Fantasy Literature: Heroes Die & We Killed the Blonde

Fantasy Literature: Heroes Die & We Killed the Blonde

Heroes Die Matthew Woodring Stover-small

She would never forget the surge that had slammed up her spine when a shout of dismay had risen from the vast ranks of the Horde, and she had looked down to the battlefield to see the huge banner of the Khulan himself burn with smoking yellow flame.

Among Talann’s gifts was extraordinary vision; like an eagle, she could see — even from a mile or more away — the black clothes and fringe of beard on the man who held the burning banner up for a moment longer, then cast it down to the mud-churned earth at his feet. She had watched breathlessly, mesmerized, her duties forgotten, as the Bear Guard closed around him like the jaws of a dragon, and a tear had tracked through the dust of her cheeks for the death of this unknown hero — but an instant later, she saw him again, still alive, still fighting, cutting through the finest warriors of the Khulan Horde as the prow of a warship cuts through waves.

Thus was a hero born on Overworld, a hero born of heroic deeds witnessed first hand, at a pivotal moment — one of the pivotal moments of this not-quite-parallel earth — in the history of Overworld. Talann, a military page in a human-centric military order, watches a battle lost turn to a battle won. Caine, of course, toppled the enemy standard, killed the great enemy leader, single-handedly saving Ankhana, a human-centric polity, from “the infinite savage warriors of the Khulan Horde.” Ogres, as it happens. Like in the tales of old, they eat humans.

Does it matter that Caine acted heroically — but himself is no hero? He’s actor Hari Michaelson (see previous Fantasy Literature blogs on Heroes Die), placed into dramatic action by studio boss Kollberg. However one makes the angels dance on the head of the pin, Talann imprints her life on Caine’s image. Ten years later, she’s in an Ankhanan dungeon, lost in fever dreams, shackled naked in her own filth. And who should arrive to rescue her?

Talann’s heart stopped, and her vision swam.

He wore the loose robe of a trusty instead of his customary black leathers, and his face was caked with soot, but the fringe of beard and the slight angle of the broken nose were exactly as she had seen them in ten years of dreams. And she knew that this was a dream, that this could only be a fantasy, that she’d finally lost her senses.

But if this had been a dream, he would have gathered her into his arms; he would have whispered her name as the shackles fell away. Instead, as the light grew in Talann’s tiny cell, Caine looked like he’d been clubbed.

He stared at her with shock and loathing, and some kind of stunned disappointment. Then he shook his head and covered his eyes with his hand, resting his forehead against the webbing between thumb and forefinger.

“You’re Talann,” he murmured hoarsely. “Of course. It would have been too easy.

Blade of Tyshalle, sequel to Heroes Die
Blade of Tyshalle (The Acts of Caine, Book 2)

Caine expects, at least hopes, to find Pallas Ril. He rescues Talann and the traitor Lamorak instead, leaving more than two dozen dead guards in his wake. Talann returns to Pallas Ril and continues to serve her as warrior extra-ordinaire. When Simon Jester — AKA Pallas Ril, AKA the actor Shanna Leighton — is cornered on a river barge by Emperor Ma’elKoth’s chief bully-boy Count Berne and Berne’s elite fighting force the Grey Cats (don’t all baddies need their own elite fighting force?), Talann asks what Pallas needs. Specifically, she asks “What would Caine do, if he were here now?”

Pallas Ril needs time. Time to escape. Time free of Count Berne, busy on an overlooking bridge directing firebolts of godlike power from the Emperor Ma’elKoth at the barge stocked full of refugees under Pallas’s protection.

Talann, more skilled than Caine himself in combat, dashes off to confront Count Berne, to buy Pallas Ril time to escape, to die. It is the hero’s move.

It became a dance, a whirling ballet, and sweat began to prickle across Berne’s forehead and shoulders. She’d lean back to let Kosall sizzle past the end of her nose, then whip forward, both knives slashing, to score another thin line of blood across Berne’s body before he could recover for the backstrike. She was the most extraordinary fighter he’d ever seen, let alone faced, but skill is only one element of battle. Her skill wouldn’t save her forever — the internal injury that brought a trail of blood down her chin to her chest would tire her, and slow her. Berne had no doubt of the outcome.

It ended with unexpected swiftness. Practically in midlunge Berne saw her concentration slip, saw her mouth drop open and her eyes go wide. He leaned into the lunge, and sweet release flooded his body as Kosall’s thrumming blade entered her belly through the golden skin just below her navel, thrusting in to the very hilt.

She said, “Oh, Great Mother . . .”

“We killed the blonde,” says the title of this Fantasy Literature blog, but how? Didn’t we just read that Count Berne killed the blonde — the young, powerfully attractive and purple-eyed blonde — with the magic sword Kosall, a light-saber in all but retractability? But the blonde fought Count Berne because she’s a hero. And she shaped her life to match a heroic image, that of Caine saving the human empire of Ankhana. But, alas, Caine is not a hero — he just looks like one to the humans of Overworld. By portraying a false heroic image, Caine killed Talann.

Yet can we blame Caine? For he entertains the people of earth: first and foremost, the rich and powerful of earth, and beyond that the masses of earth, plugged into an entertainment industry built on violence. We can definitely blame this audience, for without them the Studio could not exploit Overworld.

Caine Black Knife (The Acts of Caine, Book 3)
Caine Black Knife (The Acts of Caine, Book 3)

Yes, then, this dystopian earth’s audience must suffer our blame. Except…

Well, really, it is still us at fault. Last time I mentioned Scott McCloud & his lovely work Understanding Comics to illustrate the difference between reading something and hearing something, an apparently trivial difference, except in that gap exists a whole world of expression. A gap we nevertheless perceive and integrate into our understanding of art. I extend that understanding of visual art (McCloud’s “invisible art”) to prose fiction.

For Stover, that world of expression includes, in his words from a March 2001 interview with Gabriel Choinard, Caine’s fictional violence and our perception of it. As Stover says,

Violence — whether fantasy, as in books or movies or campfire tales; controlled and ritualized, as in boxing or football; or flat-out ugly, as in gang fights and border skirmishes and ethnic cleansings and all-out wars and the occasional bombing raid on Iraq — has always been one of the two primary entertainments of humankind… the other being sex. In our current culture, violence is ubiquitous, from cartoon shows to the evening news. Why? Simple: because it’s the kind of fun you just can’t get anywhere else.

This is a plain statement, a simple response to a question about the amount of violence in Heroes Die. Keeping the intentional fallacy in mind (“Getcher Wikipedia here! Five dollar donation to Wikipedia, support the source!”), I still appreciate Caine’s take on the role of violence in the entertainment he provides:

NOW THAT IT’S too late, now that I lie here dying on this bloodstained sand, I finally get it.

I understand, now.

I understand. I know what he meant. My father told me that to know the enemy is half the battle. I know you, now. That’s right.

It’s you.

All of you who sit in comfort and watch me die, who see the twitch of my bowels through my own eyes: You are my enemy.
Corpses lie scattered around me, gleanings left in a wheat field by a careless reaper. Berne’s body cools beneath the bend of my back, and I can’t feel him anymore. The sky darkens over my head—but no, I think that’s my eyes; Pallas’ light seems to have faded.

Every drop of the blood that soaks into this sand stains my hands and the hands of the monsters that put me here.

That’s you, again.

It’s your money that supports me, and everyone like me; it’s your lust that we serve.

You could thumb your emergency cutoff, turn your eyes from the screen, walk out of the theater, close the book…

But you don’t.

You are my accomplice, and my destroyer.

My nemesis.

Caine's Law (The Acts of Caine, Book 4)
Caine’s Law (The Acts of Caine, Book 4)

For this is Stover’s masterstroke. With it he stabs at his reader, shouting “get real!” at the top of his lungs — so to speak, through Heroes Die and all the pages of unrepentant gore. We bleed from this wound, not Caine’s ficitonal dystopian earthly audience. We killed the blonde, sure as sunrise, certain as taxes, true as death.

While Stover takes pains to avoid indicting his fellow Fantasy authors for shirking, allowing generously that Robert Jordan “is very good at what he does… created a huge readership out there,” he does celebrate the literariness of the New Wave.

That’s what the New Wave did for SF: injected real literary quality — a concern with character, relevance and plain old-fashioned good writing — that helped rescue SF from the scrap heap of spacecraft, robots and ray-guns.

The same thing is starting to happen in fantasy: people like Greg Keyes and China Miéville — and me — are trying to push the envelope, moving away from the standard models, into darker, grittier, more complex constructions, where issues are blurred in as many shades of gray as real life, where even magic is treated as a branch of physics.

Is there, as Stover goes on to suggest, a “Next Wave?” Have we seen such in the 15 years since this interview? Good question. Must all such implicate the reader so directly, one way or another, with social, aesthetic, and/or artistic critique?

Yeah, pretty much. Of course, fiction that doesn’t implicate us still implicates us — by the absence of implication. Think on that one, in the dark, as you fall asleep. But enjoy Heroes Die. Maybe read it again. Read it carefully so you see Stover Caine you right between the eyes.

Edward Carmien is a writer and scholar firmly in the orbit of the fantastic. He’s spent some of his recreational time learning skills useful in the fantasy milieu: he can ride a horse (poorly), shoot a bow (badly), hike long distances in the wilderness (pretty well), do others injury with the art of the empty hand (nowadays, who knows, he’s got five decades now…), operate small watercraft, and so on. Tabletop wargaming, gaming, computer gaming, CCG gaming, and cooking are some of his other pursuits.

A member of the SFWA and the SFRA, he writes (not enough), teaches (full time), parents, and husbands in and about Princeton, NJ. Check out his many crimes and misdemeanors in the fantasy field at

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