I’ve debated since I began writing “The Completist” column for SF Signal whether I would write about the books in today’s post for two reasons. The first is that they are such an important, favorite series of books for me that I fear being unable to do justice to the brilliance on the pages. The second is that it isn’t 100% clear if the series is complete at four books although the most recent book in the sequence could very well serve as a finale. Here’s a quote from the protagonist of the series about story that can sum up a major element of these books. In many ways, this can be seen as a quote from the author himself, Matthew Stover (though admittedly substituting a character as the author’s true voice can be a slippery slope):
There is nothing in my life I care about more than story. There is nothing I know more about than the difference between a good one and a bad one. You’re betting my life and your future on what happens in the next day or two. Let’s go balls-out to make it the Greatest Fucking Show on Overworld.
Matthew Stover has carved out a niche for himself at the intersection of Fantasy and Science Fiction genres with his “Acts of Caine” sequence. The first book, Heroes Die was published in 1998 and introduced readers to Hari Michaelson, the actor in the employ of Adventures Unlimited who portrays the assassin Caine, the most popular Adventurer in Overworld, a fantasyland in a parallel dimension which is exploited as the ultimate reality television experience. Caine is on what is thought to be his last Adventure – For Love of Pallas Rill – to save his estranged wife from the sorcerer Ma’elKoth who has aspirations of ascending to godhood.
The “our world” is a 23rd Century dystopia where corporations rule the world through a caste-based system: Laborers at the bottom, Administrators and Businessmen at the top. The “fantasyland,” Overworld, (specifically Ankhana where much of the action takes place) lies in a parallel dimension that has echoes of Middle Earth, Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar, Robert E. Howard’s Aquilonia and Cynosure/Munden’s Bar from John Ostrander/Tim Truman’s comic GrimJack. The technology – Winston Transfer – which allows this experience is far beyond today’s means so that, coupled with the caste-based future dystopia gives the feel of a hard science fictional setting. The Actor after sufficient training on and about Overworld, is given implants which allow the full sensory input to be transferred back to Earth as a Virtual Reality experience everybody can enjoy.
As much as Caine is a fascinating character, Ma’elKoth is quite easily the equal of Caine/Hari. Although Caine is unquestionably the protagonist of Heroes Die, that doesn’t necessarily make Ma’elKoth the villain. The two characters find themselves in opposition and their conflict can almost be seen as ‘dueling protagonists’ for Stover takes the “Villain as the Hero of His Own Story” up to the proverbial eleven with Ma’elKoth. That said, Stover does give readers two despicable, hateable villains in Berne, the sword-for-hire of Overworld and the vile Arturo Kollberg, studio head on Earth and effectively Hari’s boss. With Hari as the protagonist, Stover makes Hari’s wife Shanna, known as Pallas Rill on Overworld, the ultimate hero. Hari’s love for Shanna is the driving force behind all of his actions. She acts heroically and unselfishly throughout which can be seen in how other people in Overworld speak about her and react to her.
Stover writes (for my reading dollar) the best action/fight scenes in the genre and provides some wonderful dialogue for his characters (both internal and external dialogue) including what has become a mantra of mine (as well as other fans of Matt’s work): “Inching Towards Daylight.” Heroes Die ends with a spectacular confrontation between Caine and Ma’elKoth on both an intellectual and physical level. An ending, one might think, has a sense of finality. Obviously that isn’t the case or I wouldn’t be writing about these books.
In Blade of Tyshalle, Stover picks up Hari Michaelson’s life seven years later, widens the canvas, and tells the story from multiple points of view. The novel begins in the first person switches to third person and goes back and forth for much of the remainder of the novel. Understandably, this can be an off-putting technique and may take some adjusting. Each chapter begins with a mythic framing device that sets each character in the novel as something greater than themselves, as archetypes. In addition to the familiar faces, Stover introduces Kris Hansen, an old classmate from Hari’s actor training days as well as Raithe, a man obsessed with killing Caine.
Blade of Tyshalle deals with repercussions of the finale of Heroes Die and the revelation of the aktirs, (which is how denizens of Overworld referred to the Actors) with the defeated Ma’elKoth now on Earth, a shell of his former self living under the name of Tan’elKoth. Hari is very much a shell of his former self too, thanks to his battles with Ma’elKoth, he is bound to a wheelchair and an Executive at the studio that produced his Adventures. He and Shanna are living together again with their daughter Faith. Hari is far from happy camper, but when a plot to strip mine and decimate Overworld of its native population to make room for the over-crowded masses of Earth comes to Hari’s attention he regains the killer instinct that helped to make him Caine. Tan’elKoth also wishes to reclaim his godhood on Home, as the denizens of Overworld call it. By novel’s end, reading the last few pages gave me the biggest Kool-Aid smile I’ve ever had after reading a book.
The third “Act of Caine,” Caine Black Knife is a bit of a stylistic and tonal departure (again) from the previous Caine novels and deals with the events depicted in Blade of Tyshalle: a recreated Overworld with Ma’elKoth ascended to Godhood. The primary connection between Home and Earth (or Hell as many Overworld inhabitants call it) has been severed. The results of which is that many Actors/Aktirs are scattered across the face of Overworld. In addition, Caine became a blood brother with Orbek, an ogrilli (a combination of orc and gorilla, but smarter than either) of the Black Knife tribe.
In Caine Black Knife, the Adventure which launched Caine’s (and Hari Michaelson’s) career as an Actor, Retreat from the Boedecken, is finally revealed. The narrative of this Adventure, again told completely through Hari/Caine’s POV in the past, is told in chapters that alternate with those detailing the “now” of Caine’s trek to find Orbek. We experience a younger Caine who is a little rough around the edges, and not completely the Caine we first meet in Heroes Die. Seeing the origin of a character whose past is shrouded in mystery can take something away from the mystique of the character. This is not the case with Caine’s first big adventure, which works well in and of itself and is a great mirror to Caine’s ‘current’ plight.’ What really brings everything together and perhaps the greatest scene in the book for me was when all inhibitions were shed and Caine was truly born. This scene in question occurs between Caine and perhaps the most vile character over the course of these novels; Arturo Kollberg, which is the source of the pull-quote atop this column
As the true God of Home/Overworld, Ma’elKoth may not have any real “screen time” in Caine Black Knife but his presence is always felt. Some of Caine’s monologuing is directed squarely at Ma’elKoth, much in the way people tend to talk to God in their own inner conversations. The difference here is that Caine intimately knows the God to whom he is speaking, which is an interesting concept in its own right. Caine knows Ma’elKoth hears him and it begs the question of “What if God really did hear us when we spoke to him
Because the majority of the novel is told through Caine’s voice and reactions, we as the reader are not given any other option on who to believe or trust. Caine’s POV is the only one and as such, his voice flows and filters the narrative more smoothly than just about any first person narrator this side of Severian of the Guild from Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. The difference here is Severian is explicitly an unreliable narrator, Caine seems more reliable. To paraphrase and sum up the themes of Stover’s work, Caine isn’t trying to sell us anything, he puts his faults and scars on the table for all to view. His voice is frank, direct, and a terrifically engaging one that comes across as, for lack of a more refined term, a very likeable and endearing asshole – a Magnificent Bastard if you will.
With multi-character dialogue comprising multiple pages, I was again reminded of Roger Zelazny, who Stover has pointed to as a literary role model/inspiration. Stover and Zelazny’s dialogue is somewhat terse in that the exchanges between characters is brief as each character takes their turn speaking to the other, but dense in how it conveys the individual scenes of the novel and the over-reaching plot as a whole. It is a nice trick to pull off when it works so well; but one of those easy looking things you get a sense in not so easy to refine.
The story and Stover’s prose provide a great many scenes that simply crackle with energy, both potential and kinetic. He infuses the novel with subtlety in some scenes, and others with out-and-out in-your-face violence and action. In many ways, Caine Black Knife might be Stover’s most balanced novel. The air of power and myth brought down to a human level is evident throughout the novel and this dichotomy is perfectly embodied in the character of Caine. Caine, who walks among mortals, is feared as a demon, revered as a Saint, and scarred like a man.
The most recent and (seemingly final) novel in the sequence is Caine’s Law and like the previous novels in the sequence, the narrative structure of Caine’s Law isn’t exactly straightforward. Stover employs first person narrative, third person omniscient, as well as narrative from the point of view of multiple characters. This one focuses a great deal on Hari Michaelson’s father, Duncan Michaelson: The man who beat Hari’s mother to death and gave Hari many beatings, the man who wrote some of the authoritative anthropological texts about Overworld, the man who shaped Hari, and the man who is very much responsible for Caine. What’s always been most interesting about Duncan and Hari’s relationship is how Hari, despite all of the bad things Duncan’s done to him and his mother, is still able to respect and even look up to his father. The other character, you might say to the right of Caine’s center, is a woman known only as the horse-witch, a woman of none-too-many words whose often peaceful and calm manner are very much the opposite of Caine’s violent and volatile character.
One of, if not the central question, of the narrative is whether or not one would change a past event filled with regret, given the opportunity. A simple question, on the surface, but of course the implications of such a question are more interesting than the question itself. To summarize the plot any more would be an injustice to the multiple branches of the narrative Stover leads the reader, but suffice it to say Caine’s Law is a novel about heroes and gods, past and present, power and manipulation. It’s about saying screw you to the people trying to hold you down, control you and mess with your family; it’s about love and honor; and sometimes about being the right guy even if that means not being the good guy all the time. Simple enough, right? Didn’t think so.
As I was reading the novel, I could not get out of my head the resonance of the overall theme and feeling I felt between Caine’s Law and the great ”Last Superman Story” Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow by Alan Moore and Curt Swan. The same sense of nostalgia, past coming forward to affect the present, and almost bittersweet melancholia pervaded the story for me. By many, Alan Moore is considered the greatest storyteller in the history of comic books and his “Last Superman Story” is considered a defining moment for the character and quite possibly the template by which any hero should get their sendoff from being a hero. Put another way, it’s a comic book story I have to revisit very regularly because to me, it’s just that damned good. With Caine’s Law, Stover has achieved very much a similar effect with Caine’s story and supposed send off in this novel. I only say supposed because The Acts of Caine was never intended to be a series and two of the books in the series were, according to Stover himself, written as the last story for Caine.
Part of what was so great about Caine’s Law was seeing all the different versions of Caine Stover gave us and while each one was from a different timeline, the trademarks of his biting and uncompromising personality were on full display. It was also great to have another chance to treat with Ma’elKoth, Orbek and some of the other characters of Caine’s past novels.
Each novel in the sequence is proof that as a writer, artist and let me just say it: Creative Force, Matthew Stover is unwilling to retread previous paths, he challenges and reinvents himself (and challenges his readers) with each book. “The Acts of Caine,” particularly the first novel Heroes Die is a novel ahead of its time. Stover tackles grimdark themes seen in the work of Mark Lawrence, Kameron Hurley, and Joe Abercrombie – well over a decade before those books were published. His blurring to decimation of the line dividing Science Fiction from Fantasy, though not new at the time, is something few writers were doing in the very late 1990s when Heroes Die first published. This series is one of the great underappreciated sets of books in the genre, but the people who have read all four, by and large, rank them very highly. Including me, (natch) since they altered my vision to a degree of what SF is and could be. I fear if I were to continue writing about this books any longer, it would consist of multiple reiterations of READ THESE GODDAMNED BOOKS NOW!
All the books are available electronically, but for reasons that few people I’ve corresponded with outside of the publishing industry can understand, the second book Blade of Tyshalle is the only book of the four not available in physical format in the US. A couple of years ago, Orbit UK released the four books as ebooks. (Don’t let the generic hooded-man covers fool you).