I'm reading this short novel for the first time, and I feel it is very well done. Of course, I've read a lot of Wagner's Kane, and also his Conan treatment in Road of Kings, but Wagner's BMM is some of his finest work, I believe, and faithful to REH.
One of Robert E. Howard’s finest short stories is Worms of the Earth, first published in 1932, a pitch-black, horror-tinged piece of sword and sorcery pulp that features a very different protagonist from his famed Cimmerian, Conan. The tale revolves around the diminutive but powerful Pict King, Bran Mak Morn, and details his willingness to dabble with dark supernatural forces in summoning a race of degenerate subhuman underground creatures to achieve revenge against a Roman governor for the crucifixion of one of his comrades.
The task that stalwart dark fantasy author Karl Edward Wagner takes on in Legion from the Shadows is to give readers a direct novel-length sequel to Howard’s story, once again focusing on Bran Mak Morn and his ongoing war against Rome in ancient Britain. Wagner’s scope is impressive as he casts his net large enough to incorporate the mystery of the legendary missing IX Legion of Rome into his narrative.
The book opens with a prologue in which Bran’s forefather is directly responsible for imprisoning the soldiers underground to die. Instead these soldiers interbreed with the Worms of the Earth, becoming the title’s shadow legion. There is much to like in this 250-page Zebra paperback, starting with a great Jeff Jones cover. Bran faces down the descendants of the IX Legion, he engages in underground battles that brim with Wagner’s mastery of mixing action and horror, and we get a great glimpse into aspects of Pictish culture.
Unfortunately, it’s also steeped in extended bouts of exposition and prolonged history that ultimately feel like padding. There’s not enough action to keep the rhythm going and the whole tale begins to lose any sense of forward momentum. I believe there is probably a great novella hidden within Legion from the Shadows as the prose is strong and the imagery is descriptive and bold.
After recently loving a book in the Kane series by Wagner, I was really excited to read his take on Bran Mak Morn and to see him playing legitimately in the world of Robert E. Howard; I have read nothing but positive reviews for his Conan pastiche, The Road of Kings. In the end I was left disappointed that I can’t heartily recommend a book I have owned since I was 14-years old by an author I greatly respect. I find Wagner's series of Kane books to be much more memorable.