Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Heroes Die by Matthew Woodring Stover

First published in 1998, Heroes Die (US, UK, Canada) and its sequel, The Blade of Tyshalle (US, UK, Canada), by Matthew Woodring Stover are seeing a resurgence in interest on the news of the October 2008 release of a third novel, Caine Black Knife (US, UK, Canada), in what has become known as the Acts of Caine series. Part science fiction and larger part epic fantasy, Heroes Die helped to set the trend for the darker, ‘gritty’ fantasy of today with a wit and skill all too rarely wielded.

In a future of strict social castes and virtual enslavement of the lower classes, Hari Michaelson is the most famous actor in the world and Caine is the character. Entertainment has evolved to more – it now serves as a way for the authoritarian government to placate, rule and distract all levels of society. The means have evolved as well, entertainment is no longer simple images on a screen, but a means for a person to fully experience everything from an actor’s point of view – thoughts, emotions, joy, pain, and the most popular aspect of all, death. The setting has evolved as well – science has discovered ways for people to shift phases from the ‘real’ world to alternative universes – the alternative universe used for entertainment purposes is Overworld and its central city, Ankhana. In Overworld, humans aren’t the only sentient species is a realm where magic is reality – also found are all things mythical – elves, ogres, orcs, dragons, and more.

Hari’s estranged wife, Shanna is the actor known as Pallas Rill – though much less popular. In her latest ‘episode’, Pallas disappears offline in the slums of Ankhana with only days to live before her phase shift expires. The opportunistic studio seizes the chance to for Hari, still in love with his wife, to realize his most popular adventure ever – the quest to kill a virtually indestructible Emperor and save the life of his wife…or die trying. Hari is freed to be Caine, the Blade of Tyshalle and most notorious assassin in the Overworld. Caine is pissed and more aware than ever of control from above and the long odds against his survival and that of his wife.

Hari and Caine together make the perfect anti-hero, a protagonist shaded in gray, likeable yet detestable, and someone who truly kicks ass. Caine is a fully realized character, a character that we see filtered through its creator, Hari. Hari is Caine…Caine is Hari. The blurring lines, the internal conflict, the pain – this is a character driven in a way that’s easy and impossible to relate to. Others in the book serve to support Caine, not as well developed, but they don’t need to be.

This exploration of the hero and anti-hero is wrapped up in a wonderfully realized plot. Hari’s quest in both the real world and Overworld intertwine. The high-octane pace only slows for us to catch our breath as Stover shows how well a fight scene can be executed – probably a result of his own devotion to the martial art of jeet kune do. While we see the plot unwrap largely from the point of view of Caine, details remain hidden and the climax brings it all together in a refreshing (and bloody) way that’s both anticipated and surprising. Caine is not someone to get on the bad side of.

The duel setting also provides a wonderful juxtaposition of two extremes that may be more alike then different. The city of Ankhana is an alien, dangerous, yet slightly familiar setting, though it never attains the level of a functioning character in the book. The vision of the future of our own world is even more disturbing – a rigid caste structure under the total control by the elite. Virtual slavery is the reality and the masses fall in line – it’s a future that hits home because it’s not entirely improbable.

I have been hearing the praises of Heroes Die and The Blade of Tyshalle for nearly 10 years now, and with the coming of Caine Black Knife, the volume has only increased. It was good from the start – however, at 100 pages in I was questioning if its reputation had become over-hyped. By the time I got to the latter half of the book, I wasn’t thinking one bit about the book’s reputation, I was completely absorbed and enthralled with Caine. Combine that with the thoroughly satisfying ending and the result is a book that is not over-hyped at all, but deservedly considered a must-read for fans of SFF. 8.5/10

1 comment:

Adele said...

piqued my interest. I think I could blow my whole paypacket in a day's bookshopping with ease at the moment.


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