Earlier this year, I was having dinner with Stargate: Universe Consultant (and, oh, by the way, bestselling author) John Scalzi when the topic of conversation turned to my online book club. I asked John if he could recommend an underappreciated gem for an upcoming discussion. “Heroes Die,”said John before I’d even finished my request. Then, off my look: “Matthew Woodring Stover.” I filed away the recommendation and we moved on to the crispy duck main course. Months later, I was considering selections for September’s Book of the Month Club when I recalled that memorable title: “Heroes Die”. I did a little research on Matthew Woodring Stover and discovered that, in addition to his original works in the SF and Fantasy field, he’s also written four novels set in the Star Wars universe which have won him a fair amount of praise from both fans and critics alike. I was intrigued.
I’ll admit to being surprised when I picked up the book. The cover depicts a warrior armed with twin blades standing before some medieval ruins. Given that the recommendation had come from John Scalzi, I’d assumed I’d be reading a scifi novel, yet the cover art suggested something in the Fantasy realm. Which was fine – simply unexpected. But as I sat down to read Heroes Die, I quickly realized that while, yes, it was Fantasy, it was also Science Fiction. And provocative. And darkly humorous. Incredibly violent. Action-packed. Surprisingly topical. And enormously entertaining.
In a future (alternate?) Earth under the yoke of a rigid caste system, the populace finds escapist entertainment in the form of broadcast/recorded adventures. Beyond mere television, beyond even Virtual Reality, it’s a high-tech diversion in which audience members join actors in their travels to and exploits through Otherworld, a medieval realm of magic and mayhem located in an alternate reality. The fact that what the actors experience is real and potentially deadly makes for a highly popular form of recreation. And the most popular of actors in this most popular of pastimes is Hari Michaelson, better known by his screen name of Caine, the Blade of Tyshalle, storied warrior, mercenary, and assassin.
But following years of success in the field, Hari has wearied of the role of Caine, grown tired of the killing. He believes he has left it behind – until his estranged wife, a fellow actor, goes missing in Otherland. Driven by his desire to rescue her, under orders from the studio to kill the tyrant Ma’elKoth, Caine returns to his former (quite literal) stomping grounds. The home audience rejoices, the Studio cashes in, and Hari begins to uncover deadly dissimulations and machinations in both realities.
This is a book that explores the notion of duality. We have two worlds – one firmly rooted in science fiction with its high-tech gadgetry and AU concepts, the other rooted in fantasy with its medieval mettle and mythical mysticism. And yet, while they may seem fundamentally contradictory, Stover manages to marry them quite effectively, drawing out parallels yet playing up their contrasting facets to great effect. On the surface, the appear to be very different but scratch that surface and similarities are revealed, similarities that the ruling caste on Hari’s homeworld would just as soon no one noticed. Like, say, the authoritarian rule that holds sway in both.
Stover does a wonderful job of world building, creating detailed and well thought-out histories and social structures for both realms. Again, despite the apparent contradictions in their very nature, Hari’s SF homeworld and Caine’s Fantasy kingdom are equally believable – which makes the twin track mysteries/adventures doubly rewarding.
Then there are the characters, some of who play double roles, that of their true selves and that of their Otherland counterparts. Again, we can compare and contrast, most notably Hari and Caine, very different on the surface and yet, at heart and perhaps not at all surprisingly, very similar. He is a man fraught with contradictions – averse to battle and a return to Otherland yet an accomplished warrior prepared to use force with little prompting, motivated by love yet ruled by anger and brutality. It’s these contradictions that make him a memorable character. And it’s his encounters and relationships with the various supporting players, all nicely fleshed-out and colorful in their own right, that help build him into the sort of memorable character you’d happily follow into another adventure (or, say, the sequels Blade of Tyshalle, Caine Black Knife, His Father’s Fist).
Fans of swashbuckling swordplay and furious combat will love Heroes Die, with its breakneck pace and neck-breaking panache, its visceral violence conveyed in a narrative so richly detailed one suspects the author has majored in some big league beatdowns of his own. And yet, for all its battle and bloodshed, the novel has something interesting to say about our society as well – specifically the role of the media, entertainment, and, most importantly, own contradictory roles as consumers, quick to judge the likes of reality television and the diminishing quality of big screen products and yet just as quick to tune in or contribute to the box office take.
Heroes Die combines the best of both worlds in a novel that challenges our preset notions of not only the fantasy and scifi genres, but contemporary entertainment and our contribution in its continued evolution/devolution. It’s a novel with remarkable depth, multi-layered and thought-provoking. I could go on – and fully intend to. But, for now, I’ll leave it at that and turn the floor over to those of you who read the book. Thoughts? Praise? Critiques? Let’s hear ’em and start the discussion.
Well how annoying. I use Internet Explorer (don’t ask me why) to surf the net and have been sailing along no problem UNTIL this afternoon when I tried to access my blog. An “operation aborted” message flashed up and then the dreaded “Internet Explorer cannot display the webpage” page. I tried rebooting my computer, clearing out my temporary files folder – no go – then switched over to Firefox which is all well and good but gives me all sorts of problems when I attempt to upload photos. After spending about an hour searching online forums for answers, I finally found the solution to my problem: I switched over to Safari. Anyone else experiencing IE-related problems? Seriously. Does Microsoft want me to buy a Mac that badly?
Allow me to dedicate the remainder of this blog entry to testing out Safari’s pic-posting potential…
Oh, hey, spoke too soon. I just discovered something Safari won’t let me do. Publish my blog entry. After numerous attempts to click the Publish button, I’m going to save the entry and try to publish it using Firefox. I foresee a very long and complicated future for this blog.