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.