I read BLOODSTONE by Karl Edward Wagner a few weeks ago. Before I reshelf this book, I wanted to post a few thoughts on how amazing it was, and why I feel it is critical to the canon of Sword & Sorcery literature. Not one to recount plots and pick apart specific scenes, I prefer to offer my impressions and encourage fans of fantasy literature in general to seek out and read this book.
BLOODSTONE was the first of Wagner’s Kane novels. His recurring character is a mercenary from an ancient, sophisticated race and a learned scholar who studies tomes of archaic wisdom and practices sorcery himself. To say he is a cross between Robert E. Howard’s Conan and a sorcerer of the Clark Ashton Smith variety is about as close as I can come to relating Kane to something familiar to fans for S&S not already familiar with Wagner’s character. Similar to his biblical namesake, Kane is cursed by immortality, but a student of ancient religions, and mostly in it for himself.
I was completely enchanted by and absorbed in this story. While reading, the book wrapped me in a spell of adventure and horror like no other fantasy novel I have read in recent years. Despite Kane’s anti-hero status, Wagner builds a fascinating character whose next steps I was eager to read as the plot developed. The plot is sufficiently complex as to never be boring, leaving the reader guessing about every motivation and next step. As a reader, I found myself on journeys to kingdoms and lands of ill-repute, cryptic and monstrous in nature. Descriptions of the rotting land of Kranor-Rill and its long-abandoned city of alien origin made for fascinating reading, rendered in beautiful prose. There were references to Elder Gods, but such references were extrapolations of the concept beyond Lovecraft’s mythos. A quest to obtain alien technology abandoned and left to corrode in a blackened land, connected to texts of eldritch sorcery studied by Kane for his own purposes, lead the reader down fascinating paths of quests, political plots, exquisitely rendered scenes of battle, mind twists of strategy, and — of course — dazzling displays of swordplay and sorcery.
Ultimately, it seems to me, Wagner broke the mold of the standard S&S novel with this book. Much of what came before BLOODSTONE’s publication in 1975 followed a standard template, or at the very least stayed within certain boundaries. Wagner stepped outside the boundaries. His main character Kane is savage and barbaric at times, but also smart, learned, and at times diabolically calculating. His skills on the battlefield are matched by his scholarship and skills of diplomacy. One of the main characters in the book is a king’s daughter who fancies herself a man; a fierce fighter pining for her father’s favor, leading battles and preferring other women over men. I can’t be sure, but this seems like the earliest model of how to handle this issue well in a novel of this kind — it’s certainly something that has been imitated since then in popular works of fantasy. Wagner takes Howard’s “strong woman” trope to the utmost extreme, crossing new boundaries in a convincing and meaningful way.
This novel was dark in nature, certainly one of few works I would consider eldritch horror as well as sword and sorcery, and its unique qualities shine like the evil green gem that is its namesake in a field crowded with pastiche and imitation. Highly recommended.
For more information about the work of Karl Edward Wagner, be sure to check out my article and gallery of cover images at Realms of Night.