I have just finished the second book in the Mathew W. Stover’s Act of Caine sequence and I am amazed. This is one of the best books I have ever read. Considerably more ambitious than the first one, this book successfully raises everything to a whole new level.
At the beginning we find Hari Michaelson as a well-off administrator who is trying to cope with his disability resulting from his spine being severed by the sword Kosall at the hand of his arch enemy Berne. Some seven years after the events in the first book, Hari lives with his wife Shanna and her daughter Faith, who share the connection with the Chambaraya, the Overworld River. Ma’Elkoth is a prisoner in some sort of the Overworld Museum, where he teaches magic, and he is Hari’s best/only friend.
On the Overworld, the things have taken a considerable turn. Actors are still being transferred but only on free-mod and without conditioning that prevents them from mentioning Earth or Aktirs, which means that they are not in direct broadcast. The Ankhanna is ruled by Toa Sytell, and all those who are a threat are conveniently labeled as the Cainists. However, there is a new force to be reckoned with – the Artans. They are actually humans from Earth who are slowly introducing technological progress that poses a huge threat to the Overworld. The Artans and their Company are actually the battering ram of the humanity’s desire to expand and quench its insatiable hunger for resources and space.
To satisfy this need, the forces on Earth, which share similar goals in relation to the Overworld, are gathering as a personification of the blind god, the god of dust and ashes. The studio heads, Tan 'Elkoth, and even Arturo Kollberg, are together serving this god and in order to further their goals, they must first take care of Caine. Their plot includes releasing a deadly virus on Overworld, killing Shanna, informing Faith’s grandmother of her identity thus taking Faith from Hari, and in the and getting Hari to Overworld for execution. Honestly, I cannot remember that I have ever read a book in which a character had to undergo so many ordeals. But as all those who have read the first book know, he is Caine, and somehow, inch by inch, he overcomes his ordeals and survives. Not only that he survives but in the end he is victorious. How, you will just have to read to find out.
In comparison to the first book there is noticeable difference. Where the first book is shorter and more centered on action, the second is delving deeper into the background. There are more references to philosophy and mythology. There is a very interesting notion about myths as “stories that offer a perception of order within the chaos of existence”, stories that turn into reality. There is a whole storyline dedicated to the mythological aspect of this particular story, with characters named as the god of dust and ashes, the dark angel, the crooked knight, the part-time goddess. Two parallel storylines follow the events on Earth and Overworld, and there is also one that depicts the events at the acting academy where Hari met Kris, one of the new characters that appear in this book. Along with Kris (on Overworld he is Delianne), there is also Raithe, a Monastic official who was present when Caine killed the head of the Monastery who gave him over to Toa Sytell. He is probably the best developed character in the book. Also, I must mention Avery Shanks, Lamorak’s mother and Faith’s grandmother, another fantastic character. It would be a sin to forget T’Passe, the first among the Cainists. She does not appear much in the book but she has made a lasting impact. Her thoughts on Cainism are pure gold. It would be joy to meet them again in the sequels to this book.
Hari/Caine starts his journey in this book as a half-broken man and gets almost completely destroyed but he never surrenders. He is never defeated because he chooses not to be defeated. That is the ultimate choice that all of us have in the end. We decide whether we are defeated or not. That is the essence of Cainism, as t’Passe explains it. It is not a religion, it is a philosophy, and as such can be applied to all religions and all people. It is reminiscent of the teachings of Alister Crowley and Friedrich Nietzsche to an extent. It may appear to some that this is too much for a fantasy book, but this is exactly my kind of fantasy – thought-provoking, challenging, well written and entertaining at the same time.
The climax of the book is the confrontation between two worlds, two universes, and two personifications of nature’s principles. The outcome is satisfactory, myths have become reality, and reality is descending into myth. Gods and goddesses are made and remade, Overworld is saved and life returns to normal.
In the end, we are left with Caine who returned to his true self and his true self is not to everyone’s liking. And he does not give a shit. He is the force of nature, the essence of chaos, the abyss that stares back at you and scares the living daylights out of you. He is back and he is here to stay.
I have not been this thrilled by a book for a long time. I am aware that fantasy and SF are not regarded as serious literature, and I usually do not expect the books of the genre to deal with deep philosophical, sociological or psychological themes but when I start reading I always hope that the writer would find a way to intertwine such themes with action, mystery and adventure. This was one of those books and in my personal opinion it is a masterpiece.