Death Angel's Shadow by Karl Edward Wagner
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 centre around Kane like a hurricane around a centre 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, wintry 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 saviour, 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 favourite 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.
This Death Angel's Shadow book review was written by Nicholas King
Have you read Death Angel's Shadow?
We've found that while readers like to know what we think of a book they find additional reader reviews a massive help in deciding if it is the right book for them. So if you have a spare moment, please tell us your thoughts by writing a reader's review. Thank you.
Death Angel's Shadow reader reviews
John from USA
It's a tragedy that Wagner's work has, except for a few limited run deluxe editions, died with him. Evidently there are issues regarding intellectual property rights and upfront money, but publishers are, in my view, missing a good bet with Karl's work in general and, in light of the success of _Game of Thrones_, the Kane series in particular. I pretty much agree with this reviewer's judgments, though "Cold Light" is among my favorites of Wagner's stories. The depiction of dogmatic zealotry as WORSE than simple pillage and plunder is especially relevant, I think, here in 2017, near the anniversary of Wagner's death. The action will carry you along, the brooding philosophy will hit you later.
9.4/10 from 2 reviews
Write a reader review
Thank you for taking the time to write a review on this book, it really makes a difference and helps readers to find their perfect book.
More recommended reading in this genre
Beren and Luthien
Painstakingly restored from Tolkien’s manuscripts and presented for the first time as a continuous and standalone story, the epic tale of Beren and Lúthien wil...
The Story of Kullervo
The world first publication of a previously unknown work of fantasy by J.R.R. Tolkien, which tells the powerful story of a doomed young man who is sold into slavery and who...
Timion the Black has exhausted his options. Reckless, despicable, Timion’s own band of mercenary men turn against him, leaving him for dead in a back alleyway. Fate d...
The Sword of Truth Series
Richard Cypher holds the fate of three nations in his hands, he must learn the Wizard's First Rule to achieve his goals. The heart hounds are stalking the humans, blood...
The Children Of Hurin
Painstakingly restored from Tolkien’s manuscripts and presented for the first time as a fully continuous and standalone story, this illustrated paperback of the epic ...
Lenk and his band of murderous misfits are loathed by society, spurned by all merciful gods, and motivated only by their distrust of each other. Hired to track down a stole...
Steven L Shrewsbury
Deliverance will come... A great flood once wiped clean the earth, destroying everything upon it. Before the deluge, in a time now forgotten, the world was a place of warri...
The Goblin Corps
Morthul, the dreaded Charnel King, has failed. Centuries of plotting from the heart of the Iron Keep - all for naught. Foiled at the last by the bumbling efforts of a laugh...
The Brotherhood of Dwarves series
Roskin, heir to the throne of a remote, peaceful kingdom of dwarves, craves excitement and adventure. Outside his own kingdom, in search of fortune and glory, he finds a mu...
A Threat of Shadows
Do some choices change us too much for us to ever change back? There was a time when Alaric was a Keeper, one of the men entrusted with counseling the queen, protecting the...
In the first section of Sauron Defeated Christopher Tolkien completes his fascinating study of The Lord of the Rings. Beginning with Sam’s rescue of Frodo from the To...
The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún
The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun contains 800 narrative verses adapted from Old Norse by Tolkien when he was professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University during the 1920s. ...
It is the twilight of mankind. Depleted by generations of war with a dark race, the human kingdoms and their ancient alliance stand on the brink of extinction. The outlands...
The Fallen Herald
Simon P Edwards
Thorn and Alazla are promising students and have little more on their minds than enjoying life, that is, until Thorn witnesses the murder of an Avatar, herald to one of the...
The Hunter's Rede
Lorth of Ostarin is a hunter of men. Lawless, solitary and obscure, he is trained in magic and its inherent order. This uneasy combination of pitilessness and structure has...
Looking for more suggestions? Try these pages:
- Recommended heroic / sword & sorcery books/series
- Recommended books/series similar to J. R. R. Tolkien
Best of 2016
The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun
Set 'In Britain's land beyond the seas' during the Age of Chivalry, The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun tells of a childless Breton Lord and Lady (the 'Aotrou' an...
A Threat of Shadows
Do some choices change us too much for us to ever change back? There was a time when Alaric was a Keeper, one of the men entrusted with counseling the queen, protecting the pe...
Books of the Month
A selection of books - old and new alike - that were a joy to read.
Paris was supposed to save Hallie. Now... well, let’s just say Paris has other ideas. There’s a strange woman called The Chronometrist who will not leave her alone. Garbled warnings from bizarre creatures keep her up at night. And there’s a time portal in the keg room of the bar where she works. Soon, Hallie is tumbling through...
A corrupted city. A dark dream of power. Luke is a prisoner, condemned for a murder he didn’t commit. Abi is a fugitive, desperate to free him before magic breaks his...
The Fifth Empire of Man
Rob J Hayes
The Pirate Isles are united under Drake Morrass’ flag, but the war has only just begun. There’s still a long way to go before he’s able to call himself Ki...
Ian C Esslemont
After the disappointments of Li Heng, Dancer and Kellanved wash up on a small insignificant island named Malaz. Immediately, of course, Kellanved plans to take it over. To ...
Age of Swords
Michael J Sullivan
Raithe, the God Killer, may have started the rebellion by killing a Fhrey, but long-standing enmities dividing the Rhunes make it all but impossible to unite against the co...
A Time of Dread
The Ben-Elim, a race of warrior angels, once vanquished a mighty demon horde. Now they rule the Banished lands. But their dominion is brutally enforced and their ancient en...
The Last Dog on Earth
Adrian J Walker
Every dog has its day... And for Lineker, a happy go lucky mongrel from Peckham, the day the world ends is his: finally a chance to prove to his owner just how loyal he can...