Monday, November 16, 2009

Man Bites God! Matthew Stover's Blade of Tyshalle

I'm somewhat of a fan of Stover's for his Star Wars books, if nothing else- he seems to be one of the few authors who take writing for the franchise seriously, employing all his considerable skills to write adventures stories that are a little deeper than the standard fantasy fare. Yes, this book contains a lot of the standard epic fantasy trappings, especially in regards to the setting, but at the end of the day, apart from the escapist metaphor, the setting is mostly there for backdrop and plot purposes. This book is not about taking you away on a magical journey with amazing short people who speak like middle-class gentry. It is, rather, a novel constructed around a series of specific philosophical points, connected with a series of monologues, dialogues, and pretty awesome action sequences. This novel, more than any of his others, is probably the most idiosyncratic Stover book, containing many elements and ideas seen in his other novels, collected in one place, turned up to eleven, set on fire and catapulted to the moon. This is Matthew Stover: OFF THE FUCKING CHAIN. That one that he was on. Before. The chain of not-being-as-Stover-y-as-he-could-be.

So, for anyone who's read this man's other books, we should know what that means. Lots of one-liners, gruesome and violent hardcore action scenes with more splatter than an Dario Argento film, author tracts discussing the virtues of independence, self-analysis and deconstruction, myth making, myth breaking, the relationship between illusion and reality, and how they each influence the other, self-image, self-definition, self-centredness, self-pie*, a colossal, apocalyptic finale, and some rather disturbing descriptions of cannibalism. It's fun for all concerned.

I'll quickly detail the plot, because I hate this part – Hari Michaelson/Caine, former superstar 'actor' (actor in this instance being a sort of combination of stage actor and gladiator, who is sent to an alternative world to have crazy adventures, with much of the population back on Earth watching events through a neural uplink in his head. It's like the ultimate in Reality Tv mixed with fantastic escapism – actually be someone else for a little while, someone whos' life is much more exciting, without any personal threat to the audience. The actor, of course, is under personal threat all the time), has assumed managerial control of the broadcast corporation responsible for the creation and distribution of the actor's 'adventures'. When he discovers a virus has been released on the alternative world, he must overcome his greatest obstacles to save the population of Overworld, as well as his family. Stuff happens.

This is actually the sequel to one of Stover's previous novels, Heroes Die, which allows the story to make one of it's larger thematic points: what happens to the hero after he kills the baddies, gets the girl, saves the day and rides off into the sunset? The answer is, naturally, he becomes very bored, depressed, and is also a paraplegic. This is, by and large, not a happy book, and it quickly moves from every-day sort of ennui to full blown horrific tragedy. Structurally, the plot is simply about taking an unhappy, yet somewhat comfortable man, stripping away everything he loves, and seeing if there's anything left. This being a Stover novel, it turns out that what is left is a force of ass-kicking nature, as stripping away a man's comforts is paramount to stripping away his personal delusions, and also freeing him of the fear of consequence. Our protagonist, Caine, was always a bit of a tough cookie, but book makes a point of the fact that at the end of the day, all that separates Caine from any other person is sheer force of will. What stops the novel from being one great Ubermensch tract is the fact that Caine pays and pays and pays for being who he is. There is no real great physical or spiritual reward for such a character being absolutely who he is. All he really has, in the end, is himself. The pros and cons of such an outlook are pretty clearly layed out in the novel, and I don't really think one can consider Caine to be a role model – he is, however, a wholly compelling, flawed character – and a great excuse for some people to get decapitated.

Prose is florid, but sparse – this is not a book for incredibly detailed descriptions of locations or people. It instead strives for a more physical and psychological realism – what is of real interest to the reader in a book like this should be who these people are, why they are who they are, how this informs their actions, and the actions themselves. Locations' physical appearence is less important their the impressions they leave. I, for one, am perfectly content with this, as I often find some writer's obsession with environmental description tedious in the extreme, so while this novel is not utterly bereft of poetic description and detail, neither is it generally all that concerned with it. The writing is crisp, clear, and mostly focussed either on inner-monologues or conversation, giving the proceedings an air of subjectivity – though the perspective moves between first and third person regularly. It ends up creating the effect of a near-epistolary novel, which, given the framing device, makes a lot of sense.

In short, this is a great book for lovers of solid action with a philosophical bent. It's got some clear points to make, and constructs the story and characters around those anchors, giving its points some real impact. It's fun, but it's smart, intense and occasionally heartbreaking fun, and that's probably the best kind.

*There is no self-pie. Please do not attempt auto-cannibalism.

Is it entertaining? Well, I certainly think so. Its most compelling feature is its characters, and given how much they drive the story, that is a very good thing.

Is it worth reading? I would say so, if you're up for something that's clearly devoted to the principles of awesome, but carries a little more bite.

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