Heroes Die by Matthew Woodring Stover (The Acts of Caine: Book 1)

9/10 A pull-no-punches, sword and sorcery page-turner.

‘Heroes Die’ is the first book in Matthew Woodring Stover’s series, combining sci-fi and fantasy. In a futuristic earth, caste-based society dictates the status quo, separating labourers, administrators, leisurefolk and more. Hari Michaelson, an entertainer, is a superstar whose audience spans the social order. The job of an entertainer is plain and simple – to entertain. But, rather than bedazzle fans via the conventional means as we know them in reality, Hari is an Actor that allows his audience to experience his performance with his own eyes. In the future, entertainers are able to go ‘online’ in a different world, in this case the land of Ankhana, a fantasy realm of sword and sorcery. Hari, known as Caine in Ankhana, has his Adventures recorded by the Studio he works for, who supply premier first-hand seats to the action, as well as second hand ‘Cubes’ and rentals... Blockbuster eat your heart out.

The concept alone is fascinating, and this is before the plot has really gotten under way. Hari’s estranged wife, also an Actor, has gone missing on Ankhana, and it’s down to him to bring her back to Earth before her connection between the two worlds takes an ugly turn.

What you have here is essentially, a pull-no-punches, sword and sorcery page-turner. At best it’s a rip roaring tale, but at worst it can become disjointed in the early stages of play. Not only does the author switch from Earth to Ankhana via the POV of several characters, but he throws in the curveball of first and third person perspectives when dealing with Hari/Caine. Don’t get me wrong, this technique works, and it works well, but when first introduced to it the reader will either sink or swim. Personally, after growing accustomed to it, I was sold. It adds to the reality that Hari is not only Caine, but the audience on earth is too.

At points, even though I dared not to, I couldn’t help but compare this to the works of Steven Erikson. The scale of ‘Heroes Die’, although not as titanic as Erikson’s Malazan works, is something that few authors toy with so easily. But, as with Erikson, intrigue if not followed correctly can degrade to inhibition as the reader raises an eyebrow at the latest throw of the dice. Coming up snake eyes in this case, the to-and-fro nature of ‘who-knows-what’ borders on the tiresome. At points, particularly during the lull towards the end of the first-third, I found myself wanting to skip ahead, to get to the good bits, because when it’s good, it’s damned good. My only other issue with comparing the book to Erikson, comes in the form of style. Erikson weaves prose that flows like poetry, and even though M-W-Stover has his moments in the sun, there’s a minority of wording that comes across as jargon. The ‘show-rather-than-tell’ approach crops up here and there, as all authors are guilty of, as is the tendency to infodump large portions of text.

The tone of ‘Heroes Die’ is its grace. It's adult through and through; but not from overly-violent barbarianism or sexual nature, but through the maturity with which it’s written. The book, first published in 1998, has aged well. The combat is visceral and carnal, yet at the same time handled with a keen choreographer’s touch, knowing when too far is indeed too far. The notion of magic is given the same treatment, but the characters are given full reign to do as they please, which bodes well when their creator is a dab hand at composing their plot twists.

Overall, I liked the book. It’s not going to reach my ‘all time favourites’ but neither will it sit as a tea coaster on my desk. It’ll likely sit on my shelf, forgotten, until a rainy day. But, you know what? I’m glad I read it. It’s odd, it’s different. Sure, concepts of ‘realities within realities’ have been played with before, but I like this take on ‘Entertainment’ in the future. Matthew Woodring Stover, sir, you’ve certainly entertained me.

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Matthew Woodring Stover's The Acts of Caine series

Heroes Die

The Acts of Caine: Book 1

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