Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Review: Blade of Tyshalle by Matthew Woodring Stover

I read fantasy books. While I can write pages about the various reasons and all the great aspects the fantasy genre and many of its talented authors, this isn’t the place for it. Much if that discussion would boil down to escapism and how I interpret its definition. And sometimes with escapism, I just want to read about protagonist who kicks major ass. Matthew Woodring Stover’s character Caine is a classic example of an ass-kciking anti-hero – you don’t mess with Caine – you will die. Your friends and family will probably die too. And try as you will, you won’t be able to kill the guy. Even being paralyzed below the waist isn’t enough to stop Caine from kicking ass.

Think what you will on my maturity for occasionally wanting to read a book like this. And go ahead and make assumptions about Stover’s writing and books in The Acts of Caine series – you’ll probably be wrong (and I’ll go into some of that below). Escapism is often looked down upon and this is can be doubly so when looking at a book of seemingly gratuitous violence and a protagonist who’s most notable characteristic is kicking ass. But it’s all in the execution, and this is where Stover nails it. The writing is intelligent, moralistic, but without apology, and the setting is a perfect blend of science fiction, fantasy and a dystopian future. Characters are believable, flawed, powerful, victims, and survivors in the face of long odds. Acts of incredible caring and sacrifice are contrasted with acts of pure selfishness, with the distinction between the two often blurring until the contrast disappears.

The Acts of Caine is a series that began in the late 1990s with Heroes Die (Act of Violence) (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon, my review), continues with Blade of Tyshalle (Act of War) (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) in the early 2000s and finishes with Caine Black Knife (Act of Atonement, Book 1) (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) and Caine’s Law (Act of Atonement, Book 2) (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon). More may be coming in this series, but it’s uncertain. The series is set in a dystopic future of our world where plague wiped out much of the population and allowed the formation a world government based on a strict caste system with the highest casts living in extreme luxury and the lowest as slaves in squalor. A way to send people to an alternate dimension exists – a dimension known as Overworld that is a fantasy world populated by all of the classic fantastic beasts – elves, ogres, goblins, dragons, etc. This connection has been utilized to send actors to Overworld that allow people to see and experience every thought and emotion of the actors as they undertake dangerous (often deadly) adventures through a land of fantasy. Hari Michaelson is the world’s most famous actor, he is Caine, assassin, thief, lover and general bad-ass. Events from Heroes Die left Hari paralyzed and a shell of his former self. In Blade of Tyshalle, Caine returns.

Stover plays a bit with the narrative structure of Blade of Tyshalle, beginning with narration of someone who attended actor training academy with Hari and we see Caine being born through the eyes of someone who had no idea at the time. Then we flash forward to Hari seven years after events of Heroes Die, a Hari who has everything he ever wanted in life – a wife, a child, a relatively high caste position, etc. Of course Hari is miserable, his family is miserable, his job unsatisfying, his only friend is his greatest enemy and he continually questions who really ‘won’ in the events of Heroes Die. Much could be read into this portion of the book – is it commentary on a mid-life crises, the standard American-dream, what is a hero, what is a victory, knowing who you are and who you want to be, the various problems with an autocratic government, etc. The answer is yes and much could be written, but won’t – I encourage you all to read and make your own conclusions. However, the personal aspect of this, the ultimate journey of Hari, of Caine is expressed in sculpture crafted by none other than Caine’s nemesis from Heroes Die, Ma’elKoth – a classic look at a man in the fashion of David.

All of this is told in a compelling manner that makes it near impossible to put the book down. And that is the real key – execution. Stover writes well, very well. Caine is not really a likeable person, yet you can’t help but like him. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that had me so excited about what would happen next. You know that point in a great book or movie when the ‘hero’ reaches that absolute low, when that key realization is made, a decision is made, and you just know that the ‘hero’ is about to rise and all hell is going to break loose? One of the best examples of that moment that I can recall is in Blade of Tyshalle and it was simply brilliant to read all that hell breaking loose.

Through all of this, Stover plays with many of the reader’s expectations. Caine is the classic anti-hero – we want him to win, he’s the good guy. But he’s essentially completely selfish, he solves his problems through violence, he doesn’t much care for collateral damage, etc. And yet he is a good guy – he fights the horrible government, he fights to save lives, he fights for his wife and daughter. But he’s cold. Redemption is not what he wants. He leaves regret behind. Vengeance is attained. And it’s complicated – we see Caine’s origins, we see his present, we see Hari realizing who he is and who Caine is, we see choices made, we see the consequences of those choices. This mess of a character, with no clear or easy conclusions to be made is what keeps Caine real and interesting.

The complexities of Caine further let Stover explore what is evil. Is Caine’s nemisis, Ma’elKoth evil? Is Caine’s former boss in the ‘real’, dystopic world evil? Is the Board of Directors for the network evil? Or is evil more simply and more correctly humanity itself? This blend of good and evil, the blend of science fiction and fantasy, the blurring of hero and anti-hero makes for nuanced reading that serves to reinforce Stover’s writing and the compelling nature of Blade of Tyshalle.

Technically I think that Blade of Tyshalle may fail the Bechdel Test, however this is as misleading as it is telling. There are several women in Blade of Tyshalle and they are generally what you would call strong feminine characters with agency (which seems to be the buzz word of late). However pretty much every female character in this book is a victim, and rape occurs repeatedly – though rape as a physical act is not really there, with the majority of the rapes of this book being a metaphorical act of a forcible removal of choice and extreme mental anguish rather than physical penetration.  So where does this leave Blade of Tyshalle in the sense of the repeated discussions regarding the troubles of portraying women in fantasy? Stover is a male writer. The female characters in this book are victimized and raped. However, the women are strong, have agency, and do not relay on men to save the day. For me, this is an example of where it works, even though this book as a whole could generally be considered one that would appeal more to guys.

This review began with discussion on escapism and books about kicking ass. Then it dove deep into the nuance of complexity and expectation. This is the reader’s journey as they read Stover. Stover’s Acts of Caine do escape and they are in their most simple form, stories about an anti-hero who kicks ass – that guy who can stand up and kick someone in the balls, then kick them again when their down, that guy who threatens and follows up in painfully dramatic fashion, that guy who saves the day then kicks it in face. It’s that person we daydream of being as adolescents (and even grown adults). But Stover shows us the complexity of that guy – the good and the bad. And then he shows us the complexity of good and bad. And then Caine gets mad.  

Simply said – if you are a fan of the fantasy genre, you should read Stover’s books.

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