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Heroes Die by Matthew Woodring Stover
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Series: The Acts of Caine (Book #1 of 4)
Genre: Fantasy, Science Fiction, High Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, Grimdark, Grimdark science fantasy, Dystopia
Pages: 627 pages (Kindle edition)
Published: 21st July 1998 by Del Rey (US) and 27th May 2013 by Orbit (UK)
It’s unbelievable that this insanely terrific story is hidden behind this horrific cover art. Heroes Die was absolutely bloody and glorious.
“Does it matter? When you tell a story loud enough and long enough, a story that plays right into people’s worst fears of betrayal, it grows its own truth.”
To both Del Rey Books and Orbit, Heroes Die desperately needs a better cover art. Honestly, the cover art to both the US and UK edition was so ugly that I stayed away from reading this book for years. If it weren’t due to many reader’s praises for it, I doubt I would’ve picked this up. Now that I’ve read it, I can confirm that the cover arts failed—in every possible way—to capture the greatness of the book. Yes, readers don’t judge the content of a book based on its cover art, but the cover art does influence a reader’s decision—especially me—to check out a specific book further. Heroes Die is so criminally underrated; everything about it was so ahead of its time, and I’m still in shock that this was first published in 1998. That’s 23 years ago! I have faith that if Heroes Die is re-released these days—with a better and brand new cover art—it will attain the wide-praises it rightfully deserves.
”The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Thus all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
Throughout the land of Ankhana, Caine is known as the Blade of Tyshalle—a relentless and unstoppable assassin who has earned his reputation by killing his share of monarchs, commoners, villains, and heroes. At home on Earth, Caine is Hari Michaelson—a famous superstar due to his adventure as Caine in Ankhana. Now, from this premise, it’s easy to jump up to the conclusion that Hari/Caine is a good-at-everything-he-does type of protagonist, but that’s really not the case. Caine is limited by rules and shackled by a rigid caste society; his role as an Actor—providing entertainment to people on Earth by killing people on Overworld as he takes the role of Caine—also means that he’s answering to someone in a higher position. The story in Heroes Die, the first book in Acts of Caine series by Matthew Woodring Stover, revolves around Hari/Caine’s mission to save his missing ex-wife—Pallas Ril—that disappeared in the land of Ankhana. The best way to describe Heroes Die is this:
“It’s a piece of violent entertainment that is a meditation on violent entertainment—as a concept in itself, and as a cultural obsession. It’s a love story: romantic love, paternal love, repressed homoerotic love, love of money, of power, of country, love betrayed and love employed as both carrot and stick. It’s a book about all different kinds of heroes, and all the different ways they die. It’s a pop-top can of Grade-A one-hundred percent pure whip-ass.”—Matthew Woodring Stover
I don’t think I’m capable of describing this book in a spoiler-free way better than that. Heroes Die contains a lot of themes elaborated through several characters, and I like to think of Heroes Die as an examination regarding human’s obsession with violence in entertainment and stories. I mean, think about it, this novel is filled with violent/explosive action scenes, and the fact that I loved the action sequences in this book so much showed that Stover’s idea hit the spot for me. However, it is very important to make sure that actions/gore/violence was never done for shock value; Stover pulled that off by centering the narrative on his multiple well-written characters.
”Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
Despite the slow start, Heroes Die was intriguing from the beginning, and most importantly, the overall quality of the novel only gets better and better with each passing chapter. Heroes Die is often known for its action sequences, but I think it would be amiss to not mention the magnificent characterizations; it is undoubtedly one of Stover’s biggest strengths as a writer. In the grimdark subgenre, it’s pivotal for an author to succeed at making sure his reader will care and feel invested in their morally grey characters; Stover nailed this. Hari/Caine is an anti-hero, and he’s so utterly well-written that I can’t help but root for him. As I’ve said earlier, I appreciate the fact that Caine isn’t a Gary Stu; he’s indeed cunning, badass, and extremely skillful at what he does, but he’s challenged with a lot of difficulties. Plus, there are several characters in the novel that are far stronger than Caine. Finding out whether Caine will succeed/failed in what he sets out to do was a page-turning reading experience.
“You’ve already beaten the worst enemy you’ll ever have—that voice in your head . . . It tells you the fight’s already over . . . whispers there’s nothing you can do . . . If you beat that voice, it’s a victory that can’t be taken from you. You might die, but you’ll die fighting.”
Stover has mentioned that every character in Heroes Die carries their own individual themes, and it was incredibly evident in the narrative. I don’t think Heroes Die would’ve been this good if it was centered exclusively on Hari/Caine. Stover utilized multiple POV perspective narrations to make sure the themes of greed, self-doubt, loyalty, selfishness, ideal, entertainment, love, and violence were displayed effectively. And get this, Caine isn’t the only well-written character of the novel. Ma’elKoth, for example, is one of the most intimidating villains I’ve come across, and at the same time, I was also in awe of his presence. Berne, on the other hand, was thoroughly sick and violent. Then there’s also Pallas Ril, and her relationship with Caine made the story even more engaging.
“Opposites attract, but similarities bind.”
Obviously, this review wouldn’t be complete without me mentioning Stover’s brutal action sequences. This is an adrenaline rush in book form. If you’re not fond of reading intricate action sequences, Heroes Die might not be for you. But if you—like me— always craves superbly-written battle scenes in SFF, read this book ASAP. Seriously, whether it’s close-quarter combat or large-scale battle sequences, Stover has the capability to execute them brilliantly. Matthew Stover himself is an avid martial artist, and he has mentioned that practically everything that Caine did in this novel is possible to enact in real life. Caine is not Ma’elKoth, and Caine isn’t a god; he’s an intelligent and extremely skillful assassin. I loved Stover’s action sequences; they’re vivid, energetic, furious, and easily visualized. This doesn’t apply exclusively to the close-quarter combat, and I don’t want to spoil you on this, so let’s just say that Heroes Die is staggeringly more epic than I expected. Stover gradually leads everything towards an epic-scale heart-pounding crescendo, and I was left completely amazed.
“My father would say: freedom that can be taken away was never real in the first place, and maybe he’s right. Maybe that freedom was always only a figment of my imagination—but it was an illusion I cherished. Shattering an illusion is the insult we never forgive.”
I was totally captivated by Stover’s writing style; there’s a spellbinding quality assurance in the way he commanded his words. Almost the entirety of the novel was told through a multiple third-person POV narration, but during Caine’s chapters, Stover switched to a first-person present-tense narration. This worked marvelously in favor of creating a powerful sense of immediacy and immersion; to me, just like the audience in the story, it seemed as if Stover wanted his readers to REALLY feel like they’re in Caine’s head and shoes, and it worked. It’s all so impeccably done; the closest prose I can think of during Caine’s perspective is Pierce Brown’s prose in Red Rising Saga series—my favorite sci-fi series of all time.
“God, I’m old. That’s all I can think for long seconds, all I can feel, every god damned day of my life piled onto my back. You have to be young to take shit like this. You have to still be young and adaptable, and full of optimism. You have to still believe in happy endings, to believe that suffering has a point, that death is not a meaningless extinguishing of consciousness. You have to be young enough to still hope that shit happens for a reason.”
Stover said that the whole concept of Acting in the book is to give the audience the feeling of having been to a place more raw and exciting than their everyday reality, and that’s exactly how I felt reading Heroes Die. Spectacular characters-development, intricate world-building, thought-provoking passages, and vicious action sequences; let me repeat this once again: do not judge this book based on its cover art. Heroes Die is grimdark science fantasy at its best. Reading this was not as simple as saying I was one of the audience witnessing Caine’s blood-crazed Adventure. I was the Actor inching towards daylight…
“I am invincible. I am the Blade of Tyshalle. I am Caine.”
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