Imagine a world with dragons, and magic. Where adventure lies around every turn, where kingdoms and empires fight for supremacy with the agents of the gods. Elves, Ogres, Dwarves, and others… but to Hari Michaelson, this is no mere fantasy. This is his job.
Hari Michaelson works as an Actor, one of those men and women who travel from Earth to another world called Overworld in order to have adventures, which are recorded for the entertainment of millions of fans back on Earth. Hari is known as Caine, an Assassin, and his adventures are some of the most popular ever. Audiences love his brutal style, his sarcastic wit, his dedication to getting his job done – that job being, giving those same audiences something to enjoy. Caine doesn’t care anything for the people of Overworld; it’s his job to provide entertainment, and he delivers in spades. He has toppled governments, destroyed armies, and changed the face of Overworld, often all by himself.
And then one day his wife Shanna, who is an adventurer herself, goes missing. No one on Earth can find her, and the emergency recall fails. Furthermore, she is pursued by agents of Ma’elKoth, the new Emperor of Adrilankha, who wants knowledge that she possesses – especially knowledge of the Aktiri, who come from beyond the world to interfere with his empire, for their own twisted entertainment. And so the studio calls in Caine to retrieve her.
This is the plot of Heroes Die, the first book of Matthew Stover’s Acts of Caine series. I’ll tell you straight out: I love this series. Caine is a terrible human being but a wonderful character. He isn’t just an assassin, after all. Back on Earth, he’s a corporate employee, with bosses; he’s a husband, and eventually a father, trying to do right by his family. And the instincts he’s developed as a killer on Overworld don’t work in the “real” world of Earth, forcing him to examine himself and find new ways to live. Until the next time his life comes crashing down around his ears, anyway.
I don’t want to talk anymore about Caine’s development here; the books are all about his development, really, so you should go read them instead. Right now. Go. I’ll wait.
Actually, rather than that, let me talk a bit about my favorite book in the series: the second book, titled Blade of Tyshalle. Plotwise, a lot of things that were put off from the first book come back to haunt Caine – but that’s not what I want to talk about now. Blade introduces a new character, Deliann, who is the polar opposite of Caine in many respects: Caine has a low-class origin, peerless physical skills, ludicrous self-confidence, and a certain disregard for the feelings of others; Deliann comes from a high-class family, is a powerful mage, lacks confidence, and has an almost supernatural empathy. But Deliann is one of the few people that Caine calls a friend, and legitimately respects. Caine believes Deliann has a type of courage that he doesn’t, a “cold” courage to do what needs to be done, even knowing the terrible things that will happen if he does. The interactions between the two men at the beginning and the end of the novel, can be quite heartwarming. In a later novel, Caine describes Deliann as “the one person who might tell me ‘No’ and have it stick.” Very cool.
Each of the books has a different tone to it. The first book hits the science fiction elements harder, and the grey and black morality of everyone on either world. The second leans more fantastic, and is presented more like a legend. The third and fourth books, which are two halves of the same story arc, are more concerned with time and consequences. I should say: these elements are present in all four books, but the focus shifts from book to book. They contrast each other, which is interesting.
The name of this series is “What would I rather be reading,” and in this case it is definitely the truth. I would rather read The Acts of Caine than A Song of Ice and Fire – but why? They are both grimdark crapsack worlds, where the characters do terrible, reprehensible things to each other. It’s not that one is a low fantasy, while the other is a high fantasy with sci-fi elements; at this level of detail, there’s no effective difference between fantasy and sci-fi anyway. I’m fairly sure that it isn’t that Acts is driven by a main protagonist (well, villain protagonist) where Song has a more distributed narrative.
In the end, I believe that I like Acts better is that the characters seem much more aware. Caine, for example, knows that he is a bad guy. Sure, he tries to do things like protect his family, work for a company, etc., but he knows that the only thing he is really good at killing people. But he puts the effort in to overcome his own weaknesses. He doesn’t like it, but tough shit. On the other hand, take Eddard Stark, who has some measure of self-awareness, but doesn’t have the guts to take the actions he would need to, to meet his responsibilities; basically, he lacks the “cold courage” that powers Deliann. Oh, and let’s just set aside Catelyn Stark (or Queen Cersei) who has all the self-awareness of a concussed clam.
Tyrion might be an exception. We’ll see.
Well, setting all the rest aside, the books are well written, and well worth the read. Go check them out.
Next time: This is almost a non-sequitur, but let’s talk about Japanese light novels for a bit.