Caine Black Knife
“Faith is adopted”
The river of bells flash-froze in midair
Caine Black Knife takes place some years after Blade of Tyshalle which was reviewed earlier in this series (go check out the archive!). Caine is now in his 50's and older than he ever thought he would be, unfortunately for him, no one wants to leave an old man alone. Let me go over the premise for those of you who missed or don't remember the reviews of the last two books. There are two worlds, one of them is Earth: a future Earth that thanks to weaponized super rabies descended into a nightmarish hell of a caste system enforced at gunpoint by a totalitarian government of for and by the super elite 1%. The other is Overworld: a fantasy world with a variety of non-human sapient creatures and native born humans all rubbing elbows, knives and every now and again more intimate parts. There's a native population of humans on Overworld due to the elves (or primals as they prefer) kidnapping or bribing humans to come to their world and serve them. So honestly the elves have only themselves to blame for this whole mess of a planet. Anyways they were able to do this because our worlds are intrinsically linked due to magic... or Quantum Physics. Let's be honest, in fiction Quantum Physics is a way of saying magic. Later on the people of Earth were able to figure out how to reopen that link with technology and they started sending actors. Actors are people who pretend to be adventurers and heroes... by doing real adventures and heroics so that the people back home can experience the thrill thanks to really well done VR tech and the ability to beam everything the actors are experiencing in real time to a computer. The people of Overworld are not fans, because the studios of Earth keep stirring up wars and worse to give their actors places to get into adventures and perform heroics. In th last book Caine and his friends slammed the door between worlds shut.
Years later Caine finds himself being pulled by prophetic dreams being shoved into his uneasily sleeping head by God (who has a hell of a backstory with Caine in this story, if you want to know more read Heroes Die and Blade of Tyshalle). He heads to the last place on Overworld he wants to go in order to rescue Orbek, the Black Knife Ogrillo that had adopted him into the clan in Blade of Tyshalle. That place being the place where he became a superstar and a legend. The place where he found out just how bad of a man he could be. The Boedecken, where over 35 years ago he waged a war of genocidal proportions on the Black Knife Ogrillo Clan. Not because they were trying to kill him, not even because of what else they did to him, but if we're going to get down to it for two reasons; he did that because of what they made him watch and what they made him learn. The Boedecken is the scene of Caine's first great massive triumph that turned him from a 3rd rate Actor Adventurer to a mega star known throughout two planets. In the present it's the domain of the church of Khryl, granted to them at the end of the wars that created the most powerful empire on the planet. It's a human dominated theocracy ruled by warriors that can heal themselves (and sometimes others) of almost any injury, are blessed to be nearly unstoppable killing machines, and they can sense the truth. In short, they are paladins. They preach a lot about honor and justice. They also keep a massive Ogrillo under class in their human dominated state and only lets them advance socially and economically if they accept castration (and you thought your boss was demanding?).
It took me a couple chapters to figure out what bothered me about the Khryllians. It's not just their racism and hypocrisy. Nor is it my 21st century American uneasiness with militant theocracies (we just haven't had a lot of luck with those). It's the unending turning of everything into a conflict, armed or unarmed, to the point of fetishising being at war itself. See, I'm not exactly what you call a pacifist and respect or even admiration for the military doesn't exactly give me the vapors. But here's the thing, war? Battle? Conflict? Those are all a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves. It may be paradoxical but the whole point of war is to create a peace that's better for you and yours. Otherwise you're just a glorified pack of bandits. Now I grant I enjoy a war game as much as the next guy but you know... Those are games, no one gets hurt. When I bomb a city in Civilization or besiege a fortress in Total War? No one except my social life gets hurt. I'm not going to deny that yes there is a certain grandeur to war and the armies that fight them. Being in a war is one of the most enduring memories I have. That said a war is nothing to celebrate in and of itself. It's a hard, demanding job we have to do to get what is hopefully a better, more just peace that will prevent further wars. Or at the very least create safety for the people we love and care about. The Khryllians have taken this state and used it to create a society designed to build and maintain a war machine led by divinely empowered super soldiers and do fuck all with it except bully some Ogrillos. Which makes it a fucking waste at best. Moving on...
Caine, as one might expect is grumpy and honestly comes off as a bit tired. In the last two books he was playing for the lives and freedom of people he loved and cared for way more than he does himself. So he might have come off as a tad unreasonable if I may attempt British understatement here. He's also a touch bitter about how his life has gone but he doesn't moan about it a lot. It pops out in odd moments when something reminds him of his wife (it's interesting that he's decided that she hated him, I didn't get that from the last book but then that marriage was a resounding testament to the poor communication skills of the people involved) or of past decisions. In this book is he constantly trying to be reasonable and adult and no one will let him. It's actually kinda funny in a dark amusing way. On the one hand Caine appears to have grown a little bit as a person, on the other hand no one else believes this. Caine keeps trying to just cut a deal with people to let him take his little brother home and be out of this crap and everyone refuses to believe that it could ever be that simple. Worse, they all keep demanding that he perform a little job for them first. Honestly it leaves me wondering if there's a some sort of learning disability that's become common in the future or maybe something in the water in Overworld? Because it seems to me that if one the most legendary killers, who you know has a talent for causing massive chaos and wrecking everything even when he's not trying to, is someone you might want to bribe to stay away from your really tense, intricate situation with the plan that has to go juuuusssttt right.
Because of this Caine finds himself between the Church of Khryl, a group of freedom activist trying to gain full civil rights for non humans, and the Smoke Hunt; a terrorist group of Ogrillos who randomly show up and start killing people until they're put down. As is usual, Caine is basically alone in this. No one likes him and all he wants is to get the people he cares about out of the line of fire. Intertwined in this story are flashbacks to the last time he was here, the adventure I mentioned earlier. That part of the story is damn brutal and dark and ensures this is a novel you want to keep in the hands of adults. We have people being eaten alive, tortured, murdered, raped and more. We see what kick started Caine's rise to the top and we see some of the really nasty things he's done to gain him his rep. One of those thing is basically wiping out the Black Knife Clan, which frankly... I find it hard to condemn him for. I think I'm supposed to see the Black Knives as an analogue for native Americans and other groups who had their lands taken by invaders and reduced to 2nd or 3rd class citizenship but... look asking me to feel bad that Caine destroyed a group of people whose reaction to finding a bunch of strangers nearby was “Hey, let's kill, torture, main and eat them and if they're really lucky we'll wait til they're dead to start snacking on them!” is a fool’s errand. The Black Knives terrorized their fellow Ogrillos as well as other species. They were reavers and threw themselves into the joys of murder, torture, and worse. Frankly the world--any world--is simply better off without societies like that and I find it hard to really muster up any moral outrage towards Caine for those actions. Other actions in this book, sure, but Caine does a good enough job punishing himself for them anyways.
Let's be honest, up until now Caine hasn't been the worst fantasy protagonist I've ever read. He's head and shoulders above people like Malus Darkblade for example and vastly preferable to the protagonists of No Game No Life. Yes, he's been violent and brutal but it's not like his birth society or his adopted society gave him any choice. Every time Caine gets extremely violent and starts tearing everything down, he gets rewarded. Every time he tries to not be a in his own words “a bloodthirsty thug” everyone lines up to kick him in the face. At no time has Caine really been given an option other than being a super violent killer, or be a dying broken man. If nothing else I think this book series encourages us to consider that if a lot of our successful people display certain character traits and behaviors, we should consider if maybe, just maybe, it's because our society is rewarding those traits and behaviors and we should think about what that says. That said, Caine does some screwed up stuff in the flashback scenes. Just what actions were screwed up however is a matter of opinion. If you have a book club with a strong stomach, having them read this and discuss just where and when Caine crossed the line would in and of itself tell you a lot about what people consider important.
As you might guess, I admire Mr. Stover for giving us a dark, violent book that actually has a lot of thought in it. There's also a fair bit of anthropology in here as well which always gets approval from me. There is one thing that frustrates me however and that is that this book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. I really hate it when a book does that. It's not as bad as it could be considering that Mr. Stover makes sure to tell us at least one complete story in this novel but I'm still left hanging. So I do have to apply my penalty here. Which means I give Caine Black Knife by Matthew Stover a -A. If you got a strongish stomach and are interested looking at social and personal conflict this is a book you might just enjoy. I would recommend however reading the last 2 books, or at least the last book to really get a grip on what's going on as there's a lot going on in the background you can't grasp unless you've read them.
Next week? We go darker with the Great Ordeal. Brace yourselves!
This Review Edited by Dr. Ben Allen