Caine Black Knife is the third book of The Acts of Caine, the most epic sci-fi fantasy series I've ever seen. The second book of that series, Blade of Tyshalle, is arguably the best fiction I've ever read. Consequently, this book had a lot to live up to. I would note before I start this review, though, that I have read this book before. Just recently, the author, Matthew Stover, released the fourth and possibly final book of the series, Caine's Law. As Caine Black Knife ends on a cliffhanger, the two books are inextricably linked with Black Knife serving as Act One to Law's Act Two. Minutiae aside, I thought that these points were important to know as there is definitely a review bias going into this.
As stated before, Caine Black Knife is the third of an ongoing sci-fi/fantasy series that is stunning in its complexity. In this future fictional universe, Earth has been drained of resources and nations have been replaced by corporations who have introduced a mandatory caste system, ramifications of a worldwide plague. Of these castes, our main focus is on the Entertainers, a mere one or two rungs above the lowest caste. Though the world presented here is a dystopia, science and invention have continued their merry march onward, and two important technologies are discovered. First off, there is the link to Overworld; a complicated machine is invented capable of teleporting people over to a fantasy world reminiscent of Lord of the Rings at its darkest. Second, a method is devised through which people can ride along inside the eyes of another; by plugging into a Matrix-like chair, one can observe the memories of people stationed in Overworld or ride along real-time. This chair also allows one to feel exactly what the other person feels, as well as read their thoughts (or inner monologues).
When combined, these technologies represent the entertainment of future Earth. Actors are sent to Overworld to entertain as creatively as they may, usually through causing as much chaos as they can. In addition to the potent experience provided by riding along an actor's adventure as if you were the actor himself, there is the fact that the denizens and creatures of Overworld don't really know that Earth exists or that actors walk among them. There is also the fact that, if you die on Overworld, you are dead as dead can be. All of these factors combine to create the most intense visual and physical experience you can possibly imagine, all from the safety of your chair at home.
The main character of this series is the most famous actor of them all, Hari Michaelson, whose stage name is Caine. Caine is the most prominent actor because he is the epitome of the anti-hero, a man who has no qualms with getting down and dirty in a barfight, no hesitation in assassinating kings, and zero interest in moral quandaries unless they affect his friends. He also is masterful at crafting an incredibly intense story, and so a recording of one of Caine's adventures is guaranteed to be adrenaline-pumped, bloody, and legendary.
But he is also a character with immense complexity and the description I just wrote is but the tip of the iceberg to who Caine is. Where previous books focused on the dichotomy and internal war between the 'real life' Hari Michaelson and the gritty, savage persona that is Caine, Caine Black Knife focuses on the consequences of Caine's growth as a person and the lives that he has ruined in his initial quest to stardom. But I'll get to that. What's important to know is that, at this stage in the series, the link between Earth and Overworld has been cut and so Caine, with no remaining enemy to fight, must decide what he wants to do with his life on Overworld. And so he decides to pay a visit to an old friend.
The first thing that makes Caine Black Knife distinctive is Matthew Stover's choice to employ a dual narrative. We have two timelines: the timeline of the present where a grizzled, dissatisfied older Caine searches for Orbek, and the timeline of that past where a younger, bloodthirsty Caine craves excitement and glory. Through this we get a sense of how Caine evolved from the nasty upstart of his youth to the older, more mature veteran. At first, I feared that this would distract from the story that I was primarily interested in: that of the Caine of the present who the readers have been behind every step of the way. But I quickly found that the separate narratives cohesively contributed to one another. This was largely because of the setting.
Both narratives take place in the same location: the Boedecken waste. With young Caine, this is the site of his first adventure and major claim to fame, The Retreat from the Boedecken, where he leads a troop of fellow adventurers in confronting and fighting to the last against the most fearsome ogrilloi (think Uruk-hai) tribe the world has ever seen, the Black Knives. In this, he is pushed to the limit and beyond, and discovers much about himself and how far he is willing to go both to survive and to win fame on Earth. With old Caine, we see the Boedecken from the perspective of a dozen or so years in the future, where the land (that I found much like Afghanistan) has been settled and the remnants of the ogrilloi are enslaved by the Knights of Khryl (akin to our Knights Templar from the Medieval era). Older Caine sees the ramifications of the adventure of his youth on an entire race and, in short order, sees how old companions and enemies have changed over the years. The dual narrative is crafted so well that events in the young timeline are almost immediately mirrored by revelations and meetings in the old timeline, providing an unprecedented depth to what happens in the plot as well as providing deeper perspective.
The Evolution of Caine
And that perspective gives us an ever growing sense of the complexities of this character that is Caine. And truly, from a writer's perspective, Caine certainly is a marvel. Here is a character who, on the surface, sounds just like a male Mary Sue (a character who is ridiculously important, incomparably badass, infallible, undefeatable, overly skilled and overly idealized). After all, superficially, Caine is the epitome of the most epic dark action hero you can possibly imagine. He makes Wolverine comparable to a Carebear, Tyler Durden look like a slappers-only pansy, and Mad Max akin to some pre-pubescent teenager out for a romp. Caine's father was a social science professor, meaning that Caine is just as likely to quote John Locke or Niccolo Machiavelli as snark off a one-liner. He's smart, vicious, capable, and incomparably deadly. This is a man who has, at this point, killed the best swordsman who ever lived, a fully armored and powerful Lord-Commander of a knight order, and a god.
And yet, as Caine Black Knife and previous novels make abundantly clear, Caine is also emotionally broken, incapable of lasting happiness, forever lamenting and cursing the mistakes and victories of his past, and following pretty much to the letter the description of a sociopathic serial killer. He has a desire to kill and, what's more, he prefers doing it with his bare hands. As Black Knife reveals, there's also a significant part of him that enjoys being in despair and with his back to the wall as that is when he feels most alive. Aspects of his character such as this shine through in Caine Black Knife, throwing additional light on his worst aspects while hinting that perhaps, on some level, he seeks atonement for his actions.
An ogrillo. Nasty looking bastard.
I found Caine Black Knife a worthy addition to the series, although it was cut short with a cliffhanger. This is permissible since it is intended to be the first of a two book duology (the next of which I'm reading immediately), but I've found that ending a book with a cliffhanger is just about as annoying as ending a TV season with one. Unless you are 'behind the game', so to speak, your wait in seeing the cliffhanger resolved is hideously long. That and, in its essence, isn't a cliffhanger just a marketing trick? Anyways, enough of that.
There are some other things I wanted to mention about Caine Black Knife too that made it great. The introduction of the Knights of Khryl brought an interesting and multifaceted holy order into the fold. I found Angvasse and Purthin Khaylock to be among the most intriguing characters of the series and each got a mere chapter or two of screentime. Such is the power of Matthew Stover's worldbuilding. Similarly, the comparison of the Black Knives of the past to those diehards of the present was a curious separation. I wanted to see what happened to Orbek but I'm simply going to have to wait for the sequel I suppose. Lastly, the twist near the end that made the Smoke Hunt basically equivalent to a bunch of Earth teenagers playing Call of Duty with Overworld riots was as hilarious as it was disturbing. Matthew Stover's occasional proclivity to meta fiction and teasing the fourth wall is always great to read.
I do have a few complaints, though. Some of the young Caine's chapters involving the ongoing fight against the ogrilloi within the Boedecken caves became quite difficult to follow. Matthew Stover tried to make it as intense as possible by making the sentence structure as short and disjointed as possible and, while that worked most of the time, sometimes this just made it impossible to really determine what was going on. As for the old Caine, there were a couple of times where conversations became hard to follow because minor characters (such as Tyrkilld, Knight Aedharr, who was all over the place) decided to snark with the same humor as Caine, making it difficult to tell the two apart. And, of course, the aforementioned cliffhanger and my dislike of cliffhangers in general.
But altogether, this book and, really, the entire series is the most comprehensive, absorbing, thought-provoking, and intense series you will ever read. So long as you are okay with occasionally nasty violence, a truly ridiculous (and hilarious) level of profanity, and very dark themes, this is one of the greats.