Caine Black Knife by Matthew Woodring Stover


Published by Del Rey
ISBN 978-0345455871

Trade Paperback, October 2008

368 Pages



There is nothing in my life I care about more than story. There is nothing I know more about than the difference between a good one and a bad one. You’re betting my life and your future on what happens in the next day or two.  Let’s go balls-out to make it the Greatest Fucking Show on Overworld.


After seven years, Matthew Stover brings readers back to Overworld and back to Caine.  For readers who enjoyed the previous two novels in what is now dubbed the Acts of Caine sequence but wanted to get more of Caine, Caine Black Knife will be a welcome novel.  This novel is all Caine and is a bit of a stylistic and tonal departure from the previous Caine novels.  Whereas Stover played with narrative voice and point-of-view in Heroes Die and to a greater extent in Blade of Tyshalle, here the great majority of the novel is told in Caine’s voice in the first person narrative.  A very minor portion takes place in the second person narrative, so Stover doesn’t abandon the shifting perspective entirely. 


Much like Blade of Tyshalle dealt with the after-effects of Caine’s actions in For Love of Pallas Rill in Heroes Die, so does Caine Black Knife deal with the after-effects of Caine’s ‘rebirth’ and ultimate confrontation with Ma’elKoth and the Studio in Blade of Tyshalle.  So, if you haven’t read those two books at this point (and why not?), there may be spoilers if you read much further.  As it is, Stover explains enough through the narrative to get new readers caught up.  So, as a result of Caine and Ma’elKoth’s confrontation in Blade of Tyshalle, Overworld (or Home as it is called by the inhabitants including Caine) was recreated and Ma’elKoth ascended to truly become not just a god in a pantheon, but God in truth.  The primary connection between Home and Earth (or Hell as many Overworld inhabitants call it) has been severed.  The results of which is that many Actors/Aktirs are scattered across the face of Overworld.  In addition, Caine became a blood brother with Orbek, an ogrilli of the Black Knife tribe. 


The controversy surrounding of Orbek’s ‘adoption’ of Caine as a blood brother of the Black Knives is only hinted at in Blade of Tyshalle, here in Caine Black Knife, the controversy is fully revealed.  The Adventure which launched Caine’s (and Hari Michaelson’s) career as an Actor, Retreat from the Boedecken, is finally revealed.  The narrative of this Adventure, again told completely through Hari/Caine’s POV, is told in chapters that alternate with those detailing the “now” of Caine’s trek to find Orbek.  This reliving of Retreat from the Boedecken is terrific in a lot of ways. We see Caine a little rough around the edges, not completely Caine.  Often seeing the origin of a character whose past is shrouded in mystery can take something away from the mystique of the character.  An (arguable) example of this is the popular Marvel Comics character Wolverine and the Origins ( storyline which revealed, confirmed (and some say) further convoluted his past.  This is not the case with Caine’s first big adventure, if anything it makes the legend of Caine even larger and more potent.  The Adventure itself is bloody, violent, and fast-paced; exactly what one has come to expect from a Caine adventure.  In Boedecken Caine is not so sure of himself, and doubts whether he will ever be an actor.  I won’t reveal particulars of the adventure, that’s best left in Stover’s hands, but it works well in and of itself and is a great mirror to Caine’s ‘current’ plight.’ What really brings everything together and perhaps the greatest scene in the book for me was when all inhibitions were shed and Caine was truly born. This scene in question occurs between Caine and perhaps the only character over the course of these three novels who can truly be deemed Evil; Arturo Kollberg. 


Part of what Caine does to occupy his time on Overworld is clean it up; in the sense that too many Actors still remain unaccounted.  This, at least in part, involves finding them and also, essentially, protecting the borders of Home/Overworld from Hell/Earth.  Caine is a character who has acquired many nicknames over the course of his career, his latest are the Hand of God and Lord/Saint Caine because of his relationship to the ascended Ma’elKoth.  This brings me to Ma’elKoth, whose presence is not nearly what it was in the previous two novels.  As the true God of Home/Overworld, Ma’elKoth may not have any real “screen time” but his presence is always felt, and this is all through Caine’s internal dialogue.  Some of Caine’s monologuing is directed squarely at Ma’elKoth, much in the way people tend to talk to God in their own inner conversations.  The difference here is that Caine intimately knows the God to whom he is speaking, which is an interesting concept in its own right.  Caine knows Ma’elKoth hears him and it begs the question of “What if God really did hear us when we spoke to him?”  The point of Caine Black Knife does not seem overtly religious in nature, but it does raise some interesting questions and concepts about the whole God and Man relationship. 


Back to Caine, though, because Stover really leaves the reader no choice in the matter, which is not a complaint by any means.  Because the majority of the novel is told through Caine’s voice and reactions, we as the reader are not given any other option on who to believe or trust.  Caine’s POV is the only one and as such, his voice flows and filters the narrative more smoothly than just about any first person narrator this side of Severian of the Guild.  The difference here is Severian is explicitly an unreliable narrator, Caine seems more reliable.  To paraphrase and sum up the themes of Stover’s work, Caine isn’t trying to sell us anything, he puts his faults and scars on the table for all to view.  His voice is frank, direct, and a terrifically engaging one that comes across as, for lack of a more refined term, a very likeable and endearing asshole. Then again, I can say that because I’ve never been on the opposite end of Caine’s frustrations.


In addition to Caine’s internal dialogue informing the narrative and plot, his dialogue with other characters helps to move the plot along at a brisk pace.  With multi-character dialogue comprising multiple pages, I was again reminded of Roger Zelazny.  From what I recall, vast pages of his Amber novels are primarily dialogue between characters.  Here, both Stover and Zelazny’s dialogue is somewhat terse in that the exchanges between characters is brief as each character takes their turn speaking to the other, but dense in how it conveys the individual scenes of the novel and the over-reaching plot as a whole.  It is a nice trick to pull of when it works so well; but one of those easy looking things you get a sense aren’t that easy to refine.


I realize I haven’t gone into too much depth about the plot of the novel, other than a couple of the major plot points.  To that, I’ll also add that Caine is again recruited by an extremely powerful character to do their bidding; but as is ever the case with Caine, be careful for what you wish.  Especially in the case of would-be gods and rulers. Here’s the blurb from the book, primarily for context:


In Heroes Die and Blade of Tyshalle, Matthew Stover created a new kind of fantasy novel, and a new kind of hero to go with it: Caine, a street thug turned superstar, battling in a future where reality shows take place in another dimension, on a world where magic exists and gods are up close and personal. In that beautiful, savage land, Caine is an assassin without peer, a living legend born from one of the highest-rated reality shows ever made. That season, Caine almost single-handedly defeated–and all but exterminated–the fiercest of all tribes: the Black Knives. But the shocking truth of what really took place during that blood-drenched adventure has never been revealed . . . until now.


Thirty years later, Caine returns to the scene of his greatest triumph–some would say greatest crime–at the request of his adopted brother Orbek, the last of the true Black Knives. But where Caine goes, danger follows, and he soon finds himself back in familiar territory: fighting for his life against impossible odds, with the fate of two worlds hanging in the balance.


Just the way Caine likes it.


The little publishing tricks in the book are nice, too.  At the opening of each chapter that tells of the Boedecken adventure, a little copyright is presented to illustrate that the Adventure is the copyright of the studios. 


Although Caine Black Knife is the first part of sequence within a multivolume sequence, Stover does provide some resolution and adequately brings new readers up to speed without superfluous information and details. Having read both Heroes Die and Blade of Tyshalle immediately prior to Caine Black Knife, I can say the flow of the novel in that last respect, worked very well.  The story and Stover’s prose provide a great many scenes that simply crackle with energy, both potential and kinetic.  He infuses the novel with subtlety in some scenes, and others with out-and-out in-your-face violence and action.  In many ways, Caine Black Knife, might be Stover’s most balanced novel. The air of power and myth brought down to a human level is evident throughout the novel and this dichotomy is perfectly embodied in the character of Caine.  Caine, who walks among mortals, is feared as a demon, revered as a Saint, and scarred like a man. 


Caine Black Knife was the book I was looking forward to reading the most this year, and one of the novels I’ve been most anticipating in a few years.  Those expectations can often outweigh the final experience of reading a book with such pre-existing baggage.  Caine Black Knife surpassed those unwieldy expectations and was one of the most satisfying novels I’ve read in the past few years.  Hell, probably since Blade of Tyshalle.  Well, the only unsatisfying aspect is the anticipation that I now have for the follow-up, His Father’s Fist.  But a common saying in the acting and comedy communities is to always leave them wanting more.  Stover has definitely done that and with Caine Black Knife, he’s written my number one book for 2008. 


© 2008 Rob H. Bedford

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