Written by Joe the Revelator
If ever there was a fantasy novel that got so little recognition or popularity, yet deserved it more than Heroes Die, I wouldn't believe it until I read it. In fact, getting your hands on a copy of Heroes Die or the sequel, Blade of the Tyshalle, may involve fellatio with the devil, an exchange of souls, or rappelling through a skylight into the vaults of a major publishing house. But I will say this before I get any further: buy, borrow, or steal a copy of this book.
Author Matthew Woodring Stover has published a few other titles like Iron Dawn and Jericho Moon, and has also written for the Star Wars and Magic The Gathering franchises. One thing I've heard consistently about his writing style are his dynamic fight sequences, and from what I've read I'm forced to agree. His fights are bloody and violent, often inglorious and messy, the way real combat can be. Swordfights in Heroes Die often devolve into brawls so rich and telling that you can almost hear the snap of bones and the grunts of desperate men. Matthew Stover attributes his success in this to his experiences with martial arts and sparring. If this is true, I demand all fantasy writers be sent into the ring at least once.
Rough and Tumble:
The beginning of Heroes Die has the subtlety of plunging into a frigid lake with a cinder block cuffed to your ankle. It's sink or struggle. In first-person perspective we experience through Caine, the assassin, the murder of a sleeping king in some faraway fantasyland and the ensuing escape attempt. The fighting, the bloody battle, and the near-death experience is intimate and thoughtful, told in a sort of real-time narrative that gives the story immediacy. He tells it as it happens.
This is all brought to a screeching halt as the story shifts to the here and now in 3rd person: a gray, plastic, hover-car future where "actors" visit parallel worlds to record videos of their exploits. Caine is the top actor of his time, bought and paid for by the networks. His assassinations of important other-world figures are rented on disk and replayed by the millions. He- the gruff, knife-wielding, ass kicking, explosive bringer of death, is considered mere property.
While Caine remains retired in his mansion his estranged wife, also an actress working under the alias Pallas Ril, is away fighting midevil soldiers in the alternate world. She is bright, driven, understanding, and compassionate in every way that Caine is not. But when the rise of a new and magical God-King threatens to end her humanitarian mission and her life, it's Caine to the rescue. With a bit of television spin coverage and a public relations meeting, and the approval of the network, Caine is sent back into the action.
Tough to chew, good to savor.
I make special mention of the jump between the real world, a drab future worthy of Heinlein, and the narration of the fantasy world, because I think it may be a stumbling block for readers initially. The writing style between the two worlds is very different and takes some getting used to, though I wouldn't have it any other way. The constant shift lends drama to the story. We cycle between a complete view of the situation, to being forced into the body of a warrior. It may take some adjusting.
In my struggle to understand the reason behind Heroes Die being out of print, aside from the flip-flopping narrative, I've also speculated that it may be too deep and dark for the average fantasy reader. Sci-Fi seems a much more accepted medium for contraversial or radical notions (1984, Stranger in a Strange Land, Dying of the Light, etc). In the end, a fantasy reader asks themselves; "Did this story make me feel good?" And if the answer is a resounding "No.", if they can't think back and recall lengthy descriptions of sweeping plains and glorious green hillsides, monotonous battles with swords and knights and grateful big-breasted damsels, then they tend not to recommend the story to their friends.
Stover's writing makes Terry Goodkind look like the crotchety old neighbor who goes on long rants about "what's wrong with kids today". In the same neighborhood Robert Jordan would be the polite old milkman, too kindly to ring the doorbell early, lest he wake anyone.
Heroes Die is deep and compelling, and more substantial than nine-tenths of what you'll find on the fantasy shelves of the bookstore. Read Heroes Die, cover to cover, and tell me it isn't amazing. That way I can challenge you to a duel myself.