Central Europe having been at war for over a decade, in April 1629 the orphan Aenlin Kane arrives in the Free Imperial City of Hamburg alongside her travelling companion and “close personal friend” Tahmina, an Eastern mystic, to attempt to retrieve the inheritance which was left to her late mother by the father she never knew, the legendary hunter of demons Solomon Kane, but there will be hurdles to navigate in order to prove her right to receive whatever items are held in abeyance.
Obliged to accept a commission from the solicitors who control the estate, Aenlin and “close personal friend” Tahmina find themselves in the company of a group of mercenaries, Statius, Jäcklein, the giant Moritz, and their captain Nicolas, themselves operating under false pretences, and the foppish adventurer Caspar vod und zu dem Dorffe, charged with retrieving a group of women held under accusations of witchcraft from the city of Bamberg, a more challenging mission than any of them anticipated.
Published in 2019 in author Markus Heitz’s native Germany as Die Dunklen Lande and now translated by Charlie Homewood, the passage across The Dark Lands is fraught with danger as Aenlin and her associates are pursued by seemingly unstoppable forces led my a masked necromancer apparently able to anticipate or track their movements and dispel the enchantments which “close personal friend” Tahmina uses to mask and protect them, seemingly always about to leap out of the trees in another predictable surprise attack.
Inspired by the work of Conan creator Robert E Howard, Homewood’s translation has done no favours to Heitz’s text, the early chapters preserving the sentence structure of the original German rather than presenting something which flows more smoothly in English, though he is not responsible for Heitz’s own quirks such as introducing a new characters by stating their age in relation to a previous character; is it important to know that Henry Rich, First Earl of Holland, is ten years younger than Melchior Pieck, the assassin he engages, or that Tahmina is five years younger than Aenlin?
While it cannot be denied that Heitz knows his subject, the historical period of the final years of the Low Saxon War during which The Dark Lands is set, as well as the minutiae of armaments, armour, tactics and the politics of this era, his expectation that his readers should also be as interested in the firing pans of early muskets is misguided, but while he eventually finds direction after the first few chapters this doesn’t conceal the deeper problems with his worldbuilding.
With multiple characters demonstrating vast magical abilities, enchanted weapons, divination, astral projection, portals to demonic realms, deflections of projectiles, invulnerability, presenting them in a story set in an otherwise a mundane historical parallel throws a spanner of incongruity in the works; they simply don’t belong there and their presence breaks credulity, not helped by the late confirmation of such when a character attempts to destroy evidence of magical transmogrifications lest the commoners find out and panic when no such consideration was apparent at any point earlier.
In Bimbos of the Death Sun, her satirical mystery novel set at a science fiction convention, Sharyn McCrumb had an English professor denounce bad fantasy entered into the fiction competion as transcripts of Dungeons and Dragons sessions, but The Dark Lands is worse, the endless pyrotechnics and adventures of Aenlin Kane and “close personal friend” Tahmina reading more like an excitable and naïve child writing fan fiction of his favourite video game.
The Dark Lands is available now from Jo Fletcher Books