The Acts of Caine by Matthew Woodring Stover


Lemming of Discord
Jun 4, 2006
Book 1: Heroes Die

Caine: the most infamous man in the Ankhanan Empire. A hero who has saved the Empire from invasion and destruction, and a villain who killed the Prince-Regent on the orders of a monastic order. Wherever there is danger, intrigue or violence, there is Caine.

In reality, Caine is a fictional character, played by Henri Michaelson. 23rd Century Earth is linked to Overworld - a post-medieval alternate reality where magic and gods are real - by advanced technology. The rigidly caste-bound population of the overcrowded planet is entertained by the exploits of the Actors, and Caine is one of the most famous Actors on the planet. When Caine's wife, Actor Shanna (who plays Caine's lover, Pallas Rill), disappears on an Adventure, Caine is summoned back into battle. This time the mission is to find his wife before her link to Earth expires, killing her, and to overthrow the monstrous new Emperor. But Michaelson faces hidden enemies on Earth even as Caine faces overwhelming odds on Overworld.

Matt Stover has carved out a reputation as the best writer ever to put pen to paper in the Star Wars franchise, writing a string of intelligent, thought-provoking books that overcome and challenge the limitations of the setting. The Acts of Caine is his most famous own creation, a four-book sequence (more are planned) that mixes SF and fantasy. It is an action-packed series, but also one that is heavily character-driven, and those characters (heroes, villains and the ambiguous alike) are three-dimensional, well-motivated individuals, even the most loathsome of whom is at some level understandable.

Heroes Die is the first book in the sequence, originally published in 1997, but is a stand-alone novel with no cliffhangers or incomplete story arcs. Its publication date precedes the bulk of the modern 'gritty' wave of fantasy novels, but it can be seen as an early example of the subgenre. The book has a black sense of humour that will appeal to fans of Joe Abercrombie, a rich urban atmosphere and cast of thieves that serves as a precursor to Scott Lynch (Lynch has said that Stover's books are one of the primary influences and inspirations behind The Lies of Locke Lamora) and features a dystopian future world that emphasises death and murder as a form of entertainment in a similar manner (but a much more sophisticated one) to The Hunger Games. It's a rich, genre-bending brew that satisfies on all fronts.

The characters are where the book shines. Scenes on Overworld are told from Caine's POV in first-person, but scenes on Earth are related in third-person. Other scenes on Overworld involving other characters are also told in the third-person.This device is quite successful, and is intriguing as Caine's POV scenes also feature his running commentary on what's happening back to the millions of people watching on Earth. Some tension is caused by Caine occasionally thinking things impolitic about life on Earth, causing friction with both the Studio and the future Earth's caste-bound government. Michaelson/Caine is a fascinating character, a man of intelligence who is ready to resort to violence at a moment's notice, but has a reason for doing so. His lover, Senna/Rill is likewise well-depicted, with her idealism contrasted against her lover's pragmatism. Stover even has well-developed villains, making even the monstrous Emperor and the psychopathic swordsman Berne (very briefly) sympathetic with reasons (if only convincing to them) for doing the monstrous things they do.

Heroes Die is unusual for the opening volume of a fantasy series by arriving complete, fully-formed and brimming with confidence and presence. It's an explosive and action-packed novel which explores its premise and characters intelligently, develops the plot and themes with skill and then finishes on a high. Complaints are few: one character gains access to a reservoir of incredible power near the end of the book, which has the whiff of deus ex machina until Stover subverts it.

Heroes Die (*****) is available now in the USA, and in the UK has just been released for the first time as an e-book only edition.
Book 2: Blade of Tyshalle

Seven years ago, the warrior-assassin Caine - played by Actor Hari Michaelson - saved his lover Pallas Rill and became a hero on Earth and infamous on Overworld. In that final battle Michaelson was severely wounded and can now only walk intermittently, with technological help. When Michaelson discovers that a devastating virus has been unleashed on Overworld from Earth, he immediately intervenes to stop it...and unleashes a terror upon both worlds in the process.

Blade of Tyshalle is the second volume of The Acts of Caine series (four books so far) and is a quite startling deviation from its predecessor, Heroes Die. Whilst Heroes Die was an intelligent, smart SF/fantasy hybrid novel with lots of action, Blade of Tyshalle is an outright philosophical assault on the senses. This is a murkier, more violent and darker book than its predecessor, but also one that is more demanding, smarter and less interested in spelling things out. It is, on almost every front, a step-up from the first book in the series.

In terms of characterisation, the book is highly impressive. Michaelson/Caine himself is a deceptively straightforward figure. When he has an objective, he does whatever is necessary to achieve it. When he has everything he wants - a family, a great job, fame and fortune - he is utterly miserable. When the world sets itself against him (or, in this case, two worlds and almost everyone on them), he shines. When he has the freedom to forge his own destiny, he flounders. It's the classic mid-life crisis narrative, made even harsher by the fact that Michaelson is partially crippled. There's something inherently tragic in the fact that Michaelson's closest friend is also his deadliest enemy, the exiled Emperor Ma'elKoth. Caine is against the odds but also certain to win through because that is the task he sets himself. Some reviews have taken this to mean the book is pro-fascist (The Triumph of the Will could be the title of Caine's biography) but Stover undercuts this by showing that Caine cannot achieve his goals without him relying on his friends and allies (and some of his old enemies).

The book is unusual in that the first-person narration parts of the book are split between Caine and his old friend Kris. The book opens with a tantalising glimpse at Michaelson's youth as he first enters training as an Actor and Kris is assigned to stop him flunking out. The experience changes Kris forever, leading to a fateful decision and a reunion many years later in the main narrative of the book. The rest of the cast is a mixture of returning characters from Heroes Die (such as Shanna, Ma'elKoth, Kierandal and Majesty) and newcomers such as Raithe, a Monastic citizen who harbours an old grudge against Caine. Stover juggles them all with skill.

In terms of the antagonist, Stover does something very interesting by making it more of a force of nature and philosophy than an actual villain (though it is personified when it possesses the body of an old enemy of Caine's). This leads to the book's most stomach-churning sections as this force for evil kills and slaughters on a scale that is quite shocking. The book also muses on the theme of rape, not of the body (though this is implied in several moments), but of the mind. The destruction of consciousness, the stripping of identity and the nature of self are all dwelt on as concepts.

Stover pulls back from these philosophical moments - though the book remains intelligent and sharp-witted throughout - to deliver a finale which may redefine the term 'apocalyptic'. The final 200 pages of the book feels like experiencing the Vietnam War on fast-forwards. It's relentless, grim and action-packed. It probably goes on a little too long - at 725 pages of small print in tradeback the novel is substantially longer than Heroes Die - and there's a few too many endings as Stover tries to wrap things up fairly conclusively, but ultimately it's an ending to be remembered.

Blade of Tyshalle (*****) is a vastly more ambitious book than its predecessor which pulls off what it's trying to do. Action, philosophy and characterisation are blended to create what may be one of the outstanding examples of the fantasy genre in the last decade. Blade of Tyshalle is available now in the USA and as an e-book only edition in the UK.
Book 3: Caine Black Knife

Three years have passed since Hari Michaelson - better known to two worlds as Caine - defeated his enemies, left the rancid and overpopulated Earth behind and escaped to Overworld to live in peace. When his adopted ogrillo brother Orbek goes missing in the Boedecken, Caine is reluctantly pulled back to the site of his first and greatest adventure, the one that won him his name, and he finds that he must finally face the ramifications of the huge events that happened twenty-five years earlier.

Caine Black Knife is the third novel in the Acts of Caine series. With every book in this series, author Matt Stover seems to enjoy changing gears, shifting genres, mixing up casts and generally wrong-footing the audience. After Blade of Tyshalle, a massive, epic and weighty (in terms of both size and theme) tome, Stover resists the urge to go bigger and more apocalyptic. Instead he strips things down, delivering the shortest and most focused novel in the series.

Caine Black Knife at heart is a detective story. Caine is trying to find out where his friend Orbek has gone and, once that's done, what the hell is going on in the Boedecken Waste. Caine is not happy to be back, as his former visit transformed him into a superstar but at the cost of enormous numbers of lives and only by Caine performing some truly heinous acts. The novel is divided into chapters that alternate between Caine's investigation in the past and flashbacks to his first adventure in the Boedecken. Some familiar faces return (or are discussed at length) from the first two books but for the most part this is a new and stand-alone adventure.

Caine is a complex protagonist at the best of times, and in this novel Stover has to show him twice over at different points in his life. The contrast between the more ruthless and selfish 25-year-old Caine and his 50-year-old, half-crippled, more cynical but also more reflective and (dare we say it) guiltier older self is fascinating. Caine is driven by his demons and ghosts in this novel, but Stover cleverly avoids undercutting the character development from the previous two books: Caine has made his peace with a lot of the problems he had previously and even made something of a new life for himself before he is drawn into Orbek's problems.

The shorter page count and tighter focus means more action and plot development, but never at the expense of characterisation. The cast is much smaller than Blade of Tyshalle, but we still get to meet several Knights of Khryl (a bunch of fanatical warriors who somehow manage to be unlike any other bunch of fanatical religious warriors you've ever met in a fantasy novel) and a bunch of Caine's past associates. Stover has a gift for fleshing out even briefly-appearing characters, with even the staff and patrons of the inn Caine is staying it getting developed and involved in the storyline. Also, whilst black, cynical humour has always been part of the series, it feels a bit more prominent in this volume which helps alleviate the grimness.

This is a pretty dark book - if not quite as harrowingly bleak as Blade of Tyshalle - but Stover manages to sidestep a lot of the problems associated with modern 'grimdark' fantasy. The violence is prominent but never feels gratuitous. Apart from Caine, most of the major and important characters in the book are female (as in the previous two, for that matter) and whilst sexual assault is implied, it is kept firmly off-page and treated with seriousness. There's a strong undercurrent of tragedy and inevitability running through the book and Stover even subverts his own 'happy ending' for a couple of the characters by pointing out how they died during another adventure years later.

If there is a problem with the book, it's that it feels like a stand-alone but ends abruptly with numerous plot strands left unresolved. Though irritating on release (with a four-year gap for the next volume), this is not a problem now since the fourth book, Caine's Law, is already available.

Caine Black Knife (*****) is Stover once again changing the way he writes and even the genre (to an extent) and still coming up with a gripping, intelligent and original fantasy novel. Outstanding. The book is available now in the USA and as an ebook-only release in the UK.
Book 4: Caine's Law

Normally I start reviews with a mini-plot summary but I won't do that here, because trying to condense Caine's Law down to a paragraph without indulging in major spoilers or causing my brain to leak out of my nose is simply impossible.

What Caine's Law is, however, is the fourth and to date final book in the Acts of Caine series. Future sequels are possible but this book provides enough closure that the series can end here if necessary. It's also the second half of the previous novel, Caine Black Knife, which ended on a series of cliffhangers which Caine's Law does - eventually - resolve. It does take its sweet time doing so, however because Stover's primary focus in the rest of the book is tapping on his readers brains until they turn into confused mush.

Caine's Law takes place before, during and after Caine Black Knife. It riffs on elements from Blade of Tyshalle, and events that took place between that book and the first novel, Heroes Die. It explains exactly how some rather implausible events in earlier books really unfolded. It has time travel and alternate timelines, and uses the term 'unhappen' a lot. Events in the deep back-history of Overworld are explained. Major characters reappear, despite some of them being very dead indeed.

This is the sort of book where a very clear, action-adventure chapter (and few authors do action-adventure as well as Stover) can be followed by an interrogation sequence where both captors and captive spend most of their time debating the literary merit of To Kill a Mockingbird. Chapters featuring heavy magic use and explosive set pieces sit alongside explorations of a key thematic element involving horses and how they see the world. Caine being a smart-arse and swearing a lot is mixed up with discussions on the nature of reality, friendship and acceptance. Caine confronts the demons of his past and deals with them, sometimes maturely, sometimes by kicking them in the balls, and sometimes by making sure they never happened at all. If the Acts of Caine series wrong-foots the audience with each book being a shift in gear and almost genre, Caine's Law delights in wrong-footing them chapter by chapter.

This is a novel that is severely confusing and ultimately you have to stop trying to understand it and instead read each section (the book is broken up into episodes) on its own merits. Eventually the book's mind-shredding narrative structure coalesces into something that does make sense. In the wrong hands this would be disastrous, but Stover ensures that even when you can't see how a particular episode fits into the overall structure of the novel and the series, it's still enjoyable on its own terms. As usual his actions scenes as visceral and vivid, his characterisation is nuanced and complex and his worldbuilding is sublime. The novel is also as 'grimdark' as anything in the genre but also has a very powerful commentary on issues such as gender relations and power imbalances without every getting preachy.

Caine's Law (*****) feels like a collaboration between Richard Morgan and Christopher Priest, but with an attitude and energy that is 100% Stover. Intelligent, thought-provoking, action-packed and featuring a recursive narrative structure that borders on genius, Caine's Law is a totally different kind of fantasy novel, and confirms this series as the most criminally underread series in the genre. The novel is available now in the USA and as an ebook-only release in the UK.

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