Matthew Woodring Stover
I was aware of Heroes Die for years but was never really tempted to pick up the book. Honestly the blurb didn't really tempt me, it just looked like ultra violence for the sake of ultra violence in paperback form. Well, a trusted friend (the one who suggested Prince of Nothing to me) said I should give it another look... So.. I did. I'm actually glad I did, let's get started. Heroes Die was published in 1998, making it almost old enough to graduate high school! It was third novel of Stover's published, the first two (Iron Dawn and Jericho Moon) were set in the bronze age covering a trio of mercenaries doing mercenary things from what I understand. Mr. Stover himself is a fairly eclectic person, born in 1962 and having worked a wide range of professions from stage actor, waiter, short order cook, telemarketer (no wonder he has a good grasp on the dark side of human nature) and more. He's also studied a board number of martial arts which shows through in his books. Stover is also a pretty big sci-fi and fantasy fan with references to Heinlein, Moorcock and others hidden quietly and not so quietly in this book.
Let's talk about this book, there are two settings both are kind of grim but the setting on Earth is a grim dystopian nightmare labeled “everything you hate.” Earth society has been homogenized and united under a single government of the corporation, by the corporation and for the corporation. Society has been converted into a Caste system, where your job defines who you are, where you live and what you are allowed to do. Hell more then that, what you can wear in public, what you can say, who you can touch, all dictated by your Caste. For example if I was a member of the laborer caste, I wouldn't be allowed to do these book reviews because that's academic work and thus forbidden to me. This is backed up by a high tech security state with surveillance, rewards for snitches and an intruding level of government control you thought you would never see outside of the wet dreams of people like Hitler and Stalin. The top 1% of the Leisure caste lives lives of ease and comfort surrounded by wealth and privilege. The growing majority of people in the Labor Caste live in slums. Now you can get yourself into a higher Caste, but you're going to ass kiss and bribe your way into it. Which means it's pretty much impossible for people at the bottom. Cocaine is legal, only if you're in the upper caste though meaning our our main character uses it bribe lower caste people quite often (this is actually pretty standard behavior). Jail is something you bribe your way into, otherwise your punishment is likely to be converted into a worker. A lobotomized cyborg who follows orders doing work to dangerous or dirty even for Laborers until you die. This system is maintained by outlawing the knowledge of alternatives, books by Jefferson, Smith, Voltaire, Locke and even fictional works by men like Heinlein are outlawed (I almost feel like Stover asked “Would frigid like this book? Banned it is!). Even quoting someone like Kennedy can get you in deep shit. The other thing keeping a lid on this system is the carefully nurtured and cared for obsession the population has with Actors.
Actors are men and women from all walks of life who volunteer for a dangerous job. If you are an Actor you will be trained, you will be conditioned, you will be modified and sent to another world. A world known as Overworld. Overworld exists in another universe with physical laws that match the basic fantasy universes we all know and love. There are a number of humanoid races, Trolls, Ogres, Elves, Dwarves that kind of thing (although Stover adds a twist in that those names are are human slurs for the races in question), there are gods that gift some of their more devoted followers with amazing powers and of course there's magic power that people can use to throw around lighting and fireballs and animate dead bodies to do their will. Overworld is a wild, dirty, dangerous place, even the cities are full of people and creatures that will kill you for standing in the wrong place and then sell your dead body to a wizard to zombify for cheap labor. Frankly I would rather live on Overworld the rest of my life then spend more then 10 minutes in Stovers earth where I would have to live in terror of the nearly omnipresent security state deciding to punish me for knowing to much or saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. Anyways, Actors are trained to survive and blend into the populations of Overworld and go on grand, bloody violent adventurers. As dictated by the studios and their own abilities, they play the role of heroes or villains, assassins or paladins. Saving lives, or ending them. Building up nations or tearing them down... For the entertainment of the masses on Earth. It is not without risk to the Actor however, they can be hurt, crippled or even killed. Despite the fact that the studio can save the Actor, if it will increase the sales of their adventures... The Studio will let them die. The implants in their heads not only record all of their actions, but their emotions and to a degree their thoughts as well. Hell you can not only watch your favorite actor battle platoons of Trolls to the death but if you're rich enough, you pay for a VR rig that will let you experience it as if you were the Actor yourself! The adventurers of the Actors have become the main form of entertainment on Earth, the circus that the shadowy rulers of Earth use to keep the populace sedated. The people of Overworld are unaware that their lives are being used in this fashion but they are aware that Actors exist and consider them a form of demon. They also consider Earth to be a kind of hell. Frankly... I don't think they're completely wrong to feel so.
Hither comes the greatest of the Actors, Hiri Michealson, known throughout both worlds as Caine. Caine is warrior that in a world of arch wizards and blade masters prefers the use of his bare hands in killing and in comparison everyone else is unarmed. He has killed kings, wizards, warlords, gang leaders, warriors and soldiers of every race and type. Hiri Michealson is an Actor from the worse Labor Slums on Earth. Having clawed his way up from the bottom using nothing but his hands and his willingness to kill and maim. He is wealthy, famous and adored by the public. He is a miserable slave. He is a slave to the studio, who dictates his goals and his behavior on Earth and Overworld. He is a slave to his past and everything he has had to do to get here. He is a slave to his patron Vilo, a member of the Businessman Caste, who can order his private life to the point of dictating his martial status. He is a slave to his own mind, that repeatedly tells him he has no choice in who and what he can be. All of this makes him a living indictment of the culture that birthed him. It wasn't enough to strip away any chance of advancement other then through murder. It wasn't enough to reduce him to privileged property. No, he had to be reduced to a state of self induced helplessness, where he believes he can't be anything else!
rankly however that's not what makes him miserable. What makes him miserable that he's a divorced man. His wife a fellow Actor (the book doesn't use the word Actress) left him. Shanna, or Pallas Ril is also an Actor. Shanna is more heroic in mold then Hiri is, working constantly as a hero to help and save people. She also left him because in the end she couldn't accept what he was or why. I don't say that to condemn her, how many of us would be comfortable sleeping with a hitman after all? The problem of course being that Hiri is still in love with her. Which gives the studio a pretty good lever to use on him. Due to a strange magical effect, Shanna has been cut off from the studio. She's not transmitting so no one knows where she is. Additionally they can't bring her back. If they don't find her before a certain amount of time passes, she'll die. That's something Hiri would give anything to prevent and his handlers know that. So the deal is simple. We'll let you save your wife, as long as you kill someone for us. As long as Caine kills the new Emperor and Demigod Ma'elKoth.
Ma'elKoth is the primary antagonists in this book, and you know I should be able to call him a villain. He traffics with powers best left alone. He murders and tortures his political enemies using the fear of Actors for a phony witch hunt. He puts himself as a god! Pushing people to worship him! I'll admit that one sticks in my American Christian craw. More then it should really given that he's living in a fantasy universe where someone powerful enough might just be able to boost himself to godhood. I think on a personal level Ma'elKoth is a rather horrid person in a lot of ways but... While being willing to sacrifice his followers, he clearly cares about them. Even going so far as to care for the families of his fallen followers. His intentions are in a way noble, he desires to put an end to human infighting to ensure that humanity survives and thrives on Overworld, given that it's surrounded by competitor species, many of whom are rather dangerous and savage... He's not wrong to think that unity might be the best way forward. Frankly he's not wrong in suggesting that he's the best person to bring about this unity, because I don't see anyone else even trying. Ma'elKoth while not an Actor does have some experience with Earth and he does point out that... Actors have caused wars, brought chaos, torn countries and wiped out cities. They have murdered, raped and maimed. For what? Money? Power? Ideology? No. They do it to entertain people. That's... well.. It's fucked up. Compared to the Earth government, at least Ma'elKoth wants to lead his people into a better and brighter future where even the least of them will benefit. He might be a son of a bitch, but at least he in theory stands for something beyond his own power and pleasure. That said he has shit hiring practices as shown by his selection of Berne.
Berne! I hate this sick twisted asshole with all my heart. I don't love to hate him, like I do some villains. I just hate him. He's an utter depraved sociopath that is frankly a hollow mockery of a human being. Berne in a lot of ways I think is in this story to reinforce Hiri's humanity. Yeah, Caine is basically an assassin and in some ways a thug, but he tries not to hurt anyone he doesn't really have to. In some cases he even dials down the damage and pain to do so, putting himself in danger. Berne? Revels in doing the most pain and damage he can do. It's not enough to kill you if he can torture you, it's not enough to torture you if he can rape you. It's not enough to do just one of those if he can do a combination of them. He serves as Ma'elKoth's chief enforcer and priest, leading both the cult and the secret police force known as the Cats. I spend the entire book hoping beyond hope for his sudden and violent murder. Preferably at the hands of Caine. Interestingly enough that's what Hiri is hoping for to! As Berne and Caine have a long, blood soaked, bitter history the kind that only two men who have no fucks about violence can have. I'll take Caine anyday of the week through. He might be a violent assassin, but I know he won't kill me because we ran out of soap or he's feeling twitchy. I can also count on Caine not to sexually assault people for shits and giggles or run off to violently beat people because he's had a bad day. Sometimes it's the little things that make you prefer one person over another.
Hiri Michealson has to fight his own studio, he has to fight Ma'elKoth police forces and soldiers. He has to come face to face with a Demigod and figure out how to outwit and out fight a man who can go toe to toe with gods. He has to fight Berne. He has to fight the relationship issues between him and Shanna. Excluding the issues with his wife, all of these fights are violent in a lot of ways. There is enough violent and murder in this book to make a 1980's action star queasy and start to consider pacifism. Part of that is because the book does not shy away from the consequences and implications of that violent. It's not clean, it's not boxed away, it's everywhere and splashing into all aspects of Hiri's life whether he likes it or not. That's a real and raw treatment on the matter of violence that a lot of books and movies lack. But again not the real fight in this book. The real fight in this book is Michealson against himself. Because until he realizes that the limits that he imposes on himself are not real, that the chains he wrapped around himself can be removed... He can't possibly hope to defeat the legion of external enemies around him. He can't hope to save the one thing that matters to him, the life and happiness of his wife. This book is savage which I expected. It's also thoughtful in some ways which I didn't expect. Don't get me wrong this isn't some deep philosophical work on the meaning of life but it does examine the issues of violence and their effects on people and how often our biggest enemies are the ones inside our own heads. I find myself shockingly giving Heroes Die by Matthew Woodring Stover an A. If you can stand going to some dark places and getting some grit in your teeth? Read this book. You'll be surprised how glad you are that you did.