So far since the beginning of this review blog, I’ve covered the first two books of Matt Stover’s Acts of Caine series (Heroes Die and Blade of Tyshalle). Stover’s fantasy series is a book franchise that I live for in the same way that other people get excited about Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, or A Song of Ice and Fire. It’s the gritty side of fantasy literature, with a little metaphysics and poetics thrown in for good measure, and I love every second of reading it.
In a sense, both of the first two books can count as their own stories, but the most recent two are counted as their own duology, Acts of Atonement. As the latest book, Caine’s Law, was just released, I feel that it’s important I review both books on their own merits and on how well they tell a story together.
“When you fuck with the bad guy… the bad guy fucks you back.“
In Caine Black Knife, the story is divided into the past and the present. In one plot arc, we follow Caine on his first Studio Adventure, where he confronted the infamous Black Knife clan of ogrilloi (i.e., Stover’s brand of Orcs) and made his start as a legendary killer. The present-day arc deals with the aftermath of the events from Blade of Tyshalle, where Caine has to intervene in a crisis between the puritanical Knights of Khryl and the remnants of the Black Knife clan led by one of his former allies.
The book moves well between past and present, giving us a good contrast between the young and brash Caine before his rise to stardom and the older and slightly more humble Caine who has literally been through Hell to get what he wanted most out of life (namely, his loved ones being provided for and out of danger). And because we get the parallel stories, we see both the reason for Caine’s legend and the heavy costs that come with it, particularly as it affects other people like the surviving Black Knives, the zealous followers of Khryl, and the Studio that made him famous in the first place. It also follows up on the theme that Caine’s very presence brings chaos and dramatic changes, which means anyone’s well-intentioned plan is bound to backfire spectacularly just because he’s in town (and, y’know, it’s not like Caine himself wants to get involved or anything…).
As opposed to the last two books, this story is focused on Caine’s point of view. We get sardonic commentary on the savagery of war in the Boedecken plains and the eerie order being enforced by the Knights of Khryl. The gore factor also goes up by about two degrees, especially when morningstars are used to a particularly devastating effect and our hero actually gets himself crucified at one point. Ultimately, the story is much tighter than in the last two books and builds up to a good climax, which is deliberately left unresolved for the sake of the next book, His Father’s Fist (later renamed Caine’s Law).
“Rule One: fuck with me and you die. This is your only warning.
“Rule Two: what I say goes. Break Rule Two, you get hurt. Break it again, you die. Again: this is your only warning.
“Rule Three: fuck with my family or my friends, and you’re fucking with me. When in doubt, see Rule One.”
Trying to do a proper plot synopsis for Caine’s Law is difficult. It’s not that the book is incomprehensible, but that the plot isn’t linear. There are events that happen, that unhappen, or that happen only in a metaphorical context–and as Stover likes to insist in these books, “A powerful enough metaphor grows its own truth.”
Even so, at the heart of this story is Caine and his war against the gods. In the last two books, he’s matured in regard to his relationships with his family and precious few friends. Now he’s taking on the rotten state of two worlds, Earth and Overworld. On one world, there’s a corrupt caste society that beats down good men like his father and gives young men and women the chance to become famous as sociopathic Actors; on a parallel world, you have a magnificent fantasy landscape that’s threatened by a pantheon of gods who want to break a centuries-old covenant that keeps Their power locked away. Through a jagged narrative of events that did or didn’t happen, Caine gets to take his best shot at fixing things for both worlds and proving why it’s really only people with power and no conscience who should be afraid of him.
Besides the non-linear plot, one of the things that really interested me the more I read was the recurring motif of horses. Caine’s interactions with a mythical and mysterious woman known only as “the horse-witch” serve as a barometer for his spiritual growth. The horse-witch is sometimes his lover, sometimes his mentor, and always his friend. She offers forgiveness and permission to horses who’ve been beaten during their service to human beings, which is ultimately a metaphor for human beings who’ve themselves been beaten and scarred during their service to the gods. The horse-witch’s role in the plot is ultimately tied to a local conflict known as the Faltane County War and the tragic death of a slave woman that drives Caine to take on more than just his personal problems.
For me, reading Caine’s Law was a lot like reading Blade of Tyshalle. There’s a lot of philosophy, metaphysics, and mind-bending plotlines that make more sense after the second reading, but it’s a very satisfying read and provides a lot of good character development for Caine. We also get a nice perspective on his father Duncan Michaelson and what he was like before he became a sick and defeated old man. It’s a different kind of story than the others, but considering how things are being fixed in a very broken universe, it’d have to be.
What the Acts of Atonement duology offers us is ultimately a character study on Caine. He is essentially a force of nature in human form, a man whose acts and choices affect everyone around him. He unleashes chaos against the order enforced by overlords and gods alike. In some ways he’s a wish fulfillment figure who can swear like a sailor and kick ass whenever he feels like it, but he’s also incredibly human and would like to have a simple human life if only other mortals and gods would let him be. And besides him, we get a very well-written and highly-detailed series of adventures that will leave us wanting to be better people in the real world–and for some of us, wanting to better writers, too.
Bibliography: Stover, Matthew Woodring. Caine Black Knife. New York: Del Rey Books, 2008.
Stover, Matthew Woodring. Caine’s Law. New York: Del Rey Books, 2012.