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I like taking a literary approach to genre works like fantasy, sci fi, and supernatural horror and seeing what comes of it.

Darkness Weaves - Karl Edward Wagner
There are stumbling blocks for every author--we each have our crutches, our weak points, our awkward moments--but what sets a good author apart is that, despite these things, there is always something that carries them through it, some verve or strength that makes up for it.

This is especially true for pulp and genre authors: their work may be unpolished, even bordering on the cliche, but some aspect of their approach and vision still shines through. Lovecraft's pacing and voice often left much to be desired, but his unique vision of cosmic horror still makes much of his work intriguing. Early on, Moorcock struggled with subtlety and sophistication, but his odd conceptual approach often saved him. Indeed, for Howard, the more polished his style became, the more it lost the vitality that set it apart.

With Wagner, I struggled to find the unique aspect of voice that makes a story worth telling--and worth reading. Certainly, there are some things he does well: his writing shines when he is setting a scene, in descriptions of places, structures, weather, the tapestry of a landscape passing the lonely traveler by. There is some real loveliness there, some fine turns of phrase and genuine tone.

However, outside of these passages the style becomes finicky. The action scenes get bogged down in deliberate, meticulous description, preventing them from flowing, from being dramatic and wild. It all begins to feel like a foregone conclusion. Wagner doesn’t seem to be able to create interesting tensions within the action to keep us interested.

In actions scenes, there is always the obvious, overarching conflict that must be resolved. In combat, it is the naked question of who will prevail, whose sword arm will prove stronger. In the chase, it is the question of whether the quarry will escape, or be captured. In order to lengthen these into full scenes, there must be a sequence of smaller conflicts playing out which are progressively dealt with en route to the final conclusion.

However, it is vital that these smaller conflicts be interesting in themselves, and not just be an extension of the larger. So, it cannot just be ‘our hero sees a new foe before him’, to be cut down and defeated in a repetitious succession of thud and blunder. There must be some wrinkle, some particular that must be overcome in a way that requires something specific of our hero, that engages him. It is not enough simply to have a quick foe, or a massive one--that quickness or size must be given some particular thrust--some detail that makes it feel true to the reader, that makes it imperative to the hero’s momentary survival.

Kane is meant to be preternaturally skilled and competent--but even the most certain man must grit his teeth and will his way through at least some of his struggles. The combat often ends up lacking a sense of danger or thrill or unpredictability to keep things moving. It shows how difficult it really is to produce the kind of exciting flow that Howard seems to create so effortlessly--almost thoughtlessly--in the Conan stories.

Wagner’s dialogue likewise shows a niceness that causes it to lose much of the punch it might otherwise have. Firstly, he walks that line le Guin marked in her essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, in that when he makes his language conversational, it can start to feel overly modern and plain in the mouths of these outlandish characters. That isn't to say that characters in fantasy should all speak like chivalric knights errant, but creating conversation that is both rough and retains a period feel is no easy feat.

Secondly, like many authors unsure of their own voice, he seems to fear being misunderstood. So, he leaves nothing implied, allows no subtle nods, instead making sure the whole is stated outright for the reader. So, if we have our hero speaking with a shady character, a dark-cloaked spy who works both sides, you can be certain that at some point, there will be an aside where he thinks to himself ‘I’m not sure if I can trust him’. If two characters are planning to break into a castle, one will probably mention that he doesn’t want to be caught and tortured.

There’s a reason that writers don’t do this: ‘While fully dressed and facing forward, he walked with his feet across the green grass lawn’--most of those words simply aren’t necessary. The exact same image is communicated by ‘He walked across the lawn’. The true job of a writer is deciding what needs to be shown versus what can be left unsaid. If our hero walked backwards on his hands while naked across a perfumed lawn of purple bones, that might be worth mentioning. Ultimately, it makes Wagner’s writing tedious to get through--less like characters engaged in conversation and more like two writers plotting the outline for a script.

The Cthulhu bits are played too straight, too matter-of-factly. Wagner isn’t adding anything or putting his own spin on it, he’s just lifting Lovecraft’s descriptions whole cloth. Indeed, the characters often speak of magic and demons with all the wonder and fear of a mechanic talking about rebuilding an engine.

Moreover, the events of the story don’t really seem to touch Kane, to change him moment to moment. Of course, his immortality would give him an unusual point of view, and it’s certainly not unthinkable that he should feel disconnected from the world--jaded and detached. But even so, this jadedness does not seem to drive him, it does not modify his reactions, it simply leaves him blank. With Moorcock's Elric, we get the idea that he has grander desires that drive him, even if they tend to be personal ones, and he otherwise feels separate from the world.

Now, if the intent were to explore the existential ennui of immortality, that could make for an interesting story, but the events of Kane’s life are very much the norm for a sword & sorcery hero--battles and demons, pirates and assassins. His own actions in this world are also very much the norm, so it’s not as if we’re being provided with some fresh outlook or approach to underscore his unique perspective.

I was excited to try this series, based on it's reputation--a darker Conan, a modern take on Eddison's and Anderson's violent, blood-and-glory tales--unfortunately, the tone, characterization, dialogue, and plotting simply weren't up to the challenge. Ultimately, though Wagner is certainly reaching for what might be an interesting vision of fantasy, he never quite succeeds at bringing it to life, on the page.