Matthew Stover’s sequel to Heroes Die (which we discussed last week) begins not in media res but in deep prologue, establishing a new perspective character who meets and becomes friend to a 19-year old Hari Michaelson. Hari, sponsored by the “gangster” businessman Marc Vilo into the Studio Conservatory, the institution that trains actors to “risk their lives in interesting ways” on Overworld, nearly flunks out of battlemage school.
Vilo won’t have that; the Conservatory administrator forces a top student to mentor Hari, and after some kilometers of narrative the top student and Hari both get what they want. Several stock school bully characters end up in the hospital — but that’s an occupational hazard of getting in Hari Michaelson’s way.
Hari has it all, but of course he’s miserable, some seven years after victory over his foes in Heroes Die. Former Studio boss Kollberg works as a temp laborer; Ma’elkoth (“Limitless”) is now Tan’elkoth (“I was Limitless”) and works for the Studio. He calls Hari “Caine” and Hari himself runs the San Francisco Studio — badly, as one might expect of a man with limited executive experience.
Two significant sections in to Blade of Tyshalle and as Kollberg once complained after sending Caine to Overworld, nobody has even been killed yet.
Better, perhaps, to skip to the arresting scene in which a frazzled, semi-disabled Studio boss Hari Michaelson views a feed from one of his actors, Rossi. Rossi, part of a soap-opera like entertainment project, works as a sort of private investigator on Overworld. He’s been captured and knocked out.
Hari views what Rossi sees when the actor wakes up:
Rossi’s POV rolled smoothly through the shambles, as though he were mounted on wheels and someone pushed him from behind. The bodies lay strewn haphazardly in the clear areas, some fresh as beef in a slaughterhouse, some blackened with decay, bellies swollen to bursting with internal gases. Rossi’s involuntary retching echoed in the booth.
Hari’s mouth compressed into a grim line, and he reflected that being confined to a desk job had its advantages: Caine had been in places like that more than once, and he had a vivid memory of how they smell.
The belly of one of the corpses burst with a sound like a wet, sloppy fart. Rossi’s POV panned right and left, showing the extent of the carnage — bodies everywhere, some hacked to pieces, most just dead — and then dollied forward once again.
It was that motion, that familiar net-feature swing of POV, that gave it away. Hari’s fingers began to tingle. With one startling intuitive leap, he understood exactly what was happening. Whoever had Rossi was using him like a video camera.
This was bad; for Rossi, this was about as bad as it could get.
They know he’s an Actor.
In Heroes Die the reader is treated to the mental acrobatics of understanding the usual narrative conveniences of first-person narration were in fact technological aspects of a roving third-person limited-ominiscient narration. Here this same technology now serves as a means of communicating between Overworld and earth. Someone uses Rossi as one would use a camera. Adding to the fun, the language translator can’t make heads or tails of what Rossi is hearing.
Hari looks at Rossi’s vital signs and realizes Rossi understands what’s being said perfectly well, orders the translation program be turned off, and the message becomes clear. Through malice or accident a disease that helped bring about earth’s dystopian big-brother-that-sits-on-your-face-and-steals-your-stuff government now ravages part of Overworld.
The third introductory part which introduces the Caine-Slayer (guy named Raith), the Studio’s mining operation on Overworld, and in general the strong relationship between earth/British Empire and Overworld/India as a model for how to picture another way earth is colonizing Overworld, tells the reader everything one needs to know about this interesting development. That’s too bad. Blade of Tyshalle is a long, complex novel, much longer and a bit more complex than Heroes Die. The reader could use a little mystery here.
Suffice to say that readers now gain an understanding of how earth came to be the way it is: the caste system evolved out of measures to fight HRVP, a disease that practically destroyed civilization some 50-100 years before the events of Heroes Die.
HRVP is Stover’s 2001 invention; imagine 28 Days Later‘s rage virus (2002), but more along the lines of a real viral infection (four days incubation, ish, vs. 30 seconds). The disease acts like a virulent, airborne rabies; the infected become paranoid and violent.
Fighting this scourge caused the fall of national governments, left a vacuum corporations filled, and lead to laws segregating different economic levels — to control the “vertical” spread of this highly contagious disease as much as possible. Stover reminds the reader a similar tactic was used in north America — the always-infamous smallpox blankets — to clear and control a native population.
Questions of pacing aside, the novel continues to straddle most definitions of fantasy and science fiction. Hari again faces a cavalcade of foes; again he must inch toward daylight — his father’s advice from Heroes Die. Another hostage to fortune exists, his daughter Faith, in addition to his father and spouse. Caught again in a mysterious scheme, Hari/Caine must scheme and fight on earth and on Overworld. As the introductory parts make clear, in addition to his own hostages to fortune, an entire world is at stake.
Just another day at the office?
Stover raises the stakes on Studio boss Hari Michaelson; where in Heroes Die, Hari/Caine challenged a god to save his spouse, in Blade of Tyshalle he’s dueling gods, but has one on his side. Overworld suffers a real threat from earth. Caine fights it by saving his daughter, Faith. Stover spins a mythic conflict; Caine provides a mythic solution — again, all in a very personal context. Great fantasy stuff. Less derring-do, though.
If it were no more, blog over. Go home. But Stover impresses yet again. Although some elements of the narrative are forced to make an audacious sleight-of-hand work out, Stover here manages to reverse the voice of Heroes Die. There, a roving third-person limited omniscient perspective comes across with a nice spin thanks to the entertainment technology that lets the rich of earth experience — “first hand” — adventures lived by earth actors living the Dungeons & Dragons life on Overworld. Local redshirts expendable for ratings.
Here, a first-person narrative encompasses the entire novel. That’s quite a trick, given the large cast, but the narrator has a “powerful and detailed imagination:”
SOME MONTHS AFTER the battle was over, war was finally declared. I wasn’t there — I don’t know the details — but I have a powerful and detailed imagination, which has proved accurate in the past.
This feat of legerdemain is not only due to the narrator’s imagination, but also thanks to the “thoughtmitter” technology used by the Studio to transmit an actor’s experiences back to earth. With some hand-waving and magic splicing into technology, Caine’s sensorium can be accessed via an instrument on Overworld, and his experiences are recorded as well.
The upshot of all this? Blade of Tyshalle becomes more definable as science fiction, that subset of fantasy literature that, generally, follows a few more rules than, say, the sword & sorcery kind. Readers learn about the history, more about how magic works, detailed backgrounds explaining character motivations, and so on. The cause and effect is clear. The presence of firearms and during the climatic battle on Overorld other high-tech military hardware does not cause this apparent shift in genre. There’s nothing wrong with this shift in genre. But ultimately it demonstrates Stover’s flexible approach to the story. He keeps it real. After all, as the perspective character says:
What anything means depends on how you tell the story.
Next week: Caine Black Knife.
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 edwardcarmien.com.