I was lent Matthew Stover’s Heroes Die by a friend on the basis that I like a good action scene. There are action scenes aplenty in Heroes Die — they’re not as clever as some, not as epic as others, but they are certainly brutal. Noses are broken graphically, frequently with devastating outcomes for the brains behind them, on an almost continuous basis. Stover was a keen martial artist at the time of writing, and it shows. His descriptions of violence are sometimes a little technical, but he has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about just what happens when you stamp into the side of someone’s knee.
The protagonist of the novel is Caine,
a wandering shaolin monk, a villainous WWE wrestler, a man doomed to kill his brother, an actor-warrior who is transported from our world (in the not-too-distant-future) to a parallel fantasy world to fight for our entertainment. The novel thus has two loci of action: our hyper-capitalist, media-dominated, anti-libertarian world, where Caine has to somehow triumph against the manipulative forces controlling him and the status quo more generally; and a fantasy world where magic works and elves exist and an omnipotent despot needs to be ousted. It all gels together remarkably well.
The prose is…robust. Imagine if Steve Brust weren’t funny and had a penchant for ultra-violence. I found it hard to get into at first, but I was pretty well absorbed by the last third when Stover had to somehow simultaneously wrap up both plot strands. It’s all done with a pretty deft hand, and I was pleased with the neatness of the solution (which I should have seen coming, but didn’t). I liked other aspects of the novel, too. He does some pretty good thematic stuff (the media [broadly] and societal inequality spring to mind), and a couple of his characters actually have a bit of nuance. I particularly liked Ma’elKoth, the evil Emperor, who was surprisingly sympathetic for a genocidal psychopath. My main complaint is that Caine himself is not at all sympathetic (except, perhaps, in his relationship with his father). He is a thoroughly unpleasant character who kills and maims at the slightest provocation. He is a self-righteous alpha-male dick of the highest order.
I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I could really recommend it. It mostly made me wish that I were rereading some Vlad Taltos…