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Friday, October 10, 2008

"Caine Black Knife" by Matthew Stover (Reviewed by Liviu C. Suciu)

Official Matthew Stover Blog Order “Caine Black KnifeHERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s Reviews of “Heroes Die” and “Blade of Tyshalle

INTRODUCTION:Caine Black Knife” is the third 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. “Caine Black Knife” is also part one of the Act of Atonement cycle which will conclude in “His Father’s Fist”. Since “Caine Black Knife” is relatively self-contained and can serve as an excellent introduction to the worlds of Hari/Caine, this review contains only minor spoilers from the first two Caine novels, “Heroes Die” and “Blade of Tyshalle.” 

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”. 

The most famous of these actors was Hari Michaelson, better known as Caine. While Hari was considered to have superstar potential in his Acting Academy days—recounted in “Blade of Tyshalle”—his Overworld beginnings as a Monastic order trainee were relatively modest and he was just one of a number of would-be stars in the eyes of his bosses on Earth. Until his first famous adventure, “Retreat From The Boedecken”, when a twenty-five year old Hari made his name on both Earth and Overworld, though for somewhat different reasons.

 “Caine Black Knife” is the tale of “Retreat From The Boedecken”, interspersed with a current plot thread that occurs after the world-shattering events of “Blade of Tyshalle”, in which a fifty-year-old Caine is now residing permanently on Overworld and is dealing with the belated aftereffects of his actions during the Retreat adventure… 

FORMAT/INFO: The ARC edition I have stands at 341 pages, divided over two main parts, an introduction and an epilogue called an “extroduction” which is actually an interlude for the next Act of Atonement novel, “His Father's Fist”. Each part is divided into titled chapters, alternating between “now” and the “Retreat From The Boedecken” which occurred twenty-five years earlier. Both threads are narrated as present-tense streaming consciousness via Hari/Caine. Additionally, we get to meet a lot of new characters who may have had occasional mentions in the first two Caine novels, while there are several familiar faces that play smaller, but quite important parts in “Caine Black Knife”. 

The Retreat adventure is presented whole including a bit of its aftermath and the consequences felt on both worlds, while the present thread comes to a reasonable stopping point so the novel feels complete. This structure—dual story threads, one ended, one to be continued—is done extraordinary well and should satisfy readers that like a standalone novel as well as those who appreciate ongoing tales. 

So really, “Caine Black Knife” is the best of both worlds :) Of special note, are two wonderfully added touches from Mr. Stover. The first is a small excerpt from “Blade of Tyshalle” reminding readers what a Black Knife is. The other is a funny, yet accurate Hollywood-style rating capsule warning viewers that the following adventure has been rated UV/X for Torture, Sexual Perversion, Extreme Graphic Violence, and Adult Language. 

October 14, 2008 marks the North American Trade Paperback publication of “Caine Black Knife” via Del Rey

PLOT HINTS AND ANALYSIS:Caine Black Knife” is a very tight, extraordinarily well-plotted work that establishes Mr. Stover as one of the major voices in contemporary speculative fiction. While the first two Caine novels were quite absorbing and impossible to put down, they were hefty books and might have put off some readers. In “Caine Black Knife”, you get the feeling that no word has been wasted and the result is just a nonstop, emotionally gripping, rollicking ride from start to finish. And since the book is relatively self-contained, it can be a great starting point for readers new to the series. 

Of course, readers will get more enjoyment from the book if they read the first two Caine novels first, but “Caine Black Knife” does contain summaries of “Heroes Die” and “Blade of Tyshalle” that will bring you up to speed. In the “Retreat From The Boedecken”, the young and angry Hari/Caine, confronted with almost certain death, makes a speech which ironically comes to define his later career—Never give up and if you have to die at least give them an unforgettable show and go out in a blaze of glory. Of course hanging upside down from a cross later in the action, Caine meditates on the bogus nature of his speech, but somehow things turn his way, with a bit of help from Earth, and the adventure continues. The gruesome nature of the Retreat thread cannot be understated and it establishes Caine as a fearsome legend that will be remembered forever… 

In the present-day thread, a mellower though still dangerous Caine has to travel to the Boedecken and the Caine Way, which is a natural feature created by Caine that changed the nature of that landscape forever. Caine wants to find out what happened with his Ogre foster brother Orbek and he discovers a very unstable situation involving an order of warrior priests, Earthling meddlers, oppressed ogres and much more. Since he is so well known, Caine has to travel incognito using the forgetting spell that allows people knowing him to remember their interactions with him, but not in a larger context. There are many funny parts here that balance the relentless grimness of the interspersed chapters from the Retreat adventure, though there is a lot of serious stuff going on, and of course Caine demonstrates repeatedly that he has not lost his touch for mayhem. As Shade, an unremarkable freedman from Ankhana, Caine makes friends with several people in Purthin's Ford, the town that grew from the Boedecken desert waste due to his landscape changing actions. However, when Caine gets an inkling of what's happening there, he advises some of his friends to immediately get out while they can since some “serious fecal matter will descend on the town”. 

As of now, Matthew Stover’sCaine Black Knife” is the best fantasy release of 2008 and I can’t wait to read “His Father’s Fist” and see the promised Purthin's Ford mayhem, though this book will be hard to top. Of course, if the Caine novels are any indication, then Matthew Stover is more than up to the challenge…


Anonymous said...

Nice Post. Thanks for sharing.

Tina U. said...

Hey, I think I'm going to concur. This was the best new fantasy book I've read this year. Nice review. I'm going to pass the link along to Matt.


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