Heroes Die by Matthew Stover
I’ve been wanting to read this series for a while and now I have a Kindle I finally can. The Acts of Caine series has been out of print for a very long time (and with cover art like the one seen below it’s hardly surprising) but has had a resurgence of attention of late. I’m shocked it wasn’t a bigger success because it really is very good, perhaps somewhat ahead of its time. As a wonderful example, and critique of, grimdark fantasy, the current fantasy market is a very sensible place for this series to do very well.
Acts of Caine takes place in two parallel worlds; one is the future Earth, which has become a rigidly caste based society controlled by the Social Police who keep the populace in line. The opiate of the masses are Adventures put out by a series of studios. Many years before the beginning of the book, an ability to travel between parallel universes was discovered. Most are too hostile and alien to support human life, but one, known as Overworld, resembles a world out of fantasy, complete with a form of magic known as flow. The studios send Actors from Earth to Overworld where they livestream their Adventures to a rapt audience. Overworld is a real place and the actions of the Actors on Earth have real consequences.
Hari Michaelson is the most popular actor in the world, known in Overworld as Caine. He is loved for his brutality and propensity for sudden, shocking violence. He has been in semi-retirement since his assassination of the ruler of Ankhara destabilised the Empire and plunged it into a bloody war of succession. When Hari is told that his estranged ex-wife Shanna, another actor known in Overworld as Pallas Ril, is in danger, he agrees to head back into Overworld to save her. The studio wants him to assassinate Mael’koth, the new ruler of Ankhara, a hugely powerful magician and charismatic leader. The studio wants to do so as he has launched a pogrom against Aktir, demons who invade from another world to disrupt theirs. Sound familiar? Caine’s motivations diverge further and further from the studio as he makes enemies in both worlds.
The whole science fiction/fantasy crossover thing is something I’m very fond of. A good example would be Anne McCaffery’s Dragonriders of Pern books, which gradually revealed that what looked like fantasy was actually science fiction. I also loved the old adventure game The Longest Journey, which saw its heroine travel between the sci-fi dystopia of Stark and the magical realm of Arcadia. Hell, Iain Banks played with this concept more than a few times! Heroes Die is possibly the best expression of this idea I’ve ever read. I was worried that the framing narrative of our Earth would make the Overworld adventures feel inconsequential, but Stover sidesteps this by making it very clear that there are real consequences for the residents of this world by giving us a handful of Overworld natives’ PoVs. Heroes Die is a fast paced, action packed story which takes place in a tight time frame, only six days, and pretty much entirely in one setting. This limited focus is a good idea; presenting us a sci-fi future and a whole new fantasy realm could have been overwhelming but this is, fundamentally, an intimate story with a relatively small cast of characters. The grudges are personal, not lofty. In fact, the more epic moments towards the conclusion are arguably far less engaging than the closer relationships within. It also has one of the most satisfying and breathtakingly exciting conclusions I’ve ever read.
Heroes Die is a violent, unpleasant book, but that’s sort of the point. Caine’s audience back on Earth are bloodthirsty; when he attempts to use non-violent means early on his bosses at the Studio are furious. Caine is the most popular Actor in the world because of his brutality. There’s a grim humour to much of the violence; it’s so ridiculously horrible sometimes you can’t help but laugh. Joe Abercrombie is good at the same trick. The book is mostly in the third person, with Caine/Hari as the lead but with several other PoVs as well. However, there are several 1st person passages which represent Caine’s ‘soliloquy’, his internal monologue which is beamed back to the audiences on Earth. Watching him get more and more subversive, much to the fury of the social police back on Earth, is a joy, as is his growing contempt for his bloodthirsty audience.
Hari/Caine is a brilliant protagonist, brutal and horrifying but hard not to like. The supporting cast in general is a lot of fun, such as Count Berne, an old enemy of Caine’s who is so utterly and irredeemably awful it’s hard not to kind of like him. The hatred between Berne and Caine is one of my favourite parts of the book. My favourite character was Mael’koth, the all-powerful Emperor of Ankhara, who despite a fair bit of brutality is actually a rather good Emperor with the best interests of his subjects at heart. We’ve seen egotistical sorcerers seeking to ascend to Godhood before, but seeing one actually doing a pretty good job is a nice twist. He’s an intimidating, frightening and bizarrely likeable figure. A good mirror to the impressive majesty of Mael’koth is the simpering and pathetic Administrator Kollberg over on Earth, Caine’s boss who has tired of his insubordination.
Heroes Die is a tremendously fun, witty and self-aware bit of genre fiction. It’s not self-aware in an irritating ‘winking at the audience’ sort of way, but explores the tropes of its genres whilst also exemplifying them. Even without the frame Earth narrative, Caine’s adventures in Overworld would still be pretty fun. I’m very much looking forward to continuing with the series.