Matthew Woodring Stover, author of Iron Dawn and Jericho
Moon, has accomplished the creation of one of the best recent
marriages of soft sci-fi and fantasy with Heroes Die. It gives
us a flawed but likable protagonist in the form of one Hari Michaelson,
aka Caine, a hardened killer who's got a huge soft spot in his
heart for his ex-wife, an admirable woman whose loss in his life he
deeply mourns. Hari speaks in the tones of a hardboiled 20th-century
P.I., making Heroes Die a sort of out-of-this-world and
out-of-this-time noirish detective thriller.
Sometime in the unspecified future, civilization on Earth has become
a caricature of its present self. A hereditary caste system based on
career-type keeps humanity from self-destructing while robbing it of much
of its soul. At the top of the pecking order is the Leisure class, who
mostly resemble the old-money families of today's New England. Ranking
below are the Investing, Business, Administrative, Professional, Labor
and Temp classes. The one thing averaging the castes is a modified
version of the great opiate of the masses -- virtual entertainment.
A web of television networks keeps humanity in thrall to something other
than the fixed rigidity of their everyday lives, for a Tolkienish parallel
world to earth has been discovered and is being strip-mined by the
studio for its bloody Adventures.
Entertainer Hari Michaelson is known as Caine, the Blade
of Tyshalle, in Ankhana, a land in a parallel universe where magic is the
law much as science is on Earth. Studio technology sends him and myriad
other Actors to Ankhana to create havoc, do battle, even assassinate in
the name of Adventures that the "haves" back on Earth can first-hand in
a sort of biotech VR, and the "have-nots" can rent in perpetuity on a pumped-up
kind of video. Caine is one of the best, and especially valuable to
the Studio's head, Administrator Kollberg, a humorless man with aspirations
to move up in the world. Kollberg has no love for Hari; nor has he
compunctions about using any of his Actors for the advancement of his
own status. Hari's estranged wife, Shanna Leighton, is also an actor
whose alter-ego is Pallas Ril, Adventuring mage. When she goes off-line
on Ankhana, out of reach of the Studio's technology, a lifeclock starts
ticking. An Actor not on-line will be pulled back to Earth from that
parallel world in a messily mortal fashion.
Kollberg knows exactly how to manipulate Hari. The Administrator
gives him a chance to save Pallas Ril, but he must first assassinate
the most powerful man in Ankhana, a commoner who would be emperor: Ma'elKoth.
A mage of unprecedented ability, Ma'elKoth aspires to be a god, believes in
fact that he already is one. He is uniting the people of Ankhana in a
way that the Studio will find makes for poor entertainment. The Studio
wants civil war again -- it's so much more exciting (and profitable)
than peace. Hari agrees, willing to do what he must for the chance to
save the only woman he loves. He travels back to Ankhana, a world of
elves and faeries, magic and gods, and is caught up in a complex web of
betrayals and opportunistic alliances that could end with the death of
the only thing he finds worth living for.
Heroes Die is itself a most excellent adventure, full
of intrigue, magic, betrayal and lost love. Nothing is preordained;
if nothing else, Stover truly knows how to build and sustain suspense.
With an undeniably interesting cast of villains and reluctant allies,
Heroes Die makes a refreshing break from the spec-fic pack.
Read our ongoing October 2001 email interview with author Matthew Stover.
Check out the Curled Up With a Good Book exclusive interview with author Matthew Woodring Stover.