I first became aware of Matthew Stover years ago when my housemate at the time, a guy named Mick, walked up to me and asked if I’d ever heard of Matthew Stover.
“What’s wrong with you?” was his reply.
That list is, unfortunately and fortunately, too long to expound upon here but what he was referring to at the time was my not ever having read Heroes Die, the first novel by Matthew Stover featuring the character Harry Michaelson, otherwise known as Caine.
The universe that Stover created is in two parts. There’s our Earth, set in the future and screwed up. A mega-plague has wiped out nearly all life on the planet and very nearly brought about the end of the human race. A vaccine was found and distributed before world-wide extinction could take place but not before the societies of the world were toppled. What rose from the ashes of the previous world was a caste society based off the type of work your occupation does. Are you a janitor, mechanic, or someone who works with your hands? You’re at the bottom of the pile in the Laborer caste. Are you an educated person and teach others, or perhaps highly skilled? Professional. Administrators, being the bosses, are above those, and at the top are the Leisurefolk, the nearest thing to royalty that exists at that time. Changing castes takes a lot of effort and the rules of society are enforced by the Social Police. Among these castes are a variety of sub castes that might be higher or lower than others in their general caste; one such sub-caste are the Actors, a group of Professionals who provide Earth its entertainment by travelling to Overworld.
Overworld is an alternate version of our world except one where magic works. The world is populated not just with humans, but ogrilloi (orcs/ogres), treetoppers (faeries), primals (elves), stoneshapers (dwarves), and a host of other fantasy races, along with a pantheon of gods and goddesses. The Actors travel there by way of planeshifting technology and take on personas in the other world, interacting with it and going on adventures. These adventures are recorded by surgically implanted devices that beam a feed back to Earth where the viewing audience can plug themselves in to specialized pods and feel what is happening to the Actor; those with enough money can do so live when the action is happening. It is not uncommon for these Actors to die while on assignment.
One of these Actors is Harry Michaelson who plays Caine, a brutal bad ass who has risen to mega-stardom on Earth and infamy on Overworld for being a brutal fighter and the instigator of a civil war resulting from an assassination that toppled a ruler and nation and gave birth to a new empire.
All of Stover’s books take place in both spheres, with each one influencing the other, with Caine traveling back and forth between the two. The conflict between Earth, with its corrpution and point of view that Overworld is just another resource to exploit, and Overworld, who wants to keep Earth as far away from it as possible, is an over-arching theme of the series.
Caine’s Law is…well, unfortunately it’s difficult to explain. First of all, each of the four novels build extensively on the previous work, so going into the plot is difficult because I’d have to explain a ton. Suffice to say, Caine pissed off the rulers of Earth, denied them access to Overworld for a while, and they never forgot or forgave him. In the third book they managed to get back to Overworld and captured Caine.
Beyond that, Caine’s Law features time-travel, alternate versions of Caine, and alternate realities, all stemming from changes to Caine that came as a result of what happened in book two, The Blade of Tyshalle, so at times it can be difficult to know which time stream and reality you are in and makes describing the book almost impossible. However, for as complex as the plot gets, looking more and more like a knot of tangled twine, Stover does a good job of pulling on this end here, that end there, and by the end of the book the knot expands into a well-written tapestry that, thankfully, makes sense.
Beyond the plot, there is some great character development in this book and, at times, I found Caine getting overshadowed by his foster brother Orbek; my favorite parts of the book were when the two characters interacted. Caine’s Law also shows how Caine continues to evolve, changing from the person he used to be in some fundamental ways but still remaining that same person in some very necessary ones.
My only issue with the book is how it ends because the end of this book is very, very similar to the ending of the second one. While the immediate threat of Books 3 and 4 is dealt with, the overlying threat of Earth isn’t and I’d really like to see this series be more than “Earth sends something to Overworld to mess things up, Caine deals with it”, especially if it results in Caine getting continuously more powerful and ending the book threatening the rulers of Earth. We’ve seen that twice now, let’s not see it again.
Beyond that, I recommend this series to anyone who enjoys a good anti-hero, especially one as broken, bloodthirsty, and, ultimately, noble and awesome as Caine becomes.