Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Book Review: Heroes Die, Part 1

I was astonished by how much I enjoyed this book. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it's built almost wholly out of concepts I hate. Look at the blurb on the back.

Renowned throughout the land of Ankhana as the Blade of Tyshalle, Caine has killed his share of monarchs and commoners, villains and heroes. He is relentless, unstoppable, simply the best there is at what he does.

At home on Earth, Caine is Hari Michaelson, a superstar whose adventures in Ankhana command an audience of billions. Yet he is shackled by a rigid caste society, bound to ignore the grim fact that he kills men on a far-off world for the entertainment of his own planet--and bound to keep his rage in check.

But now Michaelson has crossed the line. His estranged wife, Pallas Rill, has mysteriously disappeared in the slums of Ankhana. To save her, he must confront the greatest challenge of his life: a lethal game of cat and mouse with the most treacherous rulers of two worlds . . .

I generally dislike straight up "dwarves & elves" fantasy, Tolkien being the exception. He had a reason for populating his world with elves and dwarves. (And the world was more than that besides) Everything fit together and we only saw a small fraction of what he knew to be true. Every imitator since then has populated his world with elves and dwarves because...that's how Tolkien did it, and I think that's a pretty piss poor reason.

Also, it doesn't hurt that Tolkien was a phenomenal writer:

'Now news came to Hithlum that Dorthonion was lost and the sons of Finarfin overthrown, and that the sons of Fëanor were driven from their lands. Then Fingolfin beheld (as it seemed to him) the utter ruin of the Noldor, and the defeat beyond redress of all their houses; and filled with wrath and despair he mounted upon Rochallor his great horse and rode forth alone, and none might restrain him. He passed over Dor-nu-Fauglith like a wind amid the dust, and all that beheld his onset fled in amaze, thinking that Oromë himself was come: for a great madness of rage was upon him, so that his eyes shone like the eyes of the Valar.

Thus he came alone to Angband's gates, and he sounded his horn, and smote once more upon the brazen doors, and challenged Morgoth to come forth to single combat. And Morgoth came. That was the last time in those wars that he passed the doors of his stronghold, and it is said that he took not the challenge willingly; for though his might was greatest of all things in this world, alone of the Valar he knew fear. But he could not now deny the challenge before the face of his captains; for the rocks rang with the shrill music of Fingolfin's horn, and his voice came keen and clear down into the depths of Angband; and Fingolfin named Morgoth craven, and lord of slaves. Therefore Morgoth came, climbing slowly from his subterranean throne, and the rumour of his feet was like thunder underground. And he issued forth clad in black armour; and he stood before the King like a tower, iron-crowned, and his vast shield, sable on blazoned, cast a shadow over him like a stormcloud.

But Fingolfin gleamed beneath it as a star; for his mail was overlaid with silver, and his blue shield was set with crystals; and he drew his sword Ringil, that glittered like ice. Then Morgoth hurled aloft Grond, the Hammer of the Underworld, and swung it down like a bolt of thunder. But Fingolfin sprang aside, and Grond rent a mighty pit in the earth, whence smoke and fire darted. Many times Morgoth essayed to smite him, and each time Fingolfin leaped away, as a lightning shoots from under a dark cloud; and he wounded Morgoth with seven wounds, and seven times Morgoth gave a cry of anguish, whereat the hosts of Angband fell upon their faces in dismay, and the cries echoed in the Northlands. But at the last the King grew weary, and Morgoth bore down his shield upon him. Thrice he was crushed to his knees, and thrice arose again and bore up his broken shield and stricken helm.

But the earth was all rent and pitted about him, and he stumbled and fell backward before the feet of Morgoth; and Morgoth set his left foot upon his neck, and the weight of it was like a fallen hill. Yet with his last and desperate stroke Fingolfin hewed the foot with Ringil, and the blood gashed forth black and smoking and filled the pits of Grond. Thus died Fingolfin, High King of the Noldor, most proud and valiant of the Elven-kings of old. The Orcs made no boast of that duel at the gate; neither do the Elves sing of it, for their sorrow is too deep. Yet the tale of it is remembered still, for Thorondor King of Eagles brought the tidings to Gondolin, and to Hithlum afar off.

And Morgoth took the body of the Elven-king and broke it, and would cast it to his wolves; but Thorondor came hasting from his eyrie among the peaks of the Crissaegrim, and he stooped upon Morgoth and marred his face. The rushing of the wings of Thorondor was like the noise of the winds of Manwë, and he seized the body in his mighty talons, and soaring suddenly above the darts of the Orcs he bore the King away. And he laid him upon a mountain-top that looked from the north upon the hidden valley of Gondolin; and Turgon coming built a high cairn over his father. No Orc dared ever after to pass over the mount of Fingolfin or draw nigh his tomb, until the doom of Gondolin was come and treachery was born among his kin. Morgoth went ever halt of one foot after that day, and the pain of his wounds could not be healed; and in his face was the scar that Thorondor made.

Okay, that didn't have much to do with the topic at hand, but I love it too much not to share. Anyway, so we've got a generic fantasy blurb full of ridiculous place names, some cover art that fails to grab me, bog standard fantasy world, a human from our world in the bog standard fantasy world, who happens to be a bad-ass assassin. If this book didn't have Matthew Stover's name on it, I would have run SCREAMING from it.

The blurb I quoted gets the plot of the book right, but the tone all  wrong. It reminds me of the deliberately misleading review of the Wizard of Oz ("Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.") Yeah, those things happen, but not for the reasons that are implied.

I mentioned Stover very favorably in my review of Shatterpoint. His writing has a lot of the traits I loved in Zelazny's stories. Some of the segments in Stover's stories seem as if they could be specific references to his works (the initial description of "Berne's Buckler", the protective spell that warded the vulnerable areas on Berne's body, reminded me more than a little bit of the effects of death bath that armored Rild) and the style and penetrating intelligence remind me of Zelazny's. I don't know who first made the observation that Zelazny tended to write about laid-back, easy-going, wise-cracking, homicidalprotagonists, but I think that's true, and I think that Caine would fit right in.

Stover has a great ear for dialogue. One of the complaints I leveled against Kevin Anderson's Dune prequels is that when your cast of characters are includes a cyborg spaceship, a palace chambermaid and a dashing young noble and they all speak in exactly the same style, you've failed in a fairly significant way.

Stover is ridiculously good with giving his characters distinctive voices.  Hari as Caine,  Hari alone,  Hari with his dad,  Hari with upper castes,  Hari giving a studio interview, they really come across as the same man weighing and adjusting his language for a different audience. That's a subtle piece of characterization and something that writers often forget.

(Also, the name Hari looks a little silly written out, but I heard the whole thing on audiobook and just assumed it was spelled "Harry", because that's how it was pronounced.)

There are two worlds in the story, the Overworld, with its dwarves and elves and evil emperors and whatnot, and a futuristic dystopian earth with a rigidly regimented caste system. Actors from earth assume the identity of adventurers on Overworld, for the viewing pleasure of those back home.

However, they are physically transported to Overworld, and if they fall out of sync with Earth, then they will die horrifically. This is where Hari enters the story. He has mostly retired from being Caine, but he is informed that his wife, Shanna/Pallas Ril, has gone offline and will soon fall out of sync if she doesn't return home, so he takes on one last mission (TM) to save her.

The thing that I like about this setup is that Hari has to beg for the chance to do this. (Hari lowered his head and reminded himself that Kollberg held Shanna's life in those soft, corpse pale hands...he stood, head still lowered, eyes downcast, and put as much sincerity in his voice as he could shove past the fire in his chest, "Please, Administrator, can we make some deal? Please, send me to Ankhana.)

There's no revenue in rescuing Shanna, so he's sent there to assassinate the godlike emperor Ma'elKoth, and he'll be free to rescue her in his spare time once he takes care of that. (Since I heard this in audio, I had no idea how Ma'elKoth was spelled, while the reverse is usually true, in that a reader doesn't always know how a made-up word is pronounced. If you're wondering, it was pronounced Mile-coth, with the third syllable being so similar to cough that that's what I thought it was.)

That's the thing that sold me on the book. Something that I hate in fiction is when our hero loses his or her temper and punches the ashole authority figure right in the face and never suffers any consequence for it.  Prisoner of the Daleks was an egregious offender in this regard. I lost count of the times one of the humans backtalked a genocidal alien cyborg and the narrator tells us that the Doctor could barely restrain himself from thrusting his hand in the air every time they did so. (In fact, I don't know why he didn't, because the Daleks were suck impotent adversaries, the only result of this act would be a bunch of Daleks chorusing, "CEASE YOUR THRUSTING! CEASE YOUR THRUSTING!")

If there are never any consequences for punching the authority figure other than him laying on the ground, rubbing his jaw and saying, "well played," it just tells me that he was a paper tiger and never any threat to begin with.

But Heroes Die avoids this. Hari knows that the only chance he has to save Shana is if these higher caste men will allow him to go. And he has no leverage against them. He's entirely at their mercy.  It's the kind of helplessness not often encountered by fictional heroes (though too often by people in the real world.) We're told some characters in other stories on underdogs, but this kind of thing really shows it.

This got a bit longer than I intended (that's what SHE said) so I'm going to split it into two separate posts. The second one will have some minor spoilers.

Link here to part two here!  

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