Karl Edward Wagner’s work can be described as brutally nihilistic in both tone and scope. In a trio of short stories, Wagner sends Kane, the Mystic Swordsman, hurtling from one blood-soaked adventure to another. Each story that makes up Death Angel’s Shadow surrounds itself with death like a hedonistic lover’s arms. And while there is an amount of erudite mental wrangling done by the lead character, the majority of these stories is spent in visceral escapism.
As mentioned in my review of Darkness Weaves, the character of Kane is implicitly seen as a version of the biblical Cain. In these three stories, such pretenses are dropped as Wagner delves fully into the concept of the eternally wandering murderer. Repeatedly the audience is reminded that violence, chaos, and conflict center around Kane like a hurricane around a center eye. Unlike the relative calm of the eye of the storm, Kane’s capacity for violence (both calculated and suddenly vicious) is unmatched by any other character in the sword and sorcery genre. It would not be remiss to state that almost every anti-hero published after Kane’s stories has borrowed (or outright stolen) directly or indirectly from Wagner’s work.
“Reflections for the Winter of my Soul” stands as a chilling monster story rife with comparisons to the bestial nature of the world and humanity. Wagner draws parallels between the seemingly unstoppable werewolf and Kane. The author makes the audience root for Kane despite knowing full well that Kane is just as capable of atrocity and slaughter. Within a cold, wintery landscape, Kane and the rest of the cast are isolated from society. Forests in this genre run the gamut from places of solitude and quiet refuge to sinister lairs filled with teeming creatures. In this forest, fear and death make what could have been an innocent white winter into something terrifying. Fear is also a driving element to the story, specifically the madness that unchecked fear has on one’s psyche. By juxtaposing the bruising but cultured Kane with the equally cultured and thoroughly deranged lycanthrope, Wagner demonstrates that there is very little that separates us humans from our animalistic forebears.
The short story “Cold Light” is actually the longest of the three in the book and the second most philosophical, despite being a methodical action/adventure story. In “Cold Light”, Wagner uses one of the most moribund settings I’ve ever come across in literature to stress the truly depressing level of melancholy Kane starts off in. The city of Demornte is a picture of a post-plague city, like the European capitals must have looked and felt like after a bout of the Black Death in the Middle Ages. The despair has settled into the populace of the city, who care for nothing except waiting for death to claim them as well. Into their midst walks Kane, followed shortly thereafter by Gaethaa the Avenger, a knight-errant who believes that in order to eradicate evil, one must be the cold light of justice and good, hence the title of the story. Gaethaa is a foil because his actions are even more reprehensible than Kane’s have been. While there is little doubt of the copious quantities of blood on Kane’s hands, it can be argued that he no longer gains much pleasure from such activities, save for perhaps the adrenaline rush. Gaethaa, on the other hand, possesses the self-righteous zeal of the pious. One character points out that while Kane is perceived as evil, it isn’t until the arrival of Gaethaa that rape, torture, intimidation, and murder become commonplace in Demornte. This story puts the audience in the position of rooting for Kane, knowing full well that he can potentially be worse than his enemy.
The final story, called “Mirage”, is the most philosophical of the trio, in that it tackles the idea of death and what lies beyond it. Wagner utilizes Kane as a metaphor for the fruitlessness of seeking immortality. Even Kane remarks that time has simply shown him that patterns repeat themselves and that it is usually the most trivial of patterns (wars for power, money, etc) at that.
While escaping wights (undead creatures who feed on the flesh of the recently deceased), Kane is saved by a mysterious stranger. Everything that is experienced after this moment is suspect and even Kane cannot fully enjoy the charade put forward. He meets his savior, a vampiress who seeks a mate in undeath. Tired of centuries of wandering and warfare, Kane succumbs to this creature’s charms and willfully gives himself over to the possibility of dying. And it is here that Wagner seeks to dispel any pleasing notions of the afterlife from his audience. Kane experiences death as just another mirage, promising peace when such a thing doesn’t really exist. While not as action-packed as the prior stories, this jaunt through the macabre is my favorite for digging into the fears of death that all of us share.
Wagner’s love of exposition and large paragraphs describing setting set the mood in a much more economical fashion than in Darkness Weaves (which was one of my criticisms of that novel). Due in no small part to the constraints of the form, the short stories allow for tightly focused action, excellent character development (especially of the secondary female characters in each story), and giving the lead character a chance to both pontificate about life’s mysteries while still maintaining time for splitting someone’s head open with a sword. While not for everyone, fans of adult sword and sorcery and charismatic anti-heroes will want to add to this collection immediately.