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Monday, October 6, 2008

"Heroes Die" by Matthew Stover (Reviewed by Liviu C. Suciu)

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INTRODUCTION: Matthew Stover’s novel “Heroes Die” has been mentioned a long time in various SFF forums and blogs, but its subject never really tempted me to check it out. However when Robert told me about the book, I was intrigued enough to take a look at it. Once I read the first page, I “knew” that I had to read “Heroes Die” immediately and that it had the potential to make me a Stover fan for life—at least regarding his original novels. (NOTE: Matthew Stover is best known for his Star Wars novels, including the novelization of “Revenge of the Sith”.)

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”.

And the most famous of these actors is Hari Michaelson, better known as Caine

FORMAT/INFO: The trade paperback edition I have stands at 563 pages, divided into seven ‘Days’, each subdivided into small numbered sections, and a Prologue/Epilogue. The narration alternates between the consciousnesses of several actors on Overworld, and third person present tense action from multiple POVs on both Earth and Overworld. There is little info-dumping or background to the story, but the second book in the series, “Blade of Tyshalle”, more than makes up for this. “Heroes Die” is a mixture of dystopian SF and epic adventure fantasy, neither particularly original, but the mixture works brilliantly due to the larger-than-life characters and the violently energetic action.

Heroes Die” was originally published as a Trade Paperback on July 21, 1998 via
Del Rey Books, followed by the Mass Market Paperback edition on May 29, 1999. Cover art is provided by Doug Beekman.

PLOT HINTS AND ANALYSIS:Heroes Die” starts in high octane mode when Caine, ostensibly an Overworld monastic assassin, drops by the Regent of the most powerful Human Empire, Ankhana, because the prince did not keep his promises to the powerful Monastic order dedicated to human supremacy on Overworld. Of course the Regent needs killing because he's been too successful in balancing the Ankhanan factions, and horror of horrors, there may actually be peace brought to the Empire. Even worse, the majority of humans may be able to unite long enough to get rid of the predatory trolls and dragons. Imagine what that would do to the ratings on Earth! However the hit goes awry and Caine has to fight his way out of the palace, killing indiscriminately which disgusts him. Caine should have died there, but somehow he manages to escape and crawls to a hideaway deathly wounded. From here, the powers-to-be authorize an emergency transfer to Earth and save Caine’s life. After all, death in action is a big ratings generator, but an obscure ignominious death in an alley... Better save Caine for another adventure!

A Servant of Empire”, as the adventure was named, became extraordinarily popular on Earth due to the extreme violence of Caine's escape, but it soured Hari on the role. Rich and famous, of professional caste by virtue of being an actor, and with a powerful businessman as a patron, Hari could and does refuse any more Overworld trips as Caine.

Several years later though, Ankhana is at peace again. The unexpectedly bloody and huge rating generators succession wars produced a God Emperor in Ma'elKoth who came from absolutely nowhere to impose both strong rule and a human supremacist religion on Overworld. Bad for ratings. So the Studios sent a bunch of machine gun-armed assassins into the palace—no subtlety when core profits are threatened—but they never came out and since then no actor can broadcast from inside. Not only that, but Ma'elKoth uses the threat of alien “Aktirs” to both hunt down actors and scapegoat his native opposition as such. To make matters worse, the one effective opponent that Ma'elKoth has operates under the pseudonym Simon Jester and only saves people wrongly accused as being aktirs—which only generates middling ratings…

But Simon Jester is actually Shanna/Palls Ril, the estranged actress wife of Hari, lover of Caine, and relatively minor sorceress on Overworld, who plays her role so effectively because of a powerful forgetting spell. And Shanna has a very powerful leisure caste protectress so she is not directly vulnerable to pressure.

So in what he believes to be his master plan, the villainous studio head—administrator Kollberg who built his career on Caine's success—prepares to hook Hari on a final adventure, “For Love of Pallas Ril” where Caine gets to try and save Pallas' life. Mysteriously betrayed and with the threat of a horrible death on the horizon, Pallas is in need of a fast rescue. So Caine is allowed to go in but has to sign a secret, binding contract to assassinate Ma'elKoth or die trying. Not only that, but Caine must also somehow lure the Emperor away from the palace to broadcast the assassination attempt live. Whatever happens—Caine dying heroically, Caine saving Pallas, Caine killing the Emperor or his super powerful henchman Count Berne—the ratings are expected to be huge and is a win-win situation for Kollberg. Of course you have to read the novel to find out what actually happens :)

Hari/Caine and Ma'elKoth steal the show in “Heroes Die” and their interactions are superbly drawn. Then there’s the anger of Caine and Berne, the presence of Ma'elKoth, and the full cast of fleshed out secondary characters which transform the novel from a clichéd run-of-the-mill science fiction/fantasy hybrid into a masterpiece of the genre. Plus, with a quite unexpected ending that ties up pretty much all loose ends, “Heroes Die” is a novel that you won’t regret reading and will leave you salivating for the next installment in the series, “Blade of Tyshalle”…


ediFanoB said...

why dos you write such excellent reviews? You are guilty :-)
One more book which I must add to my to-read list.

"Books to the ceiling,
Books to the sky,
My pile of books is a mile high.
How I love them! How I need them!
I'll have a long beard by the time I read them."
— Arnold Lobel

Liviu said...

Thank you for the comment. This one though is due to Robert since he pointed me towards it - I heard about Caine a while ago but the subject never interested me until I opened the book. Then I could not put it down and book 3 Caine Black Knife is my #1 fantasy of 2008

Sunnyvale said...

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