In previous novels Matthew Stover has shown us a star ascending, in his prime and during a fall. A god killer, creator, and husband of one — he is the unlikely pawn that is the habitual line stepper and reaches points to crown himself, but instead of turning around he jumps off. Through this, one would think we know the make-up of Caine, the complex extremity of his simplicity, and that perhaps all his stories left to be told are in the future and beyond.
Caine Black Knife is a treat as we are proven wrong, we have seen the extent of the will — of the star — that acts to both humanize the character while also being what makes Caine almost super-human but we haven’t seen its origin or more importantly, its utter acceptance. Stover gives us two overlapping stories; one that goes further down the road we’ve walked with Caine and one that backtracks to the moment that Caine finally arrived.
There is always a danger revealing too much of an existing character; that something that gives almost gives terms like prequel a negative connotation, but as Stover readers know — he has no such problems with prequels. Stover makes an interesting and effective narrative choice with Caine Black Knife making it almost a complete telling from Caine that completely sells the early adventure.
This is Caine’s story — where he becomes center stage and chooses to never let go, as to ever let go, to question his moment of ascension is to indict himself. On Overworld Caine and adventurers find themselves being tracked by the feared Black Knives, in open space, with no hope of winning a confrontation and no place to run. It’s a rather simple, tried and true situation, but Stover with his current telling allows us to literally walk back through the land while its history is being made, while the person who made that history is able to see the effect of his footsteps. He, in some manner, is investigating himself and his actions in the present are molded and as he uncovers or ponders more in the past. To call it a coming of age story is probably a bit too understated and too quaint. It’s more like the decisions made and excepted that begat an Age of Caine, which due to the grounded nature of the book may in turn seem like an overstatement but we see how around every corner there is somebody Caine and is own journey has effected — indeed he has left a physical scar on the very world itself. There is depth to be mined here, there are layers to Caine but the doesn’t bury, he doesn’t excuse, the action — the what — for the whimsical why something that’s often the tactical reverse choice in fiction. He travels the same land that made him a legend now as a man and with that comes some amount of reflection, some change, that come with a better understanding of cost.
“ANYBODY WHO NEEDS TO KNOW MORE ABOUT WHY SHOULD GO AHEAD AND FUCK OFF.
REASONS ARE FOR PEASANTS.
MY DEAD WIFE — THE ONE WHO DECIDED SHE’D RATHER PLAY GODDESS THAN BE MARRIED — SHE USED TO SAY THAT NOT EVERYTHING IS ABOUT ME.
WHO’S TELLING THIS STORY, ANYWAY?”
It’s a pretty early passage in the book and encapsulates the narrative shift and the mindset of Caine Black Knife.
Perhaps what continues to be Stover’s greatest and most persistent accomplishment that is continued in Caine Black Knife is his avoidance of settling on roles. Ancillary characters are not just obstacles or helping hands and Stover does not stage them as such. Neither are they props to be universally viewed or considered unanimously. He doesn’t tug at that certain emotional line anchored and represented by single characters; he understands we and they are and would be more complex than that, or simple enough to misunderstand anyway. We are not brought to choices made for us; we continually make them and have them challenged. They are subject to be reinforced or betrayed but to never be left decided absolutely and Caine himself is no exception. Even in the shoes we walk in for the bulk of our journey we must tread carefully; we must scrutinize each step, we must consider each thought, and indeed what is ignored.
We come to know Caine, we experience Caine, and we feel like we share the journey and not just follow one, and this is exactly why we are always on edge. Our knowledge of him does not give us comfort in our travels, it teaches us to be alert, to question the shift or flutter of any shadow — especially our own. It is this continuous internal dialogue and awareness along with the intense physicality of the action in the book that reveals Caine Black Knife as a continuation of Stover’s tendency to not to pick and choose our points of engagement for us, the entire book is meant to be an engagement, he doesn’t pull strings, he causes us to walk the tightrope for the entire duration of the book while giving us cause to consider going on. What we know is that Caine will be Caine,; the delight is that like the people he runs into we don’t have an understanding of what that means until after the fact, often when it’s too late.
What shouldn’t be lost about Stover is that he is also the preeminent action writer today. Anakin Skywalker, Mace Windu, characters we know personify kicking ass, had reputations in this regard based more on marketing than anything we’ve ever seen or felt — we saw both characters, beyond name, for real through the words of Stover. Caine is a character that can lay claim to a saying by his fictional and literary half step-brother, Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane who said (to a sword-wielding Albino at that):
“I KILL THINGS, IT’S WHAT I WAS MADE TO DO. I’M RATHER GOOD AT IT”
To this, Stover’s Caine would have come in and smacked them both around for putting themselves in his story, after garroting some other guy named Logan who was in the way — minding his own business just in the wrong place at the wrong time — all while being able to have an internal monologue telling us how to best avoid Stormbringers and adamantium alike. Caine, and his world — our world — while certainly to some extent the child of New Wave sensibility is also a sword and sorcery bad ass that doesn’t much differentiate from an urban bad ass. I put Stover with Erikson as a writer who has successfully transitioned that sub-genre (S&S) into modern storytelling and showed that it’s not just a building block phase of future Fantastic storytelling, not just a step from the past, but a mode that can be blended into stories you haven’t read before, that still look and move forward and there’s more beaches to storm for S&S on the next wave. You drop a Sorelesque character, give him an extreme doses of Swearengen pragmaticism, say he’d be a grand master player of Damage and Azad, give him a blade wand and monastic training and you have I think who we all secretly plot to be.
So many single character based series — and Caine Black Knife is the most singularly driven of Stover’s novels — tend to fall into a trap convenience of crediting the population and reader of having a single vision or identity of that central character, but Caine’s wanderings display a world that makes of him what suits their purposes, whether it is a catalyst for sincere motivation or pettiness, Caine is many things to many people; worshipped, hated, loved exalted and/or minimized — he is a Star much in the way we understand them, but he has a tendency of showing up, a living and single convergence.
“WHILE I HAD OFTEN SAID THAT I WANTED TO DIE IN BED, WHAT I REALLY MEANT WAS THAT IN MY OLD AGE I WANTED TO BE STEPPED ON BY AN ELEPHANT WHILE MAKING LOVE.” — ROGER ZELAZNY
Generally, one would assume as you read a book you thoroughly enjoy that the last pages are taken with satisfaction; times of conclusions, climaxes and dots being connected and destroyed — but as you near the end ,these page turners tend to morph into a more savoring pace; you appreciate and glance back at the path taken thus far and when you finish, a part of you tends to enter a stage of withdrawal caused for the desire and understood wait of the next book, the next adventure. It is here where you are to be told that Caine Black Knife is one of those books that it possess this quality that many think separate good reads from top shelf reads and yet it is here that I have to inform that Stover doesn’t achieve this, but yet still achieves a plateau to look down on even good reads. He instead achieves something a bit less common and yet something we can all relate to. In life we will (hopefully) have several occasions where we experience doing exactly what we at that moment — a tryst that works out perfectly, a memorable vacation, or even just a great night at a party or a full day at the beach or a night on the town with friends, and what we experience at the end of all these is a need to step away, a need to rest — don’t we all crash when it’s all over? Rarer, are those who live eternally in this moment. These are things we do when we experience, not associated with that what we do when we simply read and this is where we kick off our reading boots, shake off the urth; and even while we plan our next move we are winded, we are victorious, and we are damaged — Stover’s Caine novels take something out of us. This is where we are amazed; as even rarer are people who live in this moment and Caine lives his life to insure that he never leaves the moment. Whether in a moments that would become legendary, confined to a wheel chair or on his potential deathbed, Caine lives in worlds full of people and peoples who can order his death or literally crush him themselves with ease and impunity, but still remains the most dangerous entity — person, avatar, god, executive — in a given room.
In his own words Caine returns to Boedecken to simply ”settle shit”. It is a high concept that perhaps only Stover and Caine can sell as there is something very primal that Stover tends to tap into, and as somebody who has access to a lot of new fiction I’m often confronted with books that seem written for others, be it existing fanbases, or for the purpose of being able to be claimed by some suave lit club, but you walk away from Caine Black Knife as you do all his work believing the idea that he once offered Gabe Chouinard in an interview — this idea that he writes books that he’d could tell us with a straight face he’d himself enjoy reading. It’s that seem feeling I got from reading The Lies of Locke Lamora or China Mieville’s The Scar, a story to prod and provoke and indeed to enjoy. It is an unfortunate rarity to have a book that you think can recommend to Wolfe and Salvatore fans alike and I have a hard time coming up with a book I was expecting more than Caine Black Knife.
Equally, I have a hard time coming up with a book I more enjoyed.