I read Matthew Woodring Stover’s “The Blade of Tyshalle” back in 2001 and loved it. A month or so ago, I discovered some old reviews laying around that hadn’t been posted to this site, and that was one of them. It jogged my memory and sent me looking for the first book in the series, “Heroes Die” ($7.99, Del Rey), which I never managed to get around to reading.
In this first volume, we meet Hari Michaelson (known as Caine to his fans) while he’s still whole and healthy. I won’t say before he’s broken, because as you’ll see if you read it, he certainly is that already.
Michaelson is an actor in a futuristic world where everything is run by the Studios. It’s a world run on a strict caste system, and the Studios use “entertainment” as a means to keep the public sedate and in line.
They’ve discovered a place known as Overworld, a fantasy world where magic is real and the technology of the real world has not invaded yet. Actors like Michaelson are sent to Overworld to have adventures that put them in very real peril. For this, they are very well paid and worshipped as heroes, though they are still lower caste than most of the people who are paying to experience their adventures first hand as they’re going on.
After an assassination goes bad, Caine decides he won’t do it again, but a new emperor, Ma’elKoth, has risen. He has incredible powers and has discovered the actors, or Aktiri as he calls them, are visiting the world. He’s persecuting actors both real and imagined, and the Studios, naturally, see him as a threat. When Hari’s wife, Shanna, known as the wizard Pallas Ril on Overworld, gets disconnected from the studio link while trying to save innocents accused of being Aktiri, they see an opportunity to get Caine involved. Shanna has about a week to live without her connection before she’ll die a horrible death. The Studio gives Hari a chance to save her, but in order to get there, Caine must agree to assassinate Ma’elKoth.
This book asks a lot of questions about the nature of entertainment in our world, the esteem in which we hold celebrity and what constitutes a “hero.” When I wrote my review of “Blade of Tyshalle,” I said that the world of Caine didn’t seem all that far-fetched with the rise of reality TV, which was relatively new at the time. Now, 11 years later, I think it’s even less of a stretch. I mean, television has managed to entrance millions of people with sub-par programming that often plays on the misery and unhappiness of others. Is it really that big a jump to get here?
Caine is a likeable, but flawed character, kind of an early runner of the characters that have become popular in the fantasy genre in recent years. He’s a likeable guy, and like the people who are paying to first-hand his adventures, I like him in large part because of that very visceral, straight forward way he handles his problems. You know where you stand with him.
At times, the choice between Caine and his enemies is the lesser of two evils, but you know that, somewhere in there, Caine is a decent guy. There’s also a very clear transformation through the course of the book as Caine/Michaelson slowly realizes that he’s a better person than he thought he was.
Stover’s writing is tight, and his action scenes are great. The climactic confrontation of the book will keep you turning pages breathlessly. Even though I already had an inkling of what was going to happen because I’d read the sequel, that knowledge didn’t spoil the journey for me in the least. It definitely won’t take me 11 years to get to the other two tales of Caine.