Thursday, April 11, 2013

Blade of Tyshalle Review - The greatest book you won't ever want to read

Plus Bonus Caine Black Knife Review!!

I've finished reading the second and third books in the Matthew Stover's Acts of Caine series, Blade of Tyshalle and Caine Black Knife. (My reviews of the first book are here and here.)

Wikipedia describes the audience for his non Star Wars books as small but loyal, a statement I can absolutely believe. The books are some of the best modern genre works I've ever read, but Jesus Christ are they depressing. Listening to Blade of Tyshalle was like getting kicked in the stomach for 31 hours in a row.

I ran an RPG group for almost ten years. Near the end of the campaign, the PCs had a sizable power base, but had accumulated a number of powerful enemies. My philosophy in running a game is that PCs with sufficient resources can win most encounters, if they're willing to pay the price. And this group won every battle, but often at the cost of making unnecessary enemies, and squandering long term assets. I hinted that  this wa going to catch up someday, but the pattern continued, and there finally came a time when I drew the campaign to a close rather than demolish them or fudge things so they came on top.

I was thinking of this when I was reading the book. It opens seven years after the end of the first. Hari never really dealt with his problems. He just arranged for them go away for a while. And then everything comes due, not at once, but in a cascade failure, one calamity building on the one before, some spiritual form of compound interest, as Roger Zelazny once wrote. 

It was like watching a slow motion car accident, horrifying but mesmerizing. Hari is broken at the beginning of the book, a drunken, crippled sellout, and it goes downhill from there. Gregor Samsa had better days. 

I'm going to include some spoilers here:


Again, my favorite character is one of his villains. Avery Shanks is a nasty piece of work. In the last book, Avery's son Lamerack betrayed Caine and Pallas, but not before Pallas becomes pregnant with his child. Caine kills Lamerack for what he did, and winds up raising Lamerack's daughter Faith as his own. Shanks gets word of this and just to spite Caine, she has Faith removed from his custody by force and in a very public fashion (In front of Hari's fans at a convention). She's mean, she's petty, she's the worst this caste society has to offer. And yet, when Faith is threatened, Avery is willing to die for her. She kills a man with her hands and feet and teeth to protect her. And when it's all over, Avery is not magically transformed into someone less nasty. She remains who she is. And that's what I like about Stover's characters. Even the blackest villain is capable of acting in a selfless way in the right circumstances. I don't believe in people who are all good or all bad.

I do like the interaction between Hari's father Duncan, the libertarian intellectual and Tan'elKoth, the deposed authoritarian emperor. I would guess that Stover's politics are more closely in line with Duncan's, but I admire that he can get inside Tan'elkoth's head and write arguments for him that are more than mere sophistry.

"I respect what is respectable " Tan'elkoth replied. "To ask for respect where none has been earned is childish maundering.And what is respectable  in the end, save service? Even your idol Jefferson is, in the end, measured by how well he served the species. The prize of individualism--its goal--is self-actualization, which is only another name for vanity. We do not admire men for achieving self-actualization; we admire self-actualization when its end result is a boon to humanity."

Stefan Rudnicki is an astounding narrator. One thing I love about audiobooks with good readers is when the listener can identify a character just by the voice the reader uses.

In the third book, Hari mentions that his father thought highly of an LDS author active in the late 20th/early 21st century, and I think that must be Orson Scott Card. It's funny, because the scene in the bathroom immediately struck me as a repudiation of the parallel scene in Ender's Game. Being hassled by a bully? Murder him! Problem solved!

The book places the characters in similar situations (so similar that I'm wondering if this was deliberate), but when they maim (not kill) the bullies, the school headmaster, who had previously been shown as nothing more than a petty, social climbing cipher, is honestly horrified, not only that they would do this to other children, but that it was the first and only plan they considered. 

Stover did an outstanding job, piling misery upon misery on Caine, and even though he's the author of his own problems (or at the very least complicit in setting them up), I couldn't help but feel sorry for him.  There came a moment where Caine was mind-controlled and set up to murder his wife, and it was at that point in the narrative, for the first time in my life that I thought, "I don't know if I can go on with this story."

The resolution to that is pretty great too. In the first book, he was willing to sacrifice the world to save his wife. In this one, he is magically compelled to believe that killing her will prevent the otherwise certain destruction of Overworld, a lever, his captors believe, that is certain to move him, but he just says, "Nope, fellas, can't do it." Great piece of characterization. 

And, she still dies, because the villains have the sense to build some redundancy into their plans. 

I love the finale too. I'm a sucker for dueling paradigms, and when the social police invade Overworld, it's a battle for the ages. 

This was a fitting send off for Caine. 

Caine Black Knife

I was reluctant to read the third book without a break, because the second was such a bludgeoning. I saw that it was in large part a prequel, so I thought we might something more upbeat.

You know, right up until the end, I was jotting down notes for my review framing things for this review, trying out lines like "While not nearly as good as the first two, Stover is still a very talented writer, and I would stop short of calling this a bad book." It even picked up right before the end and I thought, "Hey, he's going to turn this around!"

And then the end of the book came, and it was so awful that not only am I no longer unwilling to call it a bad book, I'm going to call it a terrible, horrible, no good, VERY bad book. 

For the first time in my life, I literally felt betrayed by an author. Matt Stover is still a great writer, but this book has real problems. It embraces everything rejected by the first two. Caine really is the best both worlds have to offer. Everyone he meets is a hypocrite or simp and occasionally both.

The series had previously eschewed the use of straw men as adversaries, with even the blackest villain had some humanity, some motivation, but that goes completely off the rails here. The Knights of Khyrl are terrible. They embody every cliche about paladins held by people who hate paladins. I don't know why a martial order led by a woman with full equality for its female members would have a blanket prohibition against fighting women, especially when it should be common knowledge that the Black Knives' priesthood is female. 

One of things that should have tipped me off that the story was going to suck was the fact that Caine wises off to a border guard at checkpoint. It's established in the very same scene that he's immune to the truth-sensing magics employed by the Khyrl, but instead of just giving a plausible lie, he gives a literally true but smartass answer, claiming to be looking for his adopted brother the serial killer. He's taken into custody for questioning, which certainly seems to be a reasonable response under the circumstances, where somebody shows up just to be evil. Caine beats him up, but an innocent guard is crippled in the ensuing fight and chooses euthanasia and a pension for his family rather than life without the use of his legs. Caine berates the Order for this, but that's just bullshit. He's sine qua non for the whole thing.

I liked a Caine who earned his victories because he was smart and tough and sneaky and who was adept in a fighting style largely unfamiliar to those he fought. I don't like a Caine who employs hitherto unrevealed magical powers and who trivially kicks the ass of everyone he meets. 

Also, it's set mostly on Overworld, which, without Earth to provide contrast, is just vanilla fantasy world #24601. If I wanted to read about a modern asshole running up and down and to and fro in a fantasy world, I'd fish Lord Foul's Bane out of my compost bin. 

In my Tyshalle review, I mentioned that even though that Caine was responsible for a great many of his own troubles, I still felt for him. In Black Knife, I just thought that he was an asshole, and I hoped he would die.

At the very end, Hari "reasons" that the only reason the Social Police has taken him alive is so that they can give him the reins to their nation so he can sort things out for them. It's such a WTF moment, not only because it turns out to be the correct conclusion, but because it's presented as the answer to which logic inescapably points. It reminded me of a scene from the Adam West Batman movie.

Batman: One: "What has yellow skin and writes?"
Robin: A ballpoint banana.
Batman: Right! Two: "What people are always in a hurry?"
Robin: Rushing people? Russians!
Batman: Right again! Now, what would you say they mean?
Robin: Banana... Russian... I've got it! Someone Russian is going to slip on a banana peel and break their neck!
Batman: Precisely, Robin! The only possible meaning!

Capture for a show trial makes much more sense.  I would go so far as to say that it's the only explanation that makes any kind of sense.

Caine had talked about his eye for weakness, which is fine, but Jesus, in practice, it's Caine just mumbling a few predictable cliches which compel the listener like cross between the Jedi Mind trick and Hannibal Lecter convincing Mason Verger to cut off his own face.

That's not even the worst part about the ending. While in prison, Caine gets a visit from a man who hates him so much that he sold Caine out to the Social Police. Except he doesn't really hate Caine. He just hates himself for not being as awesome as Caine. 

Objectively, it's not the most terrible book I've ever read, but the previous ones were SO GOOD that it looks awful when compared to them. 

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