You know when a book makes you stay up till 3am in the morning, because you can’t put it down and need to finish it, defying the laws of fatigue and work looming ahead in the morning? Heroes Die did that for me.
Our world has developed a hyper-rigid, occupation-based caste system in which the reading of freedom-based philosophy, from John Locke to Robert A. Heinlein, is punished. For entertainment, people participate vicariously in recorded Adventures from the Overworld, an other-dimensional realm of sword and sorcery with its own repressive government. On Earth, Hari Michaelson is the most popular Actor in Adventures; in Ankhana, with its rich palaces and criminal slums, he is known as Caine, the Blade of Tyshalle, famous assassin and warrior. Tired of killing, Hari agrees to return to the Overworld, driven to save his estranged wife, Pallas Ril, Actor and sorceress, unable to return to Earth due to a powerful spell and ordered by the Studio to kill the tyrant Ma’elKoth.
First off, this is nothing we don’t know from classics like Orwell’s 1987 or Huxley’s Brave New World. I’m saying first off though, because Stover’s take is a little bit different here, bringing politics into an urban fantasy novel, while likewise twisting some old fantasy cliches.
Earth in Heroes Die basically is pure U.S. capitalism, topped with the “Bread and Games for the people” attitude of Hollywood and all that stripped of any kind of egalitarian pretense (and yes I know I’m sounding very anti-capitalist, which btw. is entirely on purpose, deal with it). All that makes Earth a rather bleak place, unless you belong to the upper castes like Administrators, Businessmen and Leisurefolk. That’s another thing I liked: castes are basically defined by their professions, there’s no personality, no other characteristics to it. Marx would have called Labor and Professionals the proletarians, but you get the idea.
Overworld itself isn’t so much better. Riddled with slums and dominated by the God Emperor Ma’elKoth, Stover’s ‘fantasy world’ is an absolute regime in the midst of the ‘Aktir Tokar’, the ‘Actor Hunt’ that doesn’t exactly make Caine’s or Pallas’ life any easier.
In short: Heroes Die is full of interesting, politically intriguing ideas and Stover actually manages to make them work in a way full of suspense, intrigues and character development. The latter one is another bonus point and makes the book what it is, since without intriguing characters even the best storyline just doesn’t work for me, but that’s a personal opinion (as is this entire review btw, just in case we get into Capitalist vs. Communist discussions in the comment section ;)).
Caine/Hari starts out as your almost stereotypical badass gunner character, but even the beginning hints at the fact that there’s more to him. Throughout the book he undergoes massive changes, but it doesn’t just pop out of nowhere. The entire Hari/Shanna conflict gives the book a certain emotional touch that I sometimes miss in urban fantasy. Say one thing about Stovers characters, say that they are thoroughly believable and that they aren’t one-sided. Be it the Caine vs. Berne rivalry or even the overall ‘villains’ Kollberg and Ma’elKoth: there is no clear-cut bad or good side. Everyone strives for their own goals in this dystopian world setting and in the end it’s brought to a conclusion that doesn’t disappoint (which is something, since I’ve read a lot of books lately whose premise starts out good, but the endings just plain suck :S).
Sure, Heroes Die is overall entertaining and full of action while at times very explicit (my Mormon friends beware ;)) and it’s maybe not the greatest prose ever, but honestly it’s the ideas behind it, the originality of Stover’s dual worlds and the vivid and believable characters that make this book as good as it is.
Plus, just an interesting aside, I remember Scott Lynch (The Lies of Locke Lamora, Red Seas Under Red Skies) say that he was inspired by Stover’s work and I can only recommend it to everyone who likes his and Richard Morgan’s books. Oh and I’ve a faint idea where Locke’s surname originated from 😉
All in all, the final verdict is 10/10, because personally I couldn’t find anything that I didn’t like about this book and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel The Blade of Tyshalle, even though it was a pain in the ass to get a hold off (hint: amazon Marketplace or Half.com). Also, the third installment Caine Black Knife is coming out this October.
P.S.: Researching a little about Stover’s books, I find it rather interesting that both Heroes Die and The Blade of Tyshalle have been marked as flops with Del Rey, most likely due to wrong marketing, but it truly makes me wonder about the books just defying to go along with our capitalistic market mechanisms 😉