Fantasy Literature: Caine Black Knife

Fantasy Literature: Caine Black Knife

Caine Black Knife Warning StickerWe continue through Matthew Stover’s Caine novels (following our look at Blade of Tyshalle last week), not by reviewing them, but by calling certain aspects to the attention of readers. Spoilers afoot.

Blade of Tyshalle represented a big shift in scope and narrative approach from Heroes Die. Stover broke the mold, did not continue the series with a fast-punching short novel but instead drafted a much longer and ultimately more introspective novel. Where in Heroes Die Caine saves his wife and defeats his (several) enemies, and seriously inconveniences a god along the way, Blade of Tyshalle follows Caine as he saves Overworld from earth’s colonial clutches via the convenient outlet of saving his daughter from sundry baddies. He ends Heroes Die with limited mobility on earth thanks to a spinal injury, and finishes Blade of Tyshalle with magic-assisted mobility on Overworld.

Blade ends with Overworld shutting the door on earth and its greedy fingers. Some of those fingers remain on Overworld, and those fingers, naturally, want to go home. In the years between Blade and Caine Black Knife Caine serves Ma’elkoth as an enforcer, suffering the god’s personal presence in his head. For the convenience of the plot and narrative, the god’s presence is much reduced. The super-powers Caine uses in the epilogue of Blade vanish, too.

Ma’elkoth still makes his presence felt, and the novel opens with a vision of Caine’s adopted brother, an Ogrilloi (think: Ogre), getting into a bit of trouble, right at the scene of Caine’s breakout success as an actor. The novel runs on parallel tracks, following Caine’s adventure “RETREAT FROM THE BOEDECKEN.” Stover playfully includes a warning “sticker” regarding this material (above left).

Caine, the anti-hero, in these flashbacks proves himself the essence of anti. Studio executive (not yet boss) Kollberg arranges an adventure consisting of more than two dozen unknown actors, puts them all in harm’s way, then arranges for that harm to come-a-callin’. The Ogrilloi tribe the Black Knives, the baddest, meanest, most people-eatin’ and nasty captive-torturing tribe of all attacks the actors en masse.

Caine Black Knife (The Acts of Caine, Book 3)A foe worthy of a D&D supplement, the Black Knives’ warriors are second to none (not to mention being, y’know, Ogre sized), Black Knives’ shamans (all women) get their magic on with “demons,” and their torturers’ arts rate second to none.

Actor Hari Michaelson speedily perceives he and his companions (none of the actors realize at first that they’re all actors) will die. Because that is, after all, his job: to risk his life in an interesting way. Starting with a rousing “we few, we band of brothers” style speech, Caine essentially takes charge of the operation. Caine explodes into his star role, and soon enough actors begin to die — but so do endless hordes of ogrilloi.

Caine, as he is known on Overworld, recalls this past adventure — or it is recalled by someone, somewhere, as each flashback is framed by Studio nomenclature indicating the point of view springs from the recording of his adventure — as he faces the consequences of the first of his important roles in the recent history of Overworld. The near extinction of Black Knives led to the creation of a new city on the ruins where Caine and his companions fought and mostly died; in this city ogrilloi live second-class lives, subservient to the knights of Khryl, a human-centric order of warriors (think: Paladins, but with tremendously useful holy powers).

The present oppressive arrangement weighs on Caine’s mind, and the mountain of bodies he climbed over weigh upon him as well. Sure, he had a decades-long career at the top of the Studio system, entertaining the rich and powerful (and everyone else) at the expense of yet more Overworld types, but now that Caine passed fifty he doubts his life choices.

Luckily for us readers, Stover here returns to the model that worked so well in Heroes Die. This short, punchy novel actually works as the first half of a duology. Even so, the primary elements all entertain. Here Caine exemplifies even more the iconic noir detective: hard-bitten, sarcastic, pessimistic, and armed. Thanks to earth’s unsuccessful invasion in Blade, firearms are extant, and Caine carries a military model from earth. He is Sam Spade, or more likely Philip Marlowe, or most definitely the Continental Op, and suffers the requisite noir elements: a femme fatale, a traitorous double-dealer, and more than one knockout scene.

Heroes Die Matthew Woodring Stover-smallLikewise the bleak essence of noir, a cynical world view, a focus on the personal (rejecting soft-hearted things like convictions and ideals) permeates the novel.

Hard-boiled detectives reject various aspects of society. Often sentimentality, frequently patriotism, at times social class, these people do not go gently into that dark night; when society rubs them the wrong way, they rub back.

Consider, then, the hybrid nature of this fantasy novel, for Caine is the Blade of Tyshalle, carries godly presence in his mind (even mute, the god remains), shows a black “shell” (magic aura) to the world, and frightens thaumaturges of Overworld with the amount of sheer potential he carries around with him. Where the typical noir detective is just a person, Caine operates at a more literarily romantic level. So what does Caine reject?

Caine experiences a vision while he sleeps (after a quintessentially noir-detective long, hard day) of death and chaos. He sees the violent death of civilians in the inn where he sleeps. Caine rises, deals with the merely human foes who seek to kidnap him, then goes out to face the Smoke Hunt, said to be rogue ogrilloi breaking the peace enforced by the knights of Khryl. He sees them approaching:

Six were already in the river. Faint shimmering haloes of scarlet witchfire around their heads evoked corpse-lanterns on the Great Chambaygen — except they were coming at us across the current, and at a pretty good clip.

Caine isn’t happy to see these guys. His dismay doesn’t spring from the threat of combat — he’s got guns, by golly — but from an existential angst about facing Black Knives again, in this place.

I was hanging from a wire an arm’s length over my own head: a psychic Sword of Damocles. Because I really didn’t know how I was going to take this. I’ve been having this dream half my life.
Back in the Boedecken…
The details are different every time, so it doesn’t matter who’s with me or how the place looks, how I’m armed, none of that, all that mattered was that I was back in the Boedecken but I was old and slow and tired with killing.
And Black Knives were coming for me. Again.
It felt like some kind of justice…

Blade of Tyshalle, sequel to Heroes DieThe slaughter Caine committed upon the Black Knives is now viewed as legend. He organized ambush, directed magic be used to slay dozens at once, stalked them by night and cut sweat glands from their bodies to conceal his scent (earning the name “skinwalker”), killed the Black Knives’ primary shaman, firebombed their creche’, tricked Knights of Khryl into killing even more… when Caine finished with them as the redshirts in his own personally scripted blockbuster, no Black Knives remained. Most died; survivors dispersed and denied their tribe.

Caine, the former Hari Michaelson, rejects this aspect of his past, of earth’s entertainment industry, of earth’s attempts to physically colonize Overworld. This is old news from Blade. But when Caine arranged for the god/s of Overworld to shut the door to the Studio, in Blade seen busily shipping ore and other raw materials to an earth on the brink of economic and ecological collapse, many earth natives were stranded. Some struggle to return, to open a gate back to earth. And in Caine Black Knife, they succeed.

Caine rejects this, too.

He shoots the oncoming ogrilloi, but they rise again. They are animated corpses. But in a darkly hilarious turn of events, he discovers just who is “operating” these undead ogrilloi:

I ran out into the street, holding down the Smith & Wesson’s trigger, not aiming, spraying low to empty the clip and hope for a boneshot to a leg or two to slow a couple down. The slide racked open before I hit the opposite boardwalk and I dropped it and stopped at the alley mouth to empty Hawk’s pistol at them too before I fell back into the shadows and that’s when shit went really weird.
Because one of Smoke Hunters said, “Hey, check it out — did you guys see that? I think that was Caine!”

Caine, astonished to hear one of them speak English, soon realizes they are teenagers, operating the undead ogrilloi as if the ogrilloi were avatars in a first-person shooter. Worse yet, what teenagers:

I found myself sagging against the alley’s wall. “Who are you f—-ers?”
They told me. Their names were a roll call of Earth’s Leisure Congress. Packard, Rand, Windsor, two Sauds, a Walton, a Bush, and — the one whose head I’d shot off — a Turner.
“Turner?” I said, blinking at the headless hulk of ogrillo. “You’re one of Wes Turner’s kids?” Back in the day, Westfield Turner had been the president of Adventures Unlimited.
My former boss.

Caine's Law (The Acts of Caine, Book 4)Here Stover ties it all together. The reader sees why there is a warning label at the beginning of the novel: even these teens are limited; the sex organs on their avatars have been excised — they can only kill and destroy, not have sex, a hilarious send-up of the typical American willingness to show blood but not breasts in media. These kids get points for mayhem, and this evening’s mission was to kill everyone at Caine’s hotel and burn the place to the ground, right after Caine had been kidnapped by minions of the surviving earthers.

Stover reminds us of the essential hypocrisy of Caine’s current rejection of earther presence on Overworld:

“I shook my head. “You little shits understand that these are real people? You get it? This isn’t just a f—-ing game —”

When the homicidal game-urchins disagree and review how they can kill and destroy, Caine objects further:

“I never killed anybody just for fun —”
“No, you killed ’em for our fun.” Bush’s smirk was almost identical to Packard’s. “You were good at it too. The best.”

Indeed, Caine was the best. That he has turned over a new leaf matters not. So he fights the usual aspects of colonialism — resource extraction, for example. And he fights the colonial attitude that somehow lives on Overworld are worth less than earth lives. But here most of all he fights, in a fantasy milieu, the very essence of colonialism: the expropriation of body by the colonial power. Even a cursory review of post-colonial theory reveals this to be a key factor in understanding the impact of colonialism: the reduction of the colonized to mere physical being, to bodies. Talk about your hybrids — how about a little post-colonial theory with your gun fights-and-magic-and-zombie ogres-run-by-teenage rich kids? Want fries with that?

It can be argued that Caine is a suspect warrior in this fight, given his origins and the important role he played in exploiting Overworld. More on that, perhaps, in part two. Caine ends Caine Black Knife prisoner and again without the use of his legs back on earth. The job he took on at the request of the femme fatale of the piece isn’t finished, so of course there is more story to follow in Caine’s Law.

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

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x