This is my retro review of Dark Crusade, which was published in the Karl Edward Wagner Phantasmagoria Special.
DARK CRUSADE by Karl Edward Wagner
In Dark Crusade we see Karl Edward Wagner’s immortal antihero Kane at his finest – and most evil: honourable by his own idiosyncratic standards, yet capable of carrying out the worst deeds imaginable, heroic yet villainous, courageous yet cruel, indifferent to the suffering of others yet able to reach out and help the most vulnerable on a whim. He is without doubt the most enigmatic character in heroic fantasy.
The novel starts when Orted, the defeated leader of an outlaw band, is on the run after a bungled raid on the city of Ingoldi. Badly wounded, he is fleeing through the labyrinthine alleys of the city when he is offered refuge by a priest of the obscure and unsavoury god Sataki. Though suspicious, Orted is too desperate to quibble. When he follows the priest into his temple, though, he is clubbed senseless and awakens to find himself spread-eagled on a stone altar, about to be sacrificed. Which is when things take an unexpected twist. Perhaps because he is stronger than most of those previously offered by the cult’s priests, instead of being drained of life by Sataki, Orted is filled with some of the god’s spirit. Which is how the outlaw becomes Sataki’s Prophet, a man without a shadow.
The following day, led by Orted, the priests go out into the city to recruit followers at a local market, where most of the crowd are seduced by the demon’s spirit inside Orted and become consumed with hatred for those who refuse their new god. And so begins the Dark Crusade, in which religious fanatics slaughter their enemies, sacking city after city and massacring anyone who fails to follow Sataki.
That is, until this ragtag army meets its first defeat when it comes up against one of the finest armies in the region, whose heavy cavalry turn its advance into a panic-filled rout.
Which is where, ever the opportunist, Kane comes in.
The Immortal Swordsman uses the Prophet’s defeat to offer his skills to him as a general to train the mob into the semblance of a real army, at the same time using Orted’s plundered wealth to hire mercenary cavalrymen who will be loyal to him, not the cult. Kane cynically intends to use what the Prophet has created to carve out an empire before assassinating Orted and taking everything for himself.
Or so he hopes.
As a foil to Kane, we have the general Jarvo, who begins the story as the arrogant leader of the cavalry that defeats Orted’s mob. Already hideously scarred by Kane after he tried to have the swordsman removed as a rival to power when they were members of the same army, he is unexpectedly defeated when he again attacks the Prophet’s army, unaware of the changes Kane has made in the meantime - or the mercenary cavalry Kane has recruited. But Jarvo proves difficult to kill and miraculously, if painfully, begins to recover from the injuries he sustains at the battle. Afterwards he helps to forge a new alliance amongst neighbouring kingdoms to oppose the Crusade.
This is an involved story, with intricately woven power struggles in a barbaric world. Kane treads the chasm between hero and villain superbly well. Though he is thoroughly amoral there is, bizarrely, something almost heroically noble about him. Orted’s possession by the demon Sataki is credibly described, still a man beneath the alterations wrought upon him. And his crusade, though filled with fanatical violence, is credibly disparate, filled with the kinds of greed and opportunism that are all too easily recognisable.
Though set within a fantasy world, this is a book that has whispers of the real world in it – and lessons about the ongoing dangers of religious zealots. It is also incredibly well written and a great read.