Are you weary of conventional fantasy, with its square-jawed stalwart heroes and its willowy graceful elven maidens? Would you rather choke yourself to death with a shoelace than read yet another insipid tale about a plucky farmboy who just happens to be the destined savior of the world? Will you gag if you read one more line of dialogue spoken by a dwarf who sounds like he was rejected for a role in Trainspotting because nobody could understand his incomprehensible Scottish accent? Does a typical sword-waving action scene put you to sleep with its dull, detached, paint-by-numbers descriptions of combat?
If you answered yes to any of the above, Acts of Caine
might be for you. In Caine's world, heroes die, and the willowy elven maiden runs a whorehouse on the wrong side of town specializing in interspecies perversions. In Caine's world, plucky farmboys live out meaningless lives and grow up to become old meaningless farmers, assuming they don't just get butchered by the first raiding party to ride across their land, and the only destiny is what people make for themselves by force. In Caine's world, violence is as visceral as a brick to the goddamned face
, and life is as savage and nasty and brutal as Hobbes' worst nightmare.
And Caine himself? He's the kind of stone-cold motherfucker that the gods
of that world have learned to fear.
The Setting: Earth
"It's all . . . ugly. Everything. Ugly damn world, kid."
Hari shrugged. "Compared to what?"
Just a few short generations past today, Earth is a vicious decaying strip-mined corpse of a planet. Resources are scarce, poverty is rampant, crime and corruption are just a part of daily life for most of its inhabitants. The world has always been divided between the haves and the have-nots, but now the divisions are even sharper: society has been structured into a caste system of Workers and Administrators, Businessmen and Leisuremen. National governments are obsolete; the world and its people are ruled through commerce by an anonymous, shifting Board of Governors composed of the wealthiest few, and order is maintained by the faceless Social Police.
Hard copy books are prohibited, and digital copies are censored or altered to eliminate any potentially subversive content. Instead, the masses and the elite alike are entertained by an unceasing orgy of violence in the form of virtual reality recordings, filmed in first-person perspective through the eyes of professional members of the Actor caste who hack and slash their way through a magical fantasy world, serving as mercenaries or priests or assassins or knights in shining armor.
But the magical fantasy world isn't a Hollywood set, or a simulation: it's real.
The Setting: Overworld
When the Winston Transfer first opened the gate from Earth to Overworld, the Studio had been lurking in the background, waiting to step through. Overworld is a land of dragons and demons, of hippogryphs and mermaids, of hedge wizards and thieves, master enchanters and noble knights.
It is a billion dreams come true.
Overworld is everything Earth is not: fantastical, fertile, rich with resources, home to an astonishing array of creatures. Its environments range from barren deserts to lush primeval forests; its inhabitants include stonebenders capable of melting and shaping granite as though it were clay, pack-hunting ogrilloi armed with tusks and claws, and elf-like primal mages who draw on the magic of Overworld as easily as they draw on its air. It has humans, of several varieties and infinite allegiances; it has gods, some present only in the power they grant to their followers, others walking its streets in the flesh. And once the two worlds were linked, Overworld had Actors, prohibited by intensive psychological conditioning from mentioning their true origins on Earth.
You, as Actors, have a precisely defined role, irrespective of whether you swing a blade or throw a lightning bolt, joust or heal the sick. It is purely and simply this: Your function in society is to risk your life in interesting ways.
Actors on Overworld don't just find the action; they make it. They creep through the world, crafting identities for themselves, insinuating themselves into the existing groups and societies, building connections, forging alliances, constantly searching for chances to be stars, but always at the mercy of their controlling Studios on Earth. Low-level Actors may be forced to spend years working their way up to menial positions in an Overworld monastery just to be in position to play a bit part in someone else's Adventure, but the lucky ones who make it big are idolized by millions of fans on Earth, pampered by the Administrators of their Studio, feted by the elite who pay obscene sums to be able to "first-hand" their Adventures - hooking into Studio simulators to watch the action unfold in real-time instead of waiting for the delayed, edited second-hand release.
Acting is the kind of job people on Earth dream
of. It's an escape from poverty and misery and crippling regulation into a world where anything is possible. Many people would kill to become a famous Actor; even more die trying, either on Overworld itself, or during the intensive training process.
This is where the student steps forward and utters some fatuous variation on the time-honored "Stop, you fiend! Unhand that woman!" but Hari just stood there for a moment and watched him beat her, holding the cobblestone thoughtfully.
Hammet keyed his mike. "Michaelson, what are you doing?"
"I'm intervening," came Hari's muttered reply. "That's what I'm supposed to do, right?"
"Get on with it, then."
He took one step forward and fired the cobble overhand. As the stone left his hand he shouted, "Hey, asshole!" The man with the stick turned to look, just in time to catch about half a kilo of stone full in the mouth. The impact lifted him off his feet and dumped him to the ground like he'd been hit with a bat.
Every student of Battle Magick in the Aud gasped like an affronted Leisurewoman.
"All right, I've intervened," Hari said to the air, sounding bored. "Now what?"
Nobody becomes an Actor just by wanting
it. If they're rich, they can buy their way in to one of the Studio-run training facilities. If they're high-caste, they rely on family influence. If they're a Labor thug, well, they better have some powerful fucking friends, and not necessarily from the legitimate side of business.
Being accepted for training is no guarantee of success, either. Students in the School of Battle Magick must master mental discipline; students in Combat School are hulking behemoths who can bench press three times their IQs in kilograms. Both groups, though, undergo intensive instruction in the languages and customs of Overworld's various societies, and only the best make it to Overworld.
When Spearboy gets about ten feet away, his chest expands and his neck bulges and he unleashes a godawful howl that makes every single hair on my body stand on end. He shakes the spear toward my belly and starts pumping his hips and grunting low in his throat, and I get it.
He's telling me that he's gonna open my guts and fuck me in the wound.
Huh. How about that? I feel better now.
Because if he really thought he could do it, he'd be wet-humping my belly already instead of poncing around like a demented mime.
I feel more than better. I feel incredible. Every problem I have ever had has just . . . evaporated. My career. Torture. Death. Dad. All of it.
Everything. Anything. Don't have one single problem in the world except living through the next twenty seconds. And that's not a problem. It's nothing at all.
Live, die, who gives a shit? So I've never fought an ogrillo. So what?
No ogrillo has ever fought me.
I fake a lunge and he flinches, and I laugh out loud.
"Let's go, Fido." I beckon with both empty hands. "Strike up the fucking band."
Caine - known on Earth as Hari Michaelson - is the protagonist of all three books, rising from a Labor-caste petty criminal to a highly successful Actor to something like the left hand of God. He's lousy at magic, he's of average height and build, he's not freakishly fast or unusually intelligent or blessed with any supernatural abilities.
He is, however, a mean bastard
. He will fuck you up
. He has some luck, he has some skill, but most of all, he has a raw determination to win
, no matter what the odds. He's not immortal, he's not invincible, but he is relentless
in his adherence to his only creed:
My will, or I won't.
Caine is far more than a simple-minded thug, though: he's a subversive intellectual whose father literally wrote the book on primal culture, and from a young age, he was exposed to a wide range of banned material - Locke, Lincoln, Shaw, Paine - that had a significant impact on the development of his moral character, such as it is.
At the moment, the Acts of Caine
consist of three novels. A fourth, His Father's Fist
, is on the way; additional works are purely theoretical at this point, but there's some talk of another trilogy.
With my hand on the doorjamb, some buried-alive instinct thumps within my chest: this is going to hurt.
I take a deep breath and step inside.
The first novel in the series is a love story that also just happens to be a brutally violent discourse on the nature of violent entertainment. Caine, a popular Actor, matches wits with the living god Ma'elKoth and with his own employers at the Studio while struggling to find and save his wife, fellow Actor Pallas Ril, a member of a resistance group opposing Ma'elKoth's rule. It's set primarily in Ankhana, capital of the largest human empire on Overworld, with some brief returns to Earth.
Blade of Tyshalle
A tale is told of twin boys born to different mothers.
One is dark by nature, the other light. One is rich, the other poor. One is harsh, the other gentle. One is forever youthful, the other old before his time.
One is mortal.
They share no bond of blood or sympathy, but they are twins nonetheless.
They each live without ever knowing that they are brothers.
They each die fighting the blind god.
After his dubious victory in Heroes Die
, Caine has been recalled to Earth to reap his rewards: he is now Administrator Michaelson, in charge of the very Studio he worked for as an Actor. Success, however, came at a cost: his injuries are severe, his relationship with his wife is strained, his financial status is tenuous, and the closest thing he has to a friend is his former enemy, now called Tan'elKoth, dragged to Earth and displayed by the Studio as a tourist attraction. But Michaelson's hard-won reprieve is soon shattered. Tan'elKoth wants his godhood back, and will agree to even the most horrific bargain to get it; Earth's Board of Governors wants greater access to Overworld's resources, no matter what the cost in lives; and Michaelson himself needs to decide which of his two personas is truly him, and which is an act.
Caine Black Knife
The dirt-colored cloud spreads wide, hugging the horizon, draining into hollows of the distant hills. "That's them," I say to no one in particular.
The bloody sun behind my left shoulder stains cloud and hills together, and the shadow of the escarpment overhead spreads like oil across the badlands.
The third book in the series alternates between two timelines. In the past, a reckless, vicious, narcissistic, impossibly cocksure young Caine fights to survive the Adventure that will make him famous, battling the Black Knife ogrilloi clan in the desolate Boedecken Waste. In the present, a battered, middle-aged, slightly less bloodthirsty Caine revisits the Boedecken to help his adopted brother, and finds it transformed into a rigidly ordered farmland under the protection of the militant Knights of Khryll, who arrest him as soon as he mentions his brother's name - of course, it doesn't help that his brother is one of the few surviving Black Knives, and nobody
wants to see them back in town.
There is no moral ambiguity in my work.
Did everybody hear that? Let me say it again, louder: THERE IS NO MORAL AMBIGUITY IN MY WORK.
It only looks ambiguous if you insist on framing a story’s conflict in terms of Good vs. Evil. It’s not that simple. Real life does not operate in those terms. Neither does my fiction.
People who try to tell you that life is about the struggle between Good and Evil are either 1) fooling themselves, 2) lying to you, or 3) both. As Caine himself put it, “When somebody starts talking about good and evil, better keep one hand on your wallet.”
The black-and-white approach of most fantasy is bullshit. It’s laziness. By positing a Force of Supernatural Evil, the writer is relieved of the necessity of motivating his antagonists. “The Devil made me do it!” Or his protagonists, for that matter. “Of course they must be destroyed! They’re EEEEEvil!”
Yeesh. I don’t think I’m the only one who’s sick to death of that crap.
Matthew Stover is a fantasy nerd with a deep interest in classical literature and philosophy who studies Jeet Kune Do and writes the books that he would want to read. This pretty much makes him incredibly awesome
, and his books are awesome too. He dedicated Blade of Tyshalle
to 11 deceased authors who influenced or inspired him, including Aleister Crowley, Friedrich Nietzsche, Robert A. Heinlein, and Fritz Lieber - quite an eclectic group to draw on.
While the Acts of Caine
are Stover's most mature works, he's written a few other things as well. Of the few people who know his name, most do so because of the Star Wars novels he's written - his novelization of Revenge of the Sith
got him on the New York Times bestseller list. He also has two earlier historical fantasy novels to his credit, Iron Dawn
and Jericho Moon
, both of which are entertaining though flawed.
Most recently, there's been some hubbub around the internet about a new Overworld comic, written by Stover, pencilled by TJ Halvorsen. The Kickstart proposal
for the project has already reached its initial goal, some some variety of website is up and running
, but the project organizers say that any additional funds submitted through Kickstart will be used to finance additional issues of the comic.
In the Sorrows
- a short story featuring a young Hari Michaelson, long before he became Caine.
Gabe Chouinard interviews Matt Stover
- a long interview about good and evil, the state of the fantasy genre, and why free will is a bullshit concept.
Matt Stover's blog
- fairly self-explanatory.
So, who else thinks Caine is a pretty cool guy?