Heroes Die is the first book in the Matthew Woodring Stover’s Acts of Caine trilogy. The author created a world that consists of the future dystopian Earth and a parallel world called Overworld, which is actually a fantasy setting bearing the characteristics of the majority of books published in this genre after Tolkien. This provides for a very interesting dichotomy – on the one side we have a science fiction milieu in which there is an overcrowded Earth, the population of which is divided into castes, with very strict rules and harsh system of punishment. On the other side is a fantasy world rich with magic, all kinds of creatures, and filled with adventures.
This is not a new thing.There are many other books that use the two worlds premise (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R. Donaldson and Chronicles of Amber series by Roger Zelazny initially came to mind) but Stover gave us his own, a rather unique perspective. Namely, the corporations that run the Earth use the transfer technology to send actors to Overworld, where their job is “to risk their lives in interesting ways”. Their adventures are recorded and sold as the most popular form of entertainment.
The main protagonist is Hari Michaelson. On Overworld, he plays the role of the assassin named Caine, while his estranged wife Shanna is another Actor playing the mage Pallas Ril. Pallas is captured by Ma'elKoth, the Emperor of Overworld's human kingdom of Ankhana on one of her adventures. Hari is sent to Overworld to save her and kill Ma'elKoth but finds himself manipulated by both the powers on Overworld and the Studio on Earth.
Hari Michaelson/Caine is one of the most interesting characters that I have encountered in years. A formidable force and an underdog at the same time. Famous for his huge accomplishments yet plagued with internal conflict. It was a delight to read about him.
There are other, also well depicted characters. The antagonists are exceptional. Ma'elKoth is a mighty presence, a godlike creature with good and bad equally represented in the mix of his traits. Berne, Ma'elKoth’s right hand is the villain in the truest sense of the word, a psychopath killer and rapist, the best swordsman in the Empire, endowed with huge strength and impenetrable skin through magic wielded by his master.
In the world of Hari Michaelson, there is the Studio, a bureaucratic beast represented in Kollberg, a member of the Administrator caste, who uses Michaelson to further his own selfish goals, hoping to do away with his most successful actor in the process.
Hari Michaelson/Caine starts the novel as an anti-hero, a killer who is feared and revered both in his world and Overworld, an actor who does not care whom he kills, just as long as it helps his career. In this adventure, however, he is forced to make some heavy choices. The stakes are much higher, he has an impossible task and the villains are the most dangerous ever. Other writers could learn a thing or two from Stover on making great villains (I am looking at you Age of Ultron screenplay writers).
Stover's writing is very good. He excels in dialogues and actions sequences. There is a sense of humor in his writing that reminded me of Joe Abercrombie. World building is great. I particularly liked the depiction of our world, an interesting extrapolation of current economy dominated by big corporations mixed with omnipresent communist bureaucracy.
I will not continue with describing the plot because I do not want to spoil it for those who have not read it yet. I will only say that the ending is satisfactory. I am currently reading the second book, Hero of Tyshalle, and enjoying it immensely. Stover is delving deeper into both worlds, and the stakes are running very high. As for this book, I will rate it 5 out of 5, or in other words, one hell of a read!