Seven years ago, the warrior-assassin Caine - played by Actor Hari Michaelson - saved his lover Pallas Rill and became a hero on Earth and infamous on Overworld. In that final battle Michaelson was severely wounded and can now only walk intermittently, with technological help. When Michaelson discovers that a devastating virus has been unleashed on Overworld from Earth, he immediately intervenes to stop it...and unleashes a terror upon both worlds in the process.
Blade of Tyshalle is the second volume of The Acts of Caine series (four books so far) and is a quite startling deviation from its predecessor, Heroes Die. Whilst Heroes Die was an intelligent, smart SF/fantasy hybrid novel with lots of action, Blade of Tyshalle is an outright philosophical assault on the senses. This is a murkier, more violent and darker book than its predecessor, but also one that is more demanding, smarter and less interested in spelling things out. It is, on almost every front, a step-up from the first book in the series.
In terms of characterisation, the book is highly impressive. Michaelson/Caine himself is a deceptively straightforward figure. When he has an objective, he does whatever is necessary to achieve it. When he has everything he wants - a family, a great job, fame and fortune - he is utterly miserable. When the world sets itself against him (or, in this case, two worlds and almost everyone on them), he shines. When he has the freedom to forge his own destiny, he flounders. It's the classic mid-life crisis narrative, made even harsher by the fact that Michaelson is partially crippled. There's something inherently tragic in the fact that Michaelson's closest friend is also his deadliest enemy, the exiled Emperor Ma'elKoth. Caine is against the odds but also certain to win through because that is the task he sets himself. Some reviews have taken this to mean the book is pro-fascist (The Triumph of the Will could be the title of Caine's biography) but Stover undercuts this by showing that Caine cannot achieve his goals without him relying on his friends and allies (and some of his old enemies).
The book is unusual in that the first-person narration parts of the book are split between Caine and his old friend Kris. The book opens with a tantalising glimpse at Michaelson's youth as he first enters training as an Actor and Kris is assigned to stop him flunking out. The experience changes Kris forever, leading to a fateful decision and a reunion many years later in the main narrative of the book. The rest of the cast is a mixture of returning characters from Heroes Die (such as Shanna, Ma'elKoth, Kierandal and Majesty) and newcomers such as Raithe, a Monastic citizen who harbours an old grudge against Caine. Stover juggles them all with skill.
In terms of the antagonist, Stover does something very interesting by making it more of a force of nature and philosophy than an actual villain (though it is personified when it possesses the body of an old enemy of Caine's). This leads to the book's most stomach-churning sections as this force for evil kills and slaughters on a scale that is quite shocking. The book also muses on the theme of rape, not of the body (though this is implied in several moments), but of the mind. The destruction of consciousness, the stripping of identity and the nature of self are all dwelt on as concepts.
Stover pulls back from these philosophical moments - though the book remains intelligent and sharp-witted throughout - to deliver a finale which may redefine the term 'apocalyptic'. The final 200 pages of the book feels like experiencing the Vietnam War on fast-forwards. It's relentless, grim and action-packed. It probably goes on a little too long - at 725 pages of small print in tradeback the novel is substantially longer than Heroes Die - and there's a few too many endings as Stover tries to wrap things up fairly conclusively, but ultimately it's an ending to be remembered.
Blade of Tyshalle (*****) is a vastly more ambitious book than its predecessor which pulls off what it's trying to do. Action, philosophy and characterisation are blended to create what may be one of the outstanding examples of the fantasy genre in the last decade. Blade of Tyshalle is available now in the USA and as an e-book only edition in the UK.