Once in a blue moon, you encounter a book that sweeps away everything you knew before. In the void that is created, you have a titan that stands above the rest in terms of how you view literature, stories, and writing in general. I feel that, for each of us, we have a small handful of books that fit that category, books that we turn to when we're feeling down, or books that we reread when nothing else appeals to us in that moment.
For me, Heroes Die is one of those books. Heroes Die might possibly be that one book that I've read and reread more than any other. When it comes to science fiction/fantasy, Heroes Die and its sequels are where I turn for an example of the genre at the pinnacle of its power.
1984 meets Lord of the Rings meets Heart of Darkness meets...
What immediately comes to mind as an indicator of the book's quality is its absolutely outrageous premise. It isn't outrageous in terms of ridiculousness; it is more so that the premise is so ambitious as to be truly jaw-dropping.
Essentially, Heroes Die is set in two different worlds. The first, or the “main” world, is a futuristic Earth where nations have been replaced by powerful corporations. This earth is dystopic; pollution is rampant, a caste system has been instituted, and social police are in place to enforce compliance. The government is so restrictive that people resort to the most intense escapism that they can find.
This escapism takes the form of plugging into the live actions or recorded memories of actors who are transported to another world. Imagine being able to put yourself directly into the body of your favorite actor as he risks his life heroically or goes on dangerously real adventures. The people of Heroes Die do the same for actors, actors who are sent to Overworld, a world reminiscent of fantasy norms. It is a world that has elves, dwarves, magic, rolling hills, and statuesque mountains. The population of Overworld are unaware that the actors who mysteriously appear are from the corporate wasteland of Earth, allowing the actors to freely interfere or insert themselves into all manner of exotic dramas for the entertainment of the billions back home.
Heroes Die follows the life of Caine, the most popular actor of them all. What makes Caine so popular is his willingness to kill anyone who gets in his way and undergo epic adventures that have massive ramifications on Overworld, all for the enjoyment of those at home. He is the personification of humanity's attraction to blood, sex, and violence. And the audience loves it. Caine is the ultimate anti-hero; his brutality and amorality are tempered by his utter determination to accomplish what he thinks is right. And what he believes is right isn't necessarily what the rest of the world believes.
What makes Heroes Die and Caine so poignant, however, is that, when you peel everything else aside, it is one of the most heart-rending love stories you'll ever read. The story begins with his wife, Pallas Ril, having recently left him, leaving his life in ashes. In short order, he finds that she is in danger on Overworld. Despite the fact that he knows he doesn't deserve her and that she may not even appreciate his help, Caine, a man famous for being a stone-cold killer, embarks on one of the noblest acts of his life in order to try and save her. In the process, he faces a god, entire armies, and the self-interested corporate bureaucracy of Earth, who are determined to profit as much as possible from Caine's efforts to rescue his wife.
What follows is one of the most intricate, intelligent, and genuinely gripping stories I've ever read. Matthew Stover's writing style is intense, focusing as closely as possible to Caine's thoughts, bringing the reader into the story so deeply that it seems effortless. The characters are multifaceted and as gloriously dysfunctional as they are complex, living, breathing human beings. The villain is one of the most interesting villains I've ever encountered in science fiction/fantasy. And the premise, complicated as it is, is realized and held together brilliantly. It is up there easily in the top five of my favorite books of all time, surpassed only by its sequel, Blade of Tyshalle.
I would highly recommend this to anyone willing to try a thought-provoking and intense sci-fi/fantasy tale. My only warning is that this is NOT intended for children or young adults. Heroes Die is very adult: graphic violence, mature themes, sexual deviancy... The works. It is one of the darker stories I've read, but I've always been of the belief that the darker a story is, the more poignant and powerful its uplifting moments are. Heroes Die does not fail to disappoint on that level. Check it out and you will encounter one of the most epic stories you've ever seen.