Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Caine Black Knife by Matthew Stover

I spent the late '90s trying to sell Stover's books to SFBC members -- and mostly failing, the ingrates -- putting together an omnibus of his first two novels, Iron Dawn and Jericho Moon, and then making a full-court press on Heroes Die. It didn't work -- club members stayed away in such droves that I couldn't even justify getting the club to offer the second Caine novel, Blade of Tyshalle, though it was even better than Heroes Die.

(And I think his trade publisher, Del Rey, had a similar experience, since he spent much of the time since then writing Star Wars books for them: Traitor, the dark fulcrum of the "New Jedi Order" series and one of the few visions of Jedi Knights as warriors; Shatterpoint, a fine reimagining of The Heart of Darkness in science-fictional dress; and the novelization of Revenge of the Sith, which Stover managed to turn into the story of power and temptation it was supposed to be.)

After those three Star Wars books, Stover's back to original fiction, and back to Caine, with Caine Black Knife.

Now, I bet most of you have never read Heroes Die or Blade of Tyshalle. I bet you don't know who Caine is. Both of those novels have been out of print for some years, and Tyshalle in particular is expensive and hard to find these days. (You should have listened to me back in 1998!)

The Caine novels are gritty and tough-minded, in a way uncommon in genre fantasy ten years ago. Glen Cook wrote about mercenaries, but didn't get as detailed, and David Gemmell's heroes were generally, well, heroes, even if they did some nasty things. Since then, though, there's been a surge in nasty, tough fantasy, led by George R.R. Martin and including such disparate writers as Joe Abercrombie, Steven Erikson, and R. Scott Bakker. So maybe the audience is ready, now, for the Acts of Caine. ("Acts of Caine" is the new series title; once any series hits three books it needs a name of its own.)

The Caine books are slyly doubly-generic, set both in a dystopian near-future Earth and a gaming-flavored high fantasy world. On Earth, a ubiquitous caste system is enforced by both the stick of casual brutality and the carrot of full-sensory bread-and-circuses entertainments. Those entertainments -- those "Adventures" -- are recorded through the senses of Actors, who travel through interdimensional gateways to the fantasy Otherworld. On Otherworld, magic works, and humanity is only one of many species -- it's a lot like your cousin's random D&D game, actually. (Both of those vaguely generic settings, of course, were very deliberate on Stover's part -- and both of them become very specific in Stover's hands.)

Humans from our world -- mostly scrambling kids from the lower classes -- fight their way through long, complicated training in all the skills necessary to adventure and survive in Otherworld, and the best of them get their chances to send back their telemetried life-stories from the other side of the gate. If they succeed in their quests and adventures, they come back stars. If they don't succeed, they're probably already dead. (The beasties and magic spells are real, and only stars get yanked out of danger; it's not worth it for a newbie.)

One of the greatest stars is Caine, who's at the height of his career in Heroes Die. He's an assassin and a dirty fighter, a guy who never saw a boss -- of any kind -- that he didn't want to knife in the back. In Heroes Die, he saves his wife and helps to topple an evil emperor, and in Blade of Tyshalle, he does something very similar all over again, but in a more difficult, and even more jaw-droppingly widescreen, way. (Blade of Tyshalle also has the absolutely best climactic fight scene I have ever read, in any novel -- it's only one of many aspects of that book that still live clearly in my mind ten years later.)

After the climax of Blade of Tyshalle, Caine and many other Actors were stuck on Otherworld permanently, and the truth of their work -- that they're "demons" from another world who bring death and mayhem for the entertainment of others -- had started to leak out a bit. Caine Black Knife is set a few years later -- Caine has settled into a quieter life in the empire he saved, and kills people only very, very rarely.

But he's gotten word that his blood brother Orbek -- of the orcish ogrillo race, who he met during one of the more gruesome events of Blade of Tyshalle -- is in trouble in the Boedecken, and so he goes to see what he can do. He doesn't intend to cause trouble, but -- even under another name, even trying not to make waves -- trouble follows Caine like stink follows shit.

Half of Caine Black Knife is set at that time, with Caine about fifty-five. The other half, in interleaved chapters, is the story of Caine's first great Adventure from thirty years before -- the one where he became a legend and a huge star. The one where he was responsible for the near-total-destruction of the ogrillo tribe of Black Knives. (Did I mention that Orbek is the closest thing to the head of the remnant of the Black Knives?)

Both halves of the novel are set in that same place, separated by thirty years and a lot of history. The antagonists are very different in the two strands of Caine Black Knife, but the stakes are the same, as they always are for Caine: win or die.

The Caine novels are massively violent, curse-filled excursions into the dark corners of conflict, glimpses of what war was like for warriors, before it was systematized and pushed to a distance. They're nasty and brutal and horrifying. And I fucking love them.

One thing, though: Caine Black Knife does have a satisfying conclusion, but the story isn't over. (Unlike Heroes Die or Blade of Tyshalle.) It's billed as the first part of "Act of Atonement," which will conclude in one more novel, to be called His Father's Fist.

(I also wish Stover hadn't buried the final confrontation of the thirty-years-ago section of Caine Black Knife; it deserved to be fleshed out more, and narrated as fully as the other important scenes of that half of the novel.)

A new reader could pick Caine Black Knife and dive right in, and I recommend you buy Caine Black Knife, even if you hope to drop back and start with Heroes Die. Check out the prices for a used copy of Blade of Tyshalle; if this sounds like your kind of thing, you're going to want to help convince Del Rey to republish that in a form that's a little lighter on your wallet.

And, maybe, after you work your way through the Acts of Caine, you'll go back to Stover's first two novels -- Iron Dawn and Jericho Moon aren't quite as good, and have more of the feel of novelized gaming sessions to them, but they're similarly gritty fantasy adventures, and have the advantage of being set in a very different world: a few centuries BC, in the Middle East. Jericho Moon even has a nasty local deity who doesn't want his name spoken...though his initials are YHVH.

1 comment:

Paul Weimer said...

I remember reading Heroes Die back in the 90's. Liked it, although I never got around to reading Blade of Tyshalle (and then it went out of print).

I might pick up CBK after finding a used copy of Blade. I don't think I have my copy of Heroes Die to re-read, alas.

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