Three years have passed since Hari Michaelson - better known to two worlds as Caine - defeated his enemies, left the rancid and overpopulated Earth behind and escaped to Overworld to live in peace. When his adopted ogrillo brother Orbek goes missing in the Boedecken, Caine is reluctantly pulled back to the site of his first and greatest adventure, the one that won him his name, and he finds that he must finally face the ramifications of the huge events that happened twenty-five years earlier.
Caine Black Knife is the third novel in the Acts of Caine series. With every book in this series, author Matt Stover seems to enjoy changing gears, shifting genres, mixing up casts and generally wrong-footing the audience. After Blade of Tyshalle, a massive, epic and weighty (in terms of both size and theme) tome, Stover resists the urge to go bigger and more apocalyptic. Instead he strips things down, delivering the shortest and most focused novel in the series.
Caine Black Knife at heart is a detective story. Caine is trying to find out where his friend Orbek has gone and, once that's done, what the hell is going on in the Boedecken Waste. Caine is not happy to be back, as his former visit transformed him into a superstar but at the cost of enormous numbers of lives and only by Caine performing some truly heinous acts. The novel is divided into chapters that alternate between Caine's investigation in the past and flashbacks to his first adventure in the Boedecken. Some familiar faces return (or are discussed at length) from the first two books but for the most part this is a new and stand-alone adventure.
Caine is a complex protagonist at the best of times, and in this novel Stover has to show him twice over at different points in his life. The contrast between the more ruthless and selfish 25-year-old Caine and his 50-year-old, half-crippled, more cynical but also more reflective and (dare we say it) guiltier older self is fascinating. Caine is driven by his demons and ghosts in this novel, but Stover cleverly avoids undercutting the character development from the previous two books: Caine has made his peace with a lot of the problems he had previously and even made something of a new life for himself before he is drawn into Orbek's problems.
The shorter page count and tighter focus means more action and plot development, but never at the expense of characterisation. The cast is much smaller than Blade of Tyshalle, but we still get to meet several Knights of Khryl (a bunch of fanatical warriors who somehow manage to be unlike any other bunch of fanatical religious warriors you've ever met in a fantasy novel) and a bunch of Caine's past associates. Stover has a gift for fleshing out even briefly-appearing characters, with even the staff and patrons of the inn Caine is staying it getting developed and involved in the storyline. Also, whilst black, cynical humour has always been part of the series, it feels a bit more prominent in this volume which helps alleviate the grimness.
This is a pretty dark book - if not quite as harrowingly bleak as Blade of Tyshalle - but Stover manages to sidestep a lot of the problems associated with modern 'grimdark' fantasy. The violence is prominent but never feels gratuitous. Apart from Caine, most of the major and important characters in the book are female (as in the previous two, for that matter) and whilst sexual assault is implied, it is kept firmly off-page and treated with seriousness. There's a strong undercurrent of tragedy and inevitability running through the book and Stover even subverts his own 'happy ending' for a couple of the characters by pointing out how they died during another adventure years later.
If there is a problem with the book, it's that it feels like a stand-alone but ends abruptly with numerous plot strands left unresolved. Though irritating on release (with a four-year gap for the next volume), this is not a problem now since the fourth book, Caine's Law, is already available.
Caine Black Knife (*****) is Stover once again changing the way he writes and even the genre (to an extent) and still coming up with a gripping, intelligent and original fantasy novel. Outstanding.
on 27 May 2013
This is the trickiest book I've read in 10 years. And I mean that in the sense that it is doing so much work behind the scenes under the guise of a fantasy detective story. It has all the elements of great Stover, gripping narrative voice, pulse pounding story, and desperate choices, told as two stories set 25 years apart. Stover ambitiously modifies his structure and prose, using scorched and sparse verbiage, all at once perfectly capturing a waste-land fantasy setting, an older even more desperate character, a set of insane secrets, and some heavy duty 'more than meets the eye' that sets up book 4. I read this book and then re-read it because Stover's work actually reads like something the matters, not disposable fiction for simple entertainment, but something where the author is partnering with you, letting you really bring your experiences and thoughts along on the adventure and requires you to be an active participant much more so than ostensibly genre fiction.
For Caine Black Knife Stover also channels his love for classic noir detective stories, but with fantasy setting. His love for the roots of the Caine character, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thomson is definitely on display and totally works. By the end there is a satisfying double barrel punch to the gut across both of the dual stories, setting up book 4 as only Caine can and should. 5 stars.
on 11 October 2013
Matthew Stover wrote such a gritty relentless novel in The Acts of Caine 1, that by comparison as good as the follow up book was against that first book it suffered in comparison. In the 3rd book, Caine Black Knife, Mr Stover returns Caine to the fully functioning fighter and thinker and removes opponents only a god could kill. Less political doctrine and more balls out action make this a welcome return to the adrenaline pumping rampage that was the first novel. The plot ingeniously works along two parallel time lines, one is Caines present, the other is a well-conceived and written. Where we the reader/viewer are watching an old cube of his exploits in the adventure that made our actor famous. I have never come across a novel which creates a duel time line in such a clever and compelling way, it really added to my enjoyment of this third book. Fans of the first book should read this. However, it is not a standalone, I think on reflection if you had not read the previous books you would be lost. There are lots of references to events in both previous novels. So yes this is a continuing plot and not just three books about the same character.
These Caine books are what I am currently recommending to my friends. I must find out if these works are just in e format as a couple of people I know have developed a certain snobbery about paper books and won't read eBooks. (Odd the way people do strange things like that).
OK, this one takes a slightly different direction as fantasy meets old fashioned detective storytelling as the tale is told from two separate viewpoints. It's got some cracking twists, amalgamates both types of stereotype wonderfully and as usual gives the readers characters that they will not only care about but follow to the ends of the earth.
Add to the mix solid pace, almost cinematic prose and all round, when added to what has gone before will leave the reader demanding more especially with that final twist. A great book all round.