Friday, March 4, 2016

Blade of Tyshalle by Matthew Stover

Blade of Tyshalle
by Matthew Stover

"How many of you want to be my friend?"
Caine page 505

Blade of Tyshalle is the second book in the Acts of Caine series, if you haven't read the first book “Heroes Die” I would recommend you go read it first because there are going to be spoilers for that book in this review. Okay, let's do this.

Blade of Tyshalle opens with a story from Hari Michealson's days of training to be an actor. We learn that he originally was slated to be a mage, due to his size and slight build, but well... Basically? He brawled his way into the combat school where they focused more on murdering people with your bare hands and what not. Which honestly was a better fit for him anyways. We also learn about what may have been his first friend Kris Hansen. That peek into the past turns out to be important because this book ends up much like Heroes Die being rather philosophical in nature... Interestingly enough, to me anyways, Stover's books are philosophical not in spite of the ultra violence present in the book or the rather stark and pared down outlook of it's protagonists but because of those reasons the story and the characters within it find themselves asking some important questions... Including our main character, despite his constant claims of how that is not in his nature. I find myself constantly comparing this to Baker's (Prince of Nothing) books and while I think Baker's books are maybe deeper and likely better written... I would reread Mr. Stover's books first because frankly... I like the people in Stover's books more, even when they drive to distraction.

If I can be forgiven the reference, the Vorlon and Shadow questions (if you don't know, go watch Babylon 5) make an appearance in this book, although other questions also appear. “What do you want?” makes an overt appearance. You see the climax of Heroes Die had a profound effect on Overworld, kick starting two new religions into gear. The overt and popular one is the church of Mal'elKoth (who trapped on Earth now calls himself Tan'elKoth) which has adopted a lot of trappings that frankly are a bit to familiar to me (an organized church of Bishops answering to a Primarch who is also a temporal ruler?) and a religion that most of it's followers proclaim is more of a philosophy called Cainism. Cainism's questions are simple but can be rather profound. What do you want and what will you do to get it? It's followers openly state that rules do not matter to them, expect when they allow them to matter and that the world is about what you want and what you will and will not do. As you can guess the ruling powers do not care for that at all. It is interesting to note that Cainist are for the most part rather law abiding individuals (not all of them but most) but it's the church of Mal'elKoth who has taken over the rule of the Empire and that church has declared Caine to be the Enemy of God. Which means anyone who declares for Cainism is about as popular as a leper in an orgy.

Meanwhile back on Earth, Hari Michealson despite having almost all his wishes granted (got his wife back, got a cool kid, Dad's out of jail, he's running the studio, can't really walk due to his spine being severed at the climax of the last book) is utterly depressed and miserable. He and Shanna are trying their damnest but their marriage is at best kludging along. He hates the job, he's worked for so long to get. He can't figure out how to sit down and talk to his wife and hammer out the problems in his marriage. I'm going to be honest this one frustrates me the most. Not because I don't think it shouldn't be there but because I just want to reach into the book drag Hari and Shanna by their ears to an escape proof room and not let them out until they stop making vague word noises at each and actually talk to one another. I'm not going to claim to be Mr. Successful Relationships here (No, I'm not discussing my dating record and I don't care if you like it) but one thing I've notice? If you cannot really and honestly talk to your Significant Other about what's bother you? Your relationship is crippled, I don't mean in the still perfectly functional as a person way, I mean in the utterly fucked up this car only has two wheels and the steering wheel is on fire way. I'm basically awkwardly flailing at the statement that you should make the effort to talk and listen (I don't mean yap and wait your turn to yap, I mean really talk and really listen) to your loved one if you want it to work. That said Shanna and Hari are keeping their marriage a going concern by sheer manic determination and an honest desire to make it work. They just suck at it.

The Vorlon question “Who are you?” does not make an overt appearance but it is frankly central to the plot. You see, it's the question each of the characters has to answer along with the questions of the Cainist. The answers of Hari Michealson, Tan'elKoth, Pallas Ril, Hanno the Scythe and others to these questions are the axis on which the plot turns and that plot will determine the ultimate fate of Earth and Overworld. I'll throw in my own statement on these questions here (reviewers privilege folks, you can to toss out commentary even if no one asks you to). All of these questions are interlinked to the point that you cannot answer one without answering the others. They gotta answer these questions fast to because the powers that be of Earth have decided to stop playing around with Overworld. See, they've started slowly and covertly colonizing Overworld but slow and covert is just not hitting the spot. So they're going to make their colonization a necessity. They're going to release the plague that almost ended life on Earth on Overworld. A modified version of rabies that dehydrates it's victim and drives them into homicidal paranoia. It's highly infectious and when enough people have it... Their society literally tears itself apart. Hari and Shanna along with others on Overworld and Earth race to stop this biological doomsday from coming to past while all around them dark but all to human forces conspire to not only stop them but utterly destroy them and everyone they love. Especially their daughter Faith. At the risk of slight spoiler here, while everyone in the story has to answer who they are, what do they want and what will they do to get it... The person's whose answer turns out to be most important isn't Hari, or Pallas Ril but a figure that has been sitting in the background of both this and the last story. I won't say who but I will say I found his answers to be the most... Human.

Another argument that takes place in this book is what does it mean to be human? In a lot of fantasy works the bad guys signal their badness by rejecting their humanity. Declaring themselves above it and better then humanity. In this book the bad guys declare themselves the most human people of all and put themselves forwards as in some ways literal avatar's of humanity. Mr. Stover's talent is on full display here because I can't decide if he agrees with this argument or if it's just something the bad guys are advancing to give them intellectual cover for their sheer disregard of life itself. I am going to state my own firm disagreement that the bad guys represent human nature in it's complete state. Oh I'll grant they represent parts of human nature, the need for control, the disregard of the price other people have to pay for our actions, the selfish unending hunger that flat out doesn't care about anything but sating it's desires. I didn't need Mr. Stover's books to point that part of human nature to me. In the Marines a friend of mine nicknamed that part of us “The Monkey,” it's the part of you that encourages you to take that last cookie even if your buddy hasn't had one yet, to fuck over that other guy at work for the promotion. The Monkey wants. That's what it does and from it comes greed, ambition, desire and a host of goods and ills. But the Monkey is not the whole of human nature, not even close. The willingness to take a hit for another person, to buy food for someone because they're hungry, to give to charity and bleed for a common goal is also a part of who are as much as the damn Monkey and that part is well represented in this book also. Repeatedly we'll see people sacrifice for their loves ones, for people they just met, for people they don't know and won't ever know. Hell we see it in the person of Hari Michealson, who would be the first people to tell us he's no hero and he gives no fuck about saving people he don't know. I would argue it's the clash between our selfless instincts and our selfish instincts that what it means to be human comes out. How we answer the questions after all is as important as what our answers are sometimes.

At this point I've likely made the book sound like some moody meditation on dusty philosophical and boring. Well this book is a lot of things but it isn't boring. We got fights, be it duels between men, between gods or between gods and men. We also got combat on larger scales and dying by the truck load. We even got us a bit of an old fashion war here. Our characters may be struggling to answering bone deep questions of identity and desire but they're testing and refining their answers by breaking bones and shedding blood. We also got plots and intrigue, as wheels within wheels turn to trap and save our characters and the whole plot can twist on a single friendship or conversation. You'll see battle between technology and magic, divine and man, brawn and brain. In short this book is 800 pages but thankfully none of them are wasted and unlike some Stover doesn't just keep repeating himself (you know who you are! YOU KNOW!). I will note for the record one thing that Stover did that offended me, I'm prepared to forgive but I ain't letting it pass without comment. Mr. Stover... Your jumped up secret police wanna be riot cops ain't combat troops and if your upper Caste knuckleheads think they are... Then they got the military sense of peacock on crack and they damn lucky there are no competing societies on Earth. With real combat troops. Who would love to to brawl it out with Soapie.

My outraged sense of dignity for front line troops aside, I really enjoyed Mr. Stover's book even when I was violently disagreeing with it. That's take a lot of talent and work and I think Mr. Stover deserves praise and recognition for that. So because it earned it, I'm giving Blade of Tyshalle an A. Matthew Stover is batting a thousand so far and let's hope it stays that way. Still... Man... That was dark and dense and is the kind of book that sits like a lump turkey in your gut. I'm gonna need something... Lighter next.   

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