Thursday, November 06, 2008

Ex Libris: Matthew Stover's Caine Black Knife

Before there was Takeshi Kovacs, there was... Caine.

I remember my first forays into the wonderful world of the online speculative fiction community. There, I was first introduced to the website that was fantastic metropolis and the rabble-rouser extraordinaire that was gabe chouinard. Though those days were long gone, one recommendation furiously pushed by gabe that I did pick up was Matthew Woodring Stover and his books of Caine (i.e. Heroes Die, The Blade of Tyshalle).

Who is Caine precisely? Well, it's a bit complicated. Though the assassin Caine cuts a swathe of bloody bodies in a fantasy setting called Overworld, in actuality he's really Hari Michaelson, a virtual reality actor in a far-future dystopian Earth.

(As-you-know-Bob moment: In this particular Earth, the world is ruled with an iron fist by corporations and the main entertainment of the masses is a type of virtual reality wherein the viewers get to watch the action through the actors' eyes. These actors are sent into what is first assumed to be a well-made virtual reality called Overworld but is really an alternate dimension replete with fantasy tropes like elves, sword-wielding adventurers, tyrannical kings and continent-spanning empires, as well as beings with magic powers.)

Still with me or fast asleep? In any case, Stover's first two books detailed Caine's adventures in Overworld as well as Hari's double-life in the real world. Not only did these books have brutal action and incredible cliffhangers, Stover managed to people his stories with well-rounded characters. For example, Caine may be the deadliest assassin in Overworld but on Earth, he's a frustrated puss in the face of tyrannical powers-that-be.

(Keep up here, we're almost to the review itself)

One thing great about Stover is that he likes putting his protagonists through a grinder, throwing bigger and bigger obstacles at them and letting them figure out how to get past each one. At at the end of Caine's second book, he just managed to defeat the corporate tyrants at their own game as well as winning a victory in Overworld...

... Which is where Stover's latest book comes in. Caine Black Knife has a dual narrative that runs in both the past and present. Looking back, Stover narrates how Hari Michaelson turned Caine into the most popular action hero on Earth in a battle against a monstrous Black Knife clan. At the same time, the present-day Caine-- a little older, a little wiser but still as deadly-- has come out of hiding to deal with the repercussions of his younger self's actions. Unfortunately, things are more complicated than it seems as Caine maneuvers through the political intrigues of the new age he'd help give birth at the end of the second book. He still has a lot of enemies in Overworld and in the next dimension, Earth's corporations are watching and waiting to take it all back.

But this is really a show about Caine the younger-- more brash, arrogant, and willing to stick a knife into the back of a friend or leave them behind if it warranted it. And the text in-between detailing Caine the older's own adventures, reminiscences and ruminations acts more of a support for the former story. But then again, Caine the older's story was already well told in the first two books and Stover has mentioned that he's now more interested in relating stories about the younger Caine.

But whether old or young, Caine/Hari is more than the usual fantasy thug with a sword or knife. Like Robert E. Howard's Conan, Caine can take beating after beating and but refuses to lie down and die. Likewise, Caine/Hari is also a failed intellectual with the tone and feel of the books akin to the books of another similar violent hero, Takeshi Kovacs. There's a lot of conceptual stuff being stirred here amidst the action-pack narrative.

What I'm trying to say is that if ever there's a book I would highly recommend paw-over-claw in terms of very human and yet very bloody fantasy action-adventure, it would Stover's Caine books. In fact, if you're a true-blue fan of Richard Morgan (which I am), I would say you should discover Stover's books and realize that before Kovacs came onto the scene, Caine was already kicking ass and taking names.

However, a little caveat emptor: the first two books were stand-alones whereas this one has a second book still to come out. I say this now so you can temper your frustration after finishing the book and crying out, "Where's the next one?!?" (Rating: Four paws out of four)

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