Matthew Woodring Stover
Del Rey, 1998
Heroes Die by Matthew Woodring Stover is one of those often overlooked novels important to both science fiction and fantasy. Hari Michaelson is better known as Caine, the Blade of Tyshelle, a brutal assassin on the world called Overworld. His adventures are experienced by millions of people back home where his many assassinations and staggering body count have made him a superstar. When Hari/Caine’s wife goes missing in Overworld he is sent against the world’s newest dictator in a mission with little hope for survival. Heroes Die bridges the gap between science fiction and fantasy. It is most definitely science fiction taking place in a future dominated by a rigid caste based system and a population kept docile through adventures in Overworld. At the same time Hari’s adventures as Caine follow occur in a traditional fantasy world. It is a smooth blending of two genres that makes for some great reading.
Heroes Die is not a novel for the faint of heart. Hari’s own backstory owes as much to the creation of Caine as it does to any public relation team. Hari/Caine is not a happy person and is a man of great violence; which he doles out in great heaping handfuls of mayhem. Throw into this the blurring between his real life persona and his fictional one and you have a fascinatingly complex character. Stover cleverly doles out detail on Hari’s life in such a way that readers become just as immeshed in the tug of war between Hari and Caine as Hari himself does and, just like Hari, we are equally in the dark about who he is at the core. The slow emergence and development of Hari’s character over the course of the novel is a subtle affair.
Stover cleverly blends the worlds of Overworld and Earth and while the plot focuses on Hari’s quest to rescue his wife it quickly becomes apparent that there is something else beneath the surface. As Hari begins to fight against the reins of corporate controllers, and readers learn more the state of Earth and Hari’s own personal history, this secondary element comes further to the forefront. What starts as a simple quest for a missing wife eventually grows in to something much much bigger and it does so in such a way as to never distract the reader from that initial quest. It is a clever bit of writing from an extraordinarily talented writer.
While the bulk of the novel’s action focuses on Overworld Stover does not neglect the world of future Earth. Small vignettes from a talk show dedicated to Overworld adventures provide some interesting scientific background to the nature of this other world. Indeed, when I read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One I was often reminded of Heroes Die. There are similarities, particularly when it comes to the total immersion aspect, but the novel are interesting to compare how similar technologies impact societies. Cline’s novel makes for an interesting, if somewhat frenetic, commentary on the notion of servicing fantasy at the cost of reality whereas Heroes Die takes a more scathing look at the pitfalls of a corporate greed and societies attraction towards voyeuristic media (I’m looking at you reality tv). Both Ready Player One and Heroes Die make for excellent companion novels.
Heroes Die is the first in several novels featuring Hari/Caine and is followed by Blade of Tyshelle (2001), Caine Black Knife (2008), and Caine’s Law (2012). If you are looking to sneak some science fiction on your fantasy loving friends Heroes Die is an excellent way to do so. For a novel written in 1998, Heroes Die remains surprisingly fresh and is quite truthfully a novel ahead of its time. As a rumination on a culture obsessed with violence as entertainment it remains as relevant today as it was 14 years ago. Highly recommended.