Blending sci-fi and fantasy is not really a new idea, but not many books pull it off as effectively as Heroes Die by Matthew Woodring Stover. The premise of the book is that in a dystopian future where corporations rule the earth and society follows a strict caste system, the primary form of entertainment comes from “actors” who are teleported to a parallel universe. In this medieval parallel world, called Overworld, magic is real and various fantastical beasts are too. Viewers see through the actors’ eyes as they go on exciting adventures. These adventures are very real: the actors can be killed, and when the actors kill someone else in the fantasy world, it’s a real death. Basically, imagine if when you went to the theater to watch an action movie all the violence was acted out by actual gladiators who really died or killed when that happened onscreen.
The main character of Heroes Die is Caine, an extremely successful actor who, in Overworld, is a badass ruthless assassin. He has assassinated kings, he has turned the tide of wars, he is almost universally feared, all for the viewers at home to enjoy.
Caine is, as they say in action movies, “getting too old for this shit” but he is roped back into one more adventure. His ex-wife, also an actor (she is a powerful mage in the fantasy world – yes, there’s magic there), has unknowingly gone off-line due to a powerful spell that hides her from her enemies. If an actor stays off line too long the signal connecting them to Earth gets lost and they die, messily. Caine wants to go rescue her, but to go back to Overworld, he has to sign a deal with the devil, i.e. the studio executives. They don’t particularly care about saving Caine’s wife. They want Caine to assassinate the new god-like emperor of Overworld who is so powerful that he might actually usher in an era of peace and order which would make the studios lose profits.
What follows is a page-turning over-the-top violent adventure. It reminded me a bit of old sci-fi pulp stories like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom books, but with the difference that Heroes Die has far better characterization, and is far more gruesome. Much like Caine himself, the novel excels at violence while also criticizing the very same violence.
In the afterword of the book, the author sums this up nicely:
It’s a piece of violent entertainment that is a meditation on violent entertainment—as a concept in itself, and as a cultural obsession.
The book is basically Russell Crowe in Gladiator, when he performs a feat of extreme violence with great skill and then turns to the crowd and says:
It helps that the author is apparently a martial artist so the fight scenes are well done. Yeah, the characters accumulate various wounds and continue to do acrobatic feats of murder, but overall the fights are more convincing than average.
There are so many ways that Heroes Die could have gone off the rails but it doesn’t. Despite the flashy violence and magic and sci-fi tropes, it’s a character-driven story. Even the bad guys are well-developed, especially the God-emperor, Ma’elkoth, who Caine is meant to kill. There are moments where as a reader I was swept up in his charisma and power along with Caine and started to think maybe he wasn’t so bad after all.
All in all, I really enjoyed this book and I’m surprised it is not more widely known. If you like speculative fiction and are ok with blood and violence, check it out. It’s quite a ride.