As I read Karl Edward Wagner’s Darkness Weaves, I was struck by the familiarity of the setting. The pre-industrial (or possibly post-apocalyptic) world of Kane, the Mystic Swordsman, is classic sword and sorcery with malevolent witches, blood-soaked battles, and a plethora of anti-heroes. This is not “high fantasy” of the Tolkien or Brooks variety where the heroes are virtuous and good triumphs over evil in the end. There is no limit to the action, moving from thrilling violence for its own sake as well as enough titillating (and transgressive) sexuality for anyone who prefers more adult-fare in their fantasy.
Wagner is well-known for his edits of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories as well as his penchant for dark fantasy. Anyone who has spent any length of time in Hyborea, the pre-historical setting of the Conan stories, will feel right at home in the lands of Kane. Throughout Darkness Weaves there is, at times, an overwhelming sense of nihilism driving the narrative. The protagonists are the antagonists and vice versa. Death is frequently found except by the most ruthless characters. While the setting is certainly a sibling to Howard’s, I can also see the beginnings of Westeros (minus the abundance of magic in Wagner’s world) in Kane’s story.
The primary character would be the villain of any other story, and a damn good villain at that. Kane combines all of the brutish, ultraviolent aspects of Conan with a cunning and intelligence reserved for more Svengali-like characters. Capable of discussing tactics, history, sorcery, as well as displaying the finer points of bloodshed, Kane is an immortal with disturbing eyes. He is Wagner’s nihilistic viewpoint given voice. As mentioned above, the setting appears to be pre-industrial and pre-historical like Hyborea. An attentive reader will surmise who Kane really is, which throws the timeline of the setting into something closer to post-apocalyptic primitivism.
Within this world of Wagner’s devising, there is no room for altruism or for good overcoming evil and returning to the storybook ending. Characters speak of prophecies which predict happy endings and any other writer would present such visions as a foregone conclusion that the audience should expect to see. But in this world, no such endings exist. Like real life, often the good or slightly less evil do not win out and receive a just reward. Also like real life, death is constantly swirling in the air, a form of the title’s darkness, which comes to claim all but the weary Kane. This connection to the dirty, grimy side of life and the ignoble end that awaits everyone sets Wagner’s work apart from other fantasy writers of his time. One can also see the influence Wagner’s work has in other fantasy series that came after it, particularly the rise of the anti-hero character (MacFarlane’s Spawn and Caglistro come to mind).
This is not to say that Wagner’s work isn’t without its drawbacks. Many of the characters are one-dimensional and rather bland. Examples would the villainess of the story Efrel and her lackey Oxfors Alremas (who fit the cackling witch and arrogant nobleman tropes respectively). Efrel is an effective character, far more so than Alremas, who seems to be taking up space until the main character can kill him. The antagonists (M’Cori, Lages, and Netistan Maril) are also not deeply-fleshed out characters. Maril and Lages in particular share the same primary character trait: the pompous royal/king with anger management issues. As mentioned before, M’Cori is the only truly innocent character in the story (a form of King Lear’s Cordelia) who receives an equally grim end to her story. Wagner also has a penchant for long passages of exposition where one character goes on for pages at a time about the backstory of the conflict or the characters involved in the conflict. Personally, I did not mind these sections much because they were dynamic (for the most part) and told the exposition in as swift a fashion as possible. Still, for the average reader, such chunks of plot and backstory can be difficult to wade through to get to the meat of the action.
As a fan of both dark fantasy and sword and sorcery stories, I deeply enjoyed Wagner’s Darkness Weaves. If you are a fan of Howard’s Conan series or Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, I would strongly recommend picking up this book. There are six books in total that Wagner wrote before his death in 1994 that deal with Kane. To borrow a line from Wagner’s sister series though, that is a tale for another time.