created by a Philip José Farmeresque version of Jehovah (who makes no appearance in Bloodstone) and doomed to wander a benighted Earth on an unending quest for revenge against his maker, or for a violent end to his own immortal existence. Apparently Kane seeks to slay all who dare to set themselves up as gods over mankind, in the name of serving both his personal vendetta and in granting man his freedom; he may or may not also try to set himself up as a little tin god in the process, as he does in Bloodstone. Supposedly Kane's first great "gift" to mankind was murder. (No, really, Kane, you shouldn't have.)

This backstory is mostly well behind the scenes of Bloodstone, however; what is present in Bloodstone is a dark, rather histrionic tale of a russet-haired rogue named Kane chancing upon a rare artifact -- a large ring said to control an ancient, sorcerous gem named Bloodstone -- who then schemes, Yojimbo-like, at setting the two great powers of the Southern Lands, Breimen and Selonari, against one another in order to first gain access to the Bloodstone and its ruined city of Arellarti, and then to gain time for his ensorcelled armies of giant frog-men, the Rillyti (who are the debased descendants of the elder race that controlled Bloodstone, the Krelran), to repair and rebuild Arellarti in order to restore Bloodstone's power. With Bloodstone, Kane hopes to control a goodly chunk of the world, and then hie him across the stars on an unspecified quest; Bloodstone, however, has its own ideas....

In Bloodstone, Kane comes off as a generic Robert E. Howard hero (he's a bit too grim and much too enamored of occult knowledge for Conan, and a bit too untroubled by conscience for Bran Mak Morn) cross-pollinated with Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné, the chief difference with the latter being that while Kane can still be sufficiently roused to plot to conquer the Earth, Elric simply can't be arsed.

In addition to having red hair and frequently maniacal ice-blue eyes, Kane is also left-handed, which makes him sinister in the original sense of the word, as well as the current sense.

Bloodstone is a busy novel laden with pastiches of other works of fantasy and horror (no points for detecting the waft, if not the call, of Cthulhu in the halls and weird geometry of Arellarti, while Bloodstone comes off as a cross between one of Lovecraft's Elder Gods and Moorcock's demonic sword Stormbringer; and even without any knowledge of Kane's backstory, Bloodstone's plot exudes a vague whiff of something tucked away in one of Farmer's desk drawers), shot through with a certain Germanic coarseness; it's hard to escape the feeling that Wagner also tossed in a few "Easter eggs" honoring other works as well, from the classic 1956 science fiction movie Forbidden Planet (note the similarity of the names of their two ancient, super-advanced races, the Krell and the Krelran; while "Arellarti" is a near anagram of Altair, the name of the solar system to which the Earthmen of the United Planets mount a relief expedition) to Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (Kane's off-hand reference to Arellarti as "Toad Hall;" p. 180), and from Ian Fleming (the main female character, Teres, is, like Pussy Galore, what used to be called a "bull dagger woman," and is often mistaken at first glance for a man: a cruder version of some of the Free Amazons of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series and a more plausible take on a warrior woman than the comic book retooling of Howard's Red Sonja, she is wooed and temporarily won by Kane, who, for all his "issues," evidently manages to be a more sympathetic -- not to say respectful -- lover than James Bond was in Fleming's books) to Pink Floyd (the second paragraph of the book contains this sentence: "Several species of small furry animals picked their way through caves and grooves in the moss-hung debris of fallen branches and cast-off leaves of many seasons;" p. 9). While Wagner's writing only intermittently rises above the pedestrian (particularly during the final showdown between Kane and Bloodstone), for the most part I felt that his story would've been better served had he written it for a comic book; the "production values" of the battles and the hellzapoppin' finale, to say nothing of the fairly graphic violence and the over-reliance on exclamation points, seem to recommend it for the closest print analog to movies rather than a strictly prose form. (Wagner's writing most impressed me in Chapter IX: "When Eagles Gather," a not-quite three-page-long interlude with two down-and-out rogues, Havern and Wessa, discussing the merits of following in the wake of the Breimen expeditionary force against Selonari to get what they see as their fair share of the plunder. While Havern and Wessa serve the same function as similar characters in Shakespeare's plays -- morbid comic relief -- they're also a grim reminder that the phrase "camp follower" didn't encompass only whores, merchants, soldiers' families, servants or slaves. I was in hopes that Wagner would toss in a similar bit, or at least have another interlude from a different perspective not usually considered in histories, let alone fantasy novels, but no such luck.)

While Kane may have been Wagner's "Black Prometheus," in Bloodstone he comes off at key moments as having more in common with Epimetheus, Prometheus's not-so-swift-on-the-uptake brother. Kane displays hubris in spades in Bloodstone, but he manages to stick the various people he's enmeshed in his schemes with the lion's share of the tab. I suppose it could be argued that Kane's wits were clouded by Bloodstone's telepathic blandishments, but I suspect that even in the other "canonical" works, Kane will prove to be far less the prime mover of his own actions than he would like. Perhaps his creator made him better than he knew..?

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