Trade Paperback, April 2012
A preamble, if you will. Matthew Stover is one of my three or five favorite speculative fiction writers. Trying to write this review, I admit now, I felt intimidated and not sure if my abilities are up to the task of doing right by what Stover did in this novel, with the Acts of Caine, and up to the task of not completely gushing with fanboy joy at hearing Caine’s voice once again. Here goes…
Matthew Stover has carved out a solid niche for himself at the intersection of Fantasy and Science Fiction genres with his Acts of Caine sequence. The first book, Heroes Die was published in 1997 and introduced readers to Hari Michaelson the actor who portrays Caine, the most popular adventurer in Overworld, a fantasyland Earth discovered and exploits as the ultimate reality television experience. In Heroes Die, Caine is on what is thought to be his last adventure to save his girlfriend from a sorcerer (Ma’elKoth, probably my favorite hero antagonist) who has ascended to godhood. Heroes Die easily stands on its own, although thankfully, for readers like myself, Caine’s voice kept haranguing Stover to continue telling stories about him. The sequel novel, Blade of Tyshalle was at least as good as Heroes Die (some would say better, I might even say that sometimes) and is the story of both the fallout of Heroes Die and Earth’s continued exploitive efforts on Overworld. A few Star Wars novels later, Stover again picked up the story of Caine in Caine Black Knife (billed with the sub-title Act of Atonement, Book I) which was a dual narrative with one thread having followed the ‘modern’ day Caine while the other followed Caine on the adventure that made him a star, “Retreat from the Boedecken.”
This all brings us to Caine’s Law, the second Act of Atonement. Like the previous novels in the sequence, the narrative structure of Caine’s Law isn’t exactly straightforward. Stover employs first person narrative, third person omniscient, as well as narrative from the point of view of multiple characters. Originally titled His Father’s Fist, this fourth novel in Stover’s Acts of Caine sequence focuses a great deal on Hari Michaelson’s father, Duncan Michaelson. Not that Hari Michaelson and his alter-ego Caine (who are very much one and the same now) don’t play the part of protagonist, but Duncan is one character just to the left of Caine at the center of the story. In fact, Duncan is the element of the novel that drives nearly all of the action but he is much more than a simple MacGuffin. The other character, you might say to the right of Caine’s center, is a woman known only as the horse-witch, a woman of none-too-many words whose often peaceful and calm manner are very much the opposite of Caine’s violent and volatile character.
By focusing much of the story through Duncan’s eyes, Stover provides readers with a very different perspective on the man readers of Stover’s fiction think they’ve come to know over the course of the three previous novels. Also, we get to learn more about Duncan Michaelson: the man who beat Hari’s mother to death and gave Hari many beatings, the man who authored some of the authoritative anthropological texts of Overworld, the man who shaped Hari and the man who is very much responsible for Caine. What’s always been most interesting about Duncan and Hari’s relationship is how Hari, despite all of the bad things Duncan’s done to him and his mother, is still able to respect and even look up to his father. Ultimately, like Luke Skywalker, Hari wants to save and redeem his father. Of course Stover knows a little bit about writing about those pesky Skywalkers having authored the novelization of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, plus three other Star Wars novels.
The not-so-straightforward narrative not only changes POV character and voice, but time / history as we see a young Duncan Michaelson before he’s married and a father, a young Hari Michaelson while he’s a boy in the hospital where his mother dies, and an older grizzled Caine, among other character time-points. One of, if not the central question, of the narrative is whether or not one would change a past event filled with regret, given the opportunity. A simple question, on the surface, but of course the implications of such a question are more interesting than the question itself. To summarize the plot any more would be an injustice to the multiple branches of the narrative Stover leads the reader, but suffice it to say Caine’s Law is a novel about heroes and gods, past and present, power and manipulation. It’s about saying fuck you to the people trying to hold you down, control you and mess with your family; it’s about love and honor; and sometimes about being the right guy even if that means not being the good guy all the time. Simple enough, right? Didn’t think so.
As I was reading the novel, I could not get out of my head the resonance of the overall theme and feeling I felt between Caine’s Law and the great ”Last Superman Story” Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow by Alan Moore. The same sense of nostalgia, past coming forward to effect the present, and almost bittersweet melancholia pervaded the story for me. By many, Alan Moore is considered the greatest storyteller in the history of comic books and his “Last Superman Story” is considered a defining moment for the character and quite possibly the template by which any hero should get their sendoff from being a hero. Put another way, it’s a comic book story I have to revisit very regularly because to me, it’s just that damned good. With Caine’s Law, Stover has achieved very much a similar effect with Caine’s story and supposed send off in this novel. I only say supposed because The Acts of Caine was never intended to be a series and two of the books in the series were, according to Stover himself, written as the last story for Caine.
Stover is one of my favorite Speculative Fiction writers and has been since I finished off Blade of Tyshalle, so going into this novel my expectations were quite high indeed. Often with writers whose work I enjoy as much as I enjoy Stover’s work, I devour the new novel quickly. This wasn’t the case with Caine’s Law, there was so much depth to slowly absorb and grist for my mental mill that I wanted to digest the ideas he was putting to the page, the consequences and connections between Caine’s Law and the previous novels. I believe this more drawn out and deliberate reading of the novel made for a much richer experience for me. For other readers, I can’t say. Of course a few years from now I’ll want to read through the four books in sequence because I really think Stover has done some amazingly complex things with these novels. The thematic dichotomies of the violence and thought inspiring narrative always proved to be strong elements in Stover’s novels and this was no different here in Caine’s Law.
Now comes the part I hate, when I have to say this wasn’t the perfect novel. While I realize Matthew Stover was taking Caine on a spiritual journey of character growth and reflection in the scenes with the horse witch, and some of those scenes were quite powerful (I did enjoy much of the dialogue between Caine and the Horse Witch), I also felt some of those scenes were the least consistently paced in the novel.
So where does this place Caine’s Law for me? I liked the book a lot, I really enjoyed the narrative games Stover was playing here and that element was as strong in Caine’s Law as it was in Blade of Tyshalle. Part of what was so great was seeing all the different versions of Caine Stover gave us and while each one was from a different timeline, the trademarks of his biting and uncompromising personality were on full display. It was also great to have another chance to treat with Ma’elKoth, Orbek and some of the other characters of Caine’s past novels. The bits about the ancient gods of Overworld and how history and the gods themselves may have obscured what had become the accepted truths of faith were rich and thought-provoking as well.
I loved the novel and think it a fitting send off for Caine. Easily one of my favorite novels of 2012.
© 2012 Rob H. Bedford