Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Casca #04 - Panzer Soldier

Scripture tells us that while Jesus hung on the cross, slowly dying, one of the Roman soldiers pierced his side with a lance. That soldier is the subject of Barry Sadler’s remarkable action/adventure series. The gospel, according to Sadler, relates that the soldier was surly and indifferent, unmoved by the suffering of Jesus (or anyone else for that matter), whereupon Jesus looked into his eyes and said, “As you are, so shall you remain, until I come again.”

And since that moment, Casca Rufio Longinus has remained just as he was, never aging, never dying. He wanders restlessly from place to place, even spanning the world. While from time to time he finds himself enslaved, imprisoned or otherwise distracted from his calling, he’s a born soldier and his destiny is to fight in one war after another, endlessly, until the Second Coming. Along the way, his various injuries heal themselves miraculously but he’s susceptible to a great deal of physical and emotional suffering.

For the most part he keeps his condition a secret. But in the debut novel, “The Eternal Warrior”, an American army doctor in Vietnam discovers an ancient bronze arrowhead embedded in the body of an unconscious soldier (guess who!), and soon we learn of Casca’s early life and adventures. It’s a phenomenal book.

The second novel, “God of Death”, takes him from the Barbarian lands beyond the Empire to the realm of the Vikings, then across the sea to the Americas. Most of the book deals with the land of the Olmecs, where human sacrifice is practiced and an epic clash of civilizations is underway. Maybe I’m just Euro-centric, but for me ancient Mexico was one of the less-compelling settings in the Casca saga.

The third book, “The War Lord”, is somewhat better. Casca manages to sail back to European waters, where he becomes something of a pirate for a time before wandering east--- as in Far East, all the way to China. On the long journey, he first encounters a mysterious Brotherhood which knows all about him, despises him, and tries to hold him captive. Arriving in China, he becomes a prized warrior in the service of the Emperor.

In the fourth book, “Panzer Soldier”, the saga leaps forward about 1500 years, where we find Casca going by the name Carl Langer, leading a four-man German tank crew on the Russian front in WWII. For the first time in the series, a novel confines itself to one conflict, and Casca only goes where the war takes him. 

Collectors know that this is one of the more expensive, harder-to-find books in the series. Maybe that’s because of the subject matter, but I’d like to think it’s because the novel is so outstanding. As literature, “The Eternal Warrior” is a bit stronger overall, but “Panzer Soldier” is unmatched in its visceral power. It’s easily the grimmest, grittiest book in the series thus far. The battle action is breathtaking, but the novel’s real strength is in the context of those scenes. Every aspect of a panzer soldier’s life is examined, from the hunger, exhaustion and lice to the gnawing gradual realization that defeat is inevitable, Germany is doomed, and that one’s own death in battle is nearly as certain (certain for everyone but Casca, that is). 

There are a few lighter interludes scattered about, but for the most part the book is almost as much a grueling horror story as a war novel. Sometimes we can only wonder where the line between fiction and non-fiction really lies, as the book is full of disturbing vignettes with the ring of truth to them--- from the German civilian who is not only raped and murdered but nailed to the door of her barn, to the soldiers who survive an overwhelming enemy bombardment but are driven out of their minds by the experience, bleeding from their ears and noses. The atmosphere of hopelessness and dread only intensifies as Casca and his crew are pushed ever westward, as the Germans are forced to retreat all the way to Berlin.

And that’s when things begin to unravel a little. Sadler knows we’re hoping that Casca will meet certain notable figures from history, and that’s accomplished by bending the narrative to accommodate a metaphysical angle. The Brotherhood makes an unlikely appearance and the story wobbles for awhile until Casca resumes fighting the Russians. I can’t describe this last quarter of the book without giving away too much. It’s good, but it’s a little less successful than what came before. 

Don’t let that deter you from seeking out this book, though. Overall, “Panzer Soldier” is a riveting, powerful novel, and a key entry in an essential series.