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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

"Blade of Tyshalle" by Matthew Stover (Reviewed by Liviu C. Suciu)


INTRODUCTION:Blade of Tyshalle” is the second book in Matt Stover's wonderful Hari Michaelson/Caine saga which is set in a near future dystopian Earth where a magical, alternate universe called Overworld is accessible through esoteric technology. This review contains spoilers from the first book, “Heroes Die”, including its ending, so reader beware...

SETTING: Sometime in the near future, Earth is a mess. Overpopulated, divided into rigid castes and policed by the sinister Social Order Police, the billions of people on the planet have one escape: fantasy. By this, I mean real magic, dragons, elves, trolls, et cetera on Overworld, a magical analogue of Earth accessible through some esoteric technology. Of course there is a catch—not everyone gets to go there, only “actors” who are trained entertainers in various fighting techniques or application of Overworld magic and are equipped with “thoughtmitters” that allow firsthand live access to their experiences on Overworld in expensive simulation chairs for the rich, and secondhand access for the masses in “experience cubes”. Due to Hari/Caine's use of a huge live audience for his personal ends, the powers-to-be have been curtailing the live broadcasts, using instead “freemods” that allow Actors unlimited time on Overworld, but need to be recovered for the content to be shown to the Earth masses.

The most famous of these actors is still Hari Michaelson, better known as Caine, who is now the current studio executive boss and administrator…

FORMAT/INFO: The trade paperback edition I have stands at 725 pages, divided into twenty-five numbered chapters, each subdivided into small numbered sections. The narration alternates between the streaming consciousness of Caine and his Academy friend turned Overworld elf Kris, and the third person present tense action of multiple POVs of characters on both Earth and Overworld. “Blade of Tyshalle” features a lot of info-dumping and story background that was missing from “Heroes Die”, so we get to understand more about things that remained obscure in the first book such as the development of the caste system and how Hari became Caine. After a pulse-pounding start to the book with a bit of Caine’s origins, the book slows down for a while when all the backstory is presented and the pieces of the convoluted plot are fitted together, but then it ramps up again into an explosive climax of swords and sorcery against tanks and machine guns, with a bit of necromancy thrown in for extra fun. And the epilogue is unforgettable…

Blade of Tyshalle” was originally published as a Trade Paperback on April 3, 2001 via
Del Rey Books, followed by the Mass Market Paperback edition on March 26, 2002. Unfortunately, “Blade of Tyshalle” is currently out of print, but copies can be found online. Cover artwork is provided by the fantastic Dave McKean.

PLOT HINTS AND ANALYSIS: Rather than being a retread or direct continuation of “Heroes Die”, “Blade of Tyshalle” changes a lot of parameters including the interaction between Earth and Overworld as well as Hari/Caine's situation… It's several years after the end of “Heroes Die” and Administrator Hari Michaelson is crippled below the waist after his epic fight with Berne, but at least he has a family. Well, sort of since his daughter Faith is actually the biological daughter of his wife's lover, Actor turned traitor Karl Shanks/Lamorak who happened to be of upcaste Businessman origins. So if this fact became widely known, Karl's powerful CEO mother Avery could arrest Hari for forcible upcaste contact since Faith is a minor and cannot give consent. After all, Caine cut off Lamorak's head with great pleasure in front of the largest live audience ever for an Overworld show, so revenge for Avery would be sweet. Hari’s wife Shanna meanwhile, is now a part-time goddess on Overworld and has been doing good deeds as Pallas Ril.

Tan'elKoth—former emperor Ma'elKoth—is a political prisoner on Earth, but he is comfortably well off as a Professional caste teacher of philosophy and martial arts, and loves reminiscing with Hari about old times. But he misses Overworld and being a God there, so he uses his formidable intellect to try and outwit Earth's masters and go back. If this means that Hari has to die as Caine and Shanna as Pallas…well, Tan'elKoth may like Caine, but he wants to be a God much more, and he definitely hates Pallas Ril. As for Berne, the count is dead but not forgotten and is being preserved in the Overworld Curioseum on Earth as well as being a Saint of the Church of Ma'elKoth on Overworld. And since Pallas Ril is a goddess of life, what better way to try and kill her than using an animated corpse she won’t be able to sense? Then there’s the former Administrator and current broken down Laborer Kollberg who hates everyone, but Caine most of all, so when Hari's masters need someone loyal to keep an eye on him, Kollberg is the perfect choice.

And since the Patriarch of the Church in Ankhana keeps making life miserable for Aktirs, and uses their conditioning against them, Overworld's potential as a show are diminishing, so the masters of Earth start thinking in terms of colonization. What better way to get the ball rolling by introducing the deadly retrovirus that devastated Earth and led to the present Caste system, which has the added advantage of being very virulent to nonhuman races like elves and trolls. And once Overworld's nonhumans are nearly exterminated and the humans scared enough, a noble rescue effort by Earth, spearheaded by their new state established inside, should do the trick. And if the natives prove resistant to the betterment of their lifestyle by the noble Earthmen, well, tanks, guns and all the magic of the training Academy will show them the error of their ways. But there is one little hitch. Even crippled, Caine is still a hero on Earth, and though demonized by the official church of Ankana, he still has his devotees who form a loose religion called Cainism. And killing Pallas Ril is not going to sit well with him especially considering that Shanna has a telepathic link with her daughter Faith that has been active in the six months she was playing Goddess. So somehow Caine has to be “persuaded” to come out of retirement, crippled and all, to perform a show for Earth’s masses that pits him against the “rogue goddess”.

Overall “Blade of Tyshalle” dramatically changes the course of the series, which is very refreshing for the second volume in a series. So where “Heroes Die” was just non-stop action, “Blade of Tyshalle” is a much more intricate novel with a greater emphasis on backstory, although there’s still plenty of action to go along with the convoluted plot twists. We do get to see magic and science colliding for the first time in the series, resulting in some powerful fireworks, and there is also much more attention given to Overworld’s non-human inhabitants including elven and troll characters. As far as the conclusion, the ending to “Blade of Tyshalle” is hauntingly powerful tying up the novel's loose ends while leaving space for the next chapter in the saga, “Caine Black Knife”…

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