Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Matthew Woodring Stover - Heroes Die (Book Review)

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The notorious Caine, also known as the Blade of Tyshalle, is one of the best assassins in the whole land of Ankhana. He comes and goes, but wherever he is, people live in fear of him and the tales of his killings spread like fire. But no one is aware of Caine's whereabouts in between his missions. That's because he returns to another world - home to Earth, where he is not Caine, but Hari Michaelson, a virtual Actor that is well-known and adored for his adventures in Ankhana. His forays into the alternate world provide visceral entertainment for billions of his admirers. And even though, he is the most famous of Actors, the strict caste system still bounds him to the whims of his betters and has to wait for their indulgence before entering the world of Ankhana. The circle of events is rigid and unbreakable, but then his wife Shanna gets stuck there, lost for everybody on Earth - Caine is allowed to go there and try to save her ... but only if he is prepared to pay a certain price....
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I've only heard one thing about Heroes Die (Acts of Caine series) before I read it - that it's one of the most overlooked fantasy novels of the last decade – and now I believe this to be true. This terrific novel by Matthew Woodring Stover was recommended to me on a passing whim by my trusted friend before I decided to buy it; and when I scribbled the keywords 'heroes' and 'die' in Google search I found (1)two or three reviews written back in 1999; (2)a thread on SFFWorld forum discussing 'front cover art' (the cover of the print I own looks kind of cheesy to be perfectly honest, but it's still way better than the Russian or the French covers *giggles*); (3)an entry on the book inside Wikipedia (4)and a bunch of pretty much unrelated stuff - so it's obviously not a very well known book (I actually found several more reviews, though I had to add the word 'stover' to the search bar and/or look further than the first 6 or 7 offered pages). What I'm trying to say is that this shroud of mystery that surrounds the novel makes me frown with disbelief, since it gave me one hell of a ride, in the best possible sense.
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You probably know the feeling when a certain book gets a hold of you and it's impossible to put it down before it's read? Well, ladies and gentlemen, Heroes Die is definitely one of those books and more. When I opened it one wintery evening, hoping for noting more than a mediocre and a mildly enjoyable tale, but what happened was me being totally mesmerized by the experience. I read it until I fell asleep from exhaustion, continued reading it all through my school lessons (don't follow my example kids :), during breaks and my ride home, I even skipped my dinner so that I could keep reading undisturbed and when I turned the last page and awareness of the outside world returned to me the night was already pitch black when I looked out of my bedroom window. It's been a long time since a book griped me in such a wholehearted manner. I wouldn't call reading that what I was doing (not even gobbling up); it was a compulsive obsession with the book. And what is worse, the totality of the immersion only expanded as the story progressed and the tension rose. I admit that I had to take a short break towards the end in order to cool my tempers and relax my tired eyes.
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The "problem" I had with Heroes Die is not unique, but resembles the one I had while reading Daniel Keyes' sf masterwork Flowers for Algernon – vivid characterisation coupled with skillful world-building bewitched me completely and made it nigh impossible for me to objectively and thoroughly judge the style, plot or any other literary elements of the book. All I can stutter out in this elevated state is that it was utterly refreshing to come across a fantasy novel where the main character has absolutely no youthful innocence left or is he the most brilliant and morally upright individual around. If you let me paraphrase his own words - Caine is the most famous of Actors, but even though he is highly skilled, he couldn't do it without a fair amount of luck. But in my eyes, he's a true badass who knows what he's up against, keeps things realistic and uses his wit as often and as much skill as his knives.
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The half fantasy & half sf setting is a splendid idea that gives a whole new perspective to the book. It somehow feels easier to get caught up with the story when the main character shares your world, even though it's years in the future.
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I've read a lot of books that entail wannabe devious and twisted plots in the last couple of months and I'm glad that this holds true for Heroes Die as well...only without the wannabe part. This book makes up for all the others that I've read lately and somehow failed to impress me – but here the reader witnesses plans within plans, plots hidden behind plots, until it makes no more sense and makes your head dizzy from trying to figure everything out. I was being outsmarted on every single page and the humbling experience did wonders for my ego. I gradually realized that it's better to just go with the flow and enjoy the ride as everything slowly unravels in the most pleasing fashion. Finishing the book came as a relief from all the strain I've put into reading it, but it also left me wishing for more. Lucky for me, I've still got two sequels to look forward to - Blade of Tyshalle (though the book is out-of-print and how I'm furious about the fact!) and Caine Black Knife, that is set for release on October 14th. But in truth, Heroes Die can be taken perfectly well as a standalone...In fact, it worked so well for me that I can do nothing else but wholeheartedly recommend it.
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-(no less than a full cohort of Fruitcakes...and they are raving about the book too!)
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~ Trin ~

8 Comments:

RobB said...

Nice review, I loved the book. I've got it in my top 10 of the past 10-15 years.

BTW, I just added your blog to my blogroll.

Trin said...

ty robb :) and yes, the book is great - I'll definitely buy the sequels if/when they come out.

MadMax-imillian said...

I'm bogged down with exams :(. but i'll be sure to run down to the book-store tomorrow if I can find me a copy of Heros Die. it sounds great :)

Trin said...

welcome to the 'people who read while they should be studying' club, madmax :D it's nice to see that the review convinced you, and I really hope you'll enjoy the book as much as I did. :)

daydream said...

Great review. You know there is something about these books that were released in the nineties that keep you going. I am not what exactly genre of fantasy this falls under, but there seem to be charm on them. I read something of that line, but forgot the title. I am very bad with titles.

Anyways fantastic blog! I am staying.

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Trin said...

@daydream: I'm really glad that you liked both the blog and my review ... welcome to the Realms :D

daydream said...

Thank you! I'm excited to be here actually, even though I missed some posts. Since I started my own review blog, I thought it was essential to stop by whereever possible and stick around as a part of the community.

 

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