The Big Idea: Matthew Stover

Here’s why I know that “handselling” — the act of someone saying to you “Dude, you have to buy this book” and then putting the book into your hands — actually works: A couple years ago, when I did an appearance at the Joseph-Beth bookstore in Cincinnati, the science fiction buyer for the store and I were talking about books (no surprise) and he mentioned Matthew Stover and his book Heroes Die, featuring a badass character named Caine. I allowed that I’d never heard of it, and the buyer stopped the conversation, went into the shelves, retreived the book and said, “Here. You must have this.” Well, who was I to argue? I took it.

And the guy was right, because Caine, and Heroes Die, was a heaping plate of kickass kickassery with a side of kickass sauce. Caine himself was a perfect anti-hero: tough, smart and ready to take part in a series of truly excellent action sequences, set in a world that’s half science fiction, half fantasy and all brilliantly conceived and pulled off. I got sucked right through the book and when I was done, I did not stop at “go” or collect $200, but instead went directly to Blade of Tyshalle, the sequel. So, yeah, I’m a fan, of both Caine and Stover.

So when I learned that Caine was coming back in a new book, Caine Black Knife, I emitted what I have to admit was a most unmanly squee. But it was worth it: Caine Black Knife is yet another heaping plate of kickass kickassery with a side of kickass sauce. If you like your fantasy both smart and violent — and I really do — you’re going to want this book. When Stover asked if he could write a Big Idea piece about the book, my response to him was, and I quote, “Dude, if you don’t, I’m totally gonna throw things.”

Fortunately nothing’s been thrown. And here’s Matthew Stover to talk to you about Caine, and Caine Black Knife.


What do you do after you save the world?

That’s most of the Big Idea of Caine Black Knife, right there. Simple enough, right?

Well . . . apparently I don’t do simple. Neither does Caine.

Lately it seems like I’ve become more interested in the consequences of actions than in the actions themselves. Or maybe not so lately; looking back on them, it seems like the Acts of Caine have always been about consequences.

Let’s start at the beginning.

The first of the Acts of Caine, Heroes Die, is set a couple hundred years from now, when the dominant form of entertainment is a virtual-reality-from-hell thing where you can get the illusion of actually being your favorite fantasy hero, in real time, as he or she has real adventures and quests and all that good stuff, not to mention real fights where he or she might really die. The actors who play your favorite characters are translated to an alternate universe—with a fair amount of Mystic SciFi Hand-Waving—that more-or-less operates the way we expect a fairly standard medieval fantasy world to work. The central character of Heroes Die is the #1 star of this form of entertainment, an actor named Hari Michaelson who plays an obscenely popular High-Fantasy-James-Bond type named Caine.

The plot in Heroes Die is framed as a consequence of one of Caine’s top adventures. At the climax of that one, he murdered a ruler, triggering a bloody war of succession. The guy who finally ends up on top is a superhumanly powerful sorcerer, who has come to realize that the greatest threat to his empire’s stability are certain otherworldly demon-spawn who infiltrate society and create havoc for the entertainment of their demon-spawn brethren back home. He calls them Aktiri, and sets about exterminating them—and anyone who even looks like them. The story begins when Caine’s estranged wife, also an actor, goes missing while trying to rescue innocent people falsely accused of being Aktiri.

With me so far?

The story was supposed to end with that book. However, my publisher foolishly offered me a bathtub full of dollar bills to write a sequel, and I foolishly agreed. Thus was born Blade of Tyshalle.

Blade of Tyshalle follows four different protagonists (and a host of secondary characters) as they wade through the catastrophic aftermath of the events of Heroes Die.

It’s actually four novels in one, as each protagonist follows his own individual plotline within the overall story, and the plotlines intertwine and break apart again, influencing each other both directly and indirectly until they all braid together for a Big Bond-Movie Blow-off. (It’s four novels in one because I was, at the time, young and stupid enough to look at the narrative strategy of War and Peace, and think Hey, I’d like to take a swing at that. Like I said: young and stupid.)

Blade’s BBMB involves, by the way, the End of the World As We Know It. It rips apart the whole context of the story and kicks the pieces off a cliff, because Blade of Tyshalle was absolutely, positively, amputate-intimate-body-parts-if-I-so-much-as-dream-of-changing-my-mind, the final book to feature Caine.

But, y’know, best-laid plans and all that.

The thing is, I really like the guy. Kind of like George Lucas and Jedi, I guess. I’ve had Caine living in my head for so long that he’s an old friend. We’re comfortable with each other. So I found myself wanting to write another story about him. This brings us back to the original question: what do you do after you save the world?

More pertinently: what do you write after your series-carrying central character has saved the world? Because—no offense to any of my colleagues out there—I think the dumbest, most obvious thing an author can do is whip up a new Dark Lord to Threaten All That Is Good In the Universe (or, worse, bring back the one your hero just got finished beating). So what’s left?

The obvious answer is that same one George Lucas came up with: Prequel, for the win!

But it’s never that easy. I call it Caine’s Law: Everything is more complicated than you think it is.

Caine, as a character, only gets really interesting (to me, anyway) at the end of his career, when he’s a little older, a lot slower, and grown up enough to be haunted by some of the nasty things he’d done when he was a young homicidal sociopath with a wide streak of malignant narcissism. The younger Caine is mainly interesting, to me, in the context of who he will eventually grow up to be. (Hmm, more of an echo of Anakin Skywalker here than I had realized until just now . . .)

So I thought: why not put the younger Caine in exactly that context? Show him as he is, in his declining post-Epic Hero years . . . and show where he came from. What set him on the road to become who he is.

Without really meaning to, I have, in the Acts of Caine, undertaken a sort of smorgasbord of genre. Heroes Die is Hard SF plus Romance (the protagonist’s struggle is to Win the One He Loves, and the solution to his problem involves creative application of the story’s central speculative technologies). Blade of Tyshalle is Epic Fantasy plus Tragedy (the protagonists’ struggle—all four of them—is to Save the World From the Forces of Darkness, and their commitment to this goal leads inevitably to the destruction of all they hold dear).

Caine Black Knife is Bildungsroman plus hard-boiled detective story.

The hard-boiled detective story follows a double narrative: the (tacit) story of the crime itself, and the story of the hero’s gradual (and usually violent) uncovering of the crime’s story. The Bildungsroman involves a pivotal episode or episodes in a young man’s life—the moment or moments where, through acquisition of self-knowledge and rejection of conventional mores, he sets himself on the path of manhood.

In Caine Black Knife, that Bildungsroman moment is an unforgivable crime… committed by Caine himself. The two narratives unfold in parallel: the Young Caine’s life-defining crime, and the Older Caine’s struggle to face the consequences of that crime.

Not to mention the consequences of being the Guy Who Saved the World. And the consequences of what he did to Save the World. Not to mention the consequences of what he did to become the Guy Who Saved the World in the first place.

Because he is, after all, Caine.

Everything is more complicated than you think it is.

Caine Black Knife: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt of Caine Black Knife here. Visit Matthew Stover’s blog here.

33 Comments on “The Big Idea: Matthew Stover”

  1. Ooh, that sounds interesting.

    Curse you, Scalzi…three more books to buy next time out. (On the plus side, it’s a cheap habit to feed.)

  2. Bloody heaven… this sounds like one of the best fantasy/sci-fi (both at once!) stories I’ve heard about in ages.

    Damn financial crisis! When I buy these books, it’s going to cut way too deep into my budget! >_<

  3. Stover is one of the best writers of fiction today. He asks the kind of questions it hurts to even think about, which is why his stories will be read for many years to come. I just hope more people discover him.

  4. The Acts of Caine are my favorite sff series, bar none. I absolutely recommend checking them out.

  5. Every time I read a Stover book (Heroes Die or Blade), I got the uncontrollable urge to write. I guess that’s why I read the guy when I’m having writer’s block. There’s no better kick in the pants than Caine.

  6. Stover’s work is top-notch. In case you didn’t know he’s also written a number of Star Wars titles, not the least of which was the novel for Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

  7. On the subject of handselling, I’m reminded of the day my friendly local science fiction store owner put a light blue book with a sort of C-3PO-looking thing on the cover into my hands and said “Just read the jacket.”

    Which, in a sense, is why I now have three more books to buy.


  8. Eeeexcellent. (And I just got an Amazon certificate for my birthday!)

    I got hand-sold a book once, back in the mid-90s. A young, plump woman with very pretty red hair who I thought was a big psycho freak at the time more or less BOUNCED up to me in the sci-fi section, shoved “The Forever King” into my hands, and fluttered anonymously off. Not sure I’d still consider it one of the best books I’ve ever read if I were to reread, but I do still consider it one of my very favorite reading memories, and am, in retrospect, incredibly grateful. If anyone is THAT excited that they need to thrust books upon tall, dark, menacing strangers, there has to be something worthwhile to the book. (Or maybe I’m not as menacing as I think I am. That’s a nice thought. :-D)

  9. Dang. Another one of your “Big Idea” authors who are not in my library system. Oh well another recommendation in the pipeline.

  10. Matthew Stover is the best damn writer I know. I’m happy that he now has some more readers… now just a tv series. Oh, come on… it has all the dark and interesting questions of Dexter, all the character questioning philosophy of, err, Californication? No, wait… there’s got to be a better comparison… and all the twenty-first century voyeurism of Big Brother in it’s first-handing of adventures.

    n’ it has a healthy sideline of Phillip K. Dick and Tolkien.

    Why the hell are people still reading this long comment, when there’s an Amazon link right up there? God damn it, I mean it when I say these books are the best thing you’ll read this year.

  11. Chaunce,

    If you are going to praise Stover for Star Wars, you gotta go Shatterpoint first – one of the most intense examinations of the corruption of power and the dangers temptation ever penned. (Ever in this instance referring to the SW milieu – not all of Literature of course)

  12. Couldn’t agree more with the praise espoused above (especially that Billett fellow): Stover’s prose, his narrative arcs, they’re all magical, and worthy of our time. Buy his books, and understand first hand why his mantra is ‘write every word balls out for glory.’

    You’ll see.

  13. I’ve read all of Stover’s novels – and a couple of short stories. There’s nothing better being written. Run, don’t walk, to the book store and pick up Caine Black Knife today.

  14. Strongly recommend anyone contemplating a purchase to “Look Inside” the book on Amazon first.


    Not my cuppa, might be yours, though. Your mileage may vary, et cet.

    Jerry H.

  15. Glad you like Matthew Stover, too, John. I’ll just echo all the above statements about Stover – his writing is unrelenting and is no-holds-barred-balls-THROUGH-the-wall stuff.

  16. I love Mr. Stover’s Star Wars books and I’m sure I’ll love these. To my major dismay when I searched “Blade of Tyshalle” at three different locations the price was average 40.00. I look forward to book 1 and 3 because book 2 will have to wait until a re print or I get lucky and find it at my local used book store.

  17. Yea…Matt’s book is out! His fans have been waiting a long, long time…Hi, all you former Frameshifters. I’m heading to the bookstore, post haste. So, where are we going to discuss this: Matt, Chris, Ilya, Nathan and Shane?

    Happy reading!

  18. Totally not reading that. Scalzi’s introduction alone made me want to read the books and Stover (seemed to) go all spoilery in the third sentence.

    It had better be good, to quote a southern aphorism. I sometimes like to appropriate southern language and then point out that I’m doing so.

  19. @Jannie
    I wish we could “hand-sell” in our car biz.

    Here, you’re gonna love this Honda.

    Actually, some of the higher-end car companies are doing this by setting up luxury hotels with a handful of their top-of-the-line models for VIP guests to have at their disposal during their stay. The idea is that these richy-riches will get addicted during their trip and buy one for themselves.

    Of course, we’re talking about Mercedes Benz and Caddy (and hotels shilling rooms at thousands of dollars a night). But hey, it’s still a damn cool idea.

  20. Handselling always works on me… and the most fun thing in my opinion is to pay it forward. I’m not sure everyone else in my chain of recommendations cares that “It was my ex-boyfriend who first introduced me to this author…” but at least with this one I’ll be able to say “It was Scalzi…”

  21. I first encountered Stover’s writing with _Blade of Tyshalle_, which I thought was masterfully done, as I found the idea of starting a book after the generic epic fantasy quest was done and showing the repercussions on the survivors, just taking the epic fantasy quest as off-screen background, was an amazing idea.

    I was thus slightly disappointed to learn that Blade was actually a sequel, though I have to at least give the book credit for being so self-contained as to not require the reader to be familiar with the first book.

  22. Handselling… thats how I became a victim of the Old Mans War novels! Darn you to heck- guy who works for Barnes and Noble; darn you, and your little handselling too.

  23. I tend to get not so much hand-sold as “people just buy me potentially shitty books for gifts”-sold. I got into more than a few authors by someone giving me a book that looked like ass, then turned out to be fairly nifty.

    Which is why I’m looking to buy everyone in my family copies of CBK. Then they will have no choice.

  24. Read the first two books and definately enjoyed them both. That said, it looks like I’ll be grumbling for a while. Since my industry, construction, has crashed and burned in my state, I’ll simply have to wait and grumble for a year or so untill it hits paperback. On the good side, I have the good news that in a year or so, I will have Good Stuff waiting for me in the store. Guarenteed.

  25. Chiming in with the other Stover partisans and Cainists:

    Reading Heroes Die was one of the first trips I took outside the compulsive consumption in my past of Robert Jordan/Terry Goodkind/epic-fantasy-doorstoppers. Along with Blade of Tyshalle, it remains one of the key points of reference in my quest for intelligent, multi-layered, genre-bending speculative fiction, as well as a reminder to always be open to new authors.

    There are few books I’ve read more than once–there are so many to read and I have a tendency to remember the details of a story that affected me for a very long time–but I’ve been in thrall to HD and BoT several times each. I’ve found something new to appreciate each time.

  26. Okay, firstly I have to admit I love the comment that “His books dropkick me in EVERY NEURON I OWN.” I’m stealing that one for myself.

    Secondly, CBK basically ruined an entire day for me. I sat down in the morning, and I did not get up again until I had finished the book. Well, except to pee. And get more beer, since it seemed almost like a requisite companion for the book. (Matthew Stover, you rock my world. :D)

  27. I read Blade of Tyshalle before Heroes Die, too. It works well as a stand alone. Afterward, I approached Heroes Die like a ‘prequel’ – getting the backstory of the characters I was introduced to in Blade.

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