Just got done re-reading an old novel in my collection titled Dark Crusade. It was written by Karl Edward Wagner in 1976. It is an unusual book for me in many regards, the most obvious being that the authors name is not Salvatore, Golden, or Cunningham. The other thing about this novel is that it is centered on religion and the rise of a near dead cult from it's ashes to near domination of an entire continent. While cults and their ways are intriguing, I will be the first to declare that religion holds no sway over me.
The story is put together well, it takes place in an arid savanna land at a time similar to the dark ages. Steel is a fairly new invention and magic is rare and dangerous. The land is in constant war and many small nations and city-states mark the land. The story begins when a sacrifice to an ancient god goes awry which creates a powerful prophet who seeks to raise an entire empire to worship the dark god Sataki. After conquering a major city the prophet, Orted, orders his mob army to take over the outlying villages and towns then pushes on to the next kingdom. All who do not convert to the dark god are slain without mercy. When his "army" is crushed by the opposing kingdom's mounted army, the main character, Kane, enters the story. An immortal (we don't know how or why) warrior, Kane has a sharp wit which equals his massive frame and muscled body. He ends up making a deal with the prophet, being granted free reign in exchange for building and leading the army of Sataki.
I found, for me, the best feature of Dark Crusade was that the "hero" of the book was on the wrong side of the fence for most of the story. Through the majority of the pages Kane leads his invincible army to conquer nearly an entire continent before changing sides and confronting the evil power which strangles the land. It was refreshing to read a story that used characters who were not so much knights riding to save the realm as they were real people trying to survive in a hostile environment even if it meant working with the enemy. After reading in a specific setting for so long (Forgotten Realms) which has a large amount of supplemental information supporting the novels it was a little disappointing to read a regular novel which has to bring the setting, history, lore, and all to the reader in only 250ish pages. Perhaps if I had read Bloodstone, the novel which preceded Dark Crusade, and featured Kane as well I would have had a better grasp on the character and the world he resides in. Then again perhaps not, as I've heard that the Kane novels and short stories are only loosely linked together and span a large time line.
This book is a bit quirky and, while Wagner is hailed as very good author in sci-fi/fantasy fiction, I found that many details were not fully revealed to the reader. Two of the central characters are not even introduced to the book until well towards the middle of the story and the fates of both are left hanging at the end. It is as if the book was part of a planned series that never was written. This did not really detract from my enjoyment of the book but the ending did leave me wanting just a few more answers. Overall, a good book, good enough to read twice it seems.
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