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Heroes Die
Matthew Woodring Stover
Del Rey Books, 536 pages

Art: Douglas Beckman
Heroes Die
Matthew Woodring Stover
Matthew Woodring Stover was born in 1962. He graduated in 1983 from Drake University and settled in Chicago. He works as a bartender in a private sports club but has spent time as an actor, theatrical producer, playwright, and theatre co-founder. His first novel is Iron Dawn, also from Roc.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Jericho Moon

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Regina Lynn Preciado

It's been a long while since I got this excited about a new writer. Not that Stover is new -- Heroes Die is his third, and best, novel to date. It's just that, in a genre that lends itself so well to ongoing series, sometimes the more recent talents get lost in the Jordan- and Anthony-dominated stacks.

Those of you who read my review of Jericho Moon may remember (humour me!) my mentioning that Stover showed promise, by which I meant that he will probably become one of the Great Names in the genre. In Heroes Die he not only fulfills that promise, he surpasses it. Stover handles complex world-building with grace and skill; he creates such realistic (albeit larger-than-life) characters that I was mildly surprised not to run into them in the kitchen when I finally put the book down. Not to mention his facility with language.

Heroes Die takes place in our future, a high-tech world where the entertainment industry rules. It also takes place in a gritty, fantastical alternate dimension, Ankhana, where sword-and-sorcery reign.

On Earth, people no longer go to movies or flip on their televisions. Instead, they experience Adventures -- a sort of more-real-than-virtual-reality experience. In this future, actors don't act, at least not in the way we think of it now. Instead, they transport into Ankhana and lead real adventures. They masquerade as Ankhanan citizens. They get involved with Ankhana's politics, wars, and people. Sometimes they die.

By plugging into a special chair and donning a special helmet, you become the Actor. You experience the Adventure as if it were your own, thinking the Actor's thoughts, smelling what he smells, tasting what he tastes, and so on. The chair takes care of your body's needs so you can stay with the Adventure for days -- if you can afford it.

Stover does not make the mistake of explaining all this in a prologue or within the first chapter. Instead he lets it unfold, plunging you into the world and letting you figure it out as you go along.

Which is cool, because, in effect, you become the Audience to Stover's Actors. The novel itself is the Adventure that you plug into (only without the benefit of a life-support chair). You find the clues when the Actors do, and thanks to Stover's vivid writing, your senses are as tuned to the novel's environment as it is possible to be.

Stover writes intensely about everything, from love scenes to business meetings. If it seems overwritten here, don't let that stop you from giving the novel a try; the lush prose fits perfectly within the context of the book. It doesn't slow you down, either. The words never get in the way of the story.

Berne had a feral quality, a wildness of lust and dangerous unpredictability that went with the loose and relaxed jointless way he walked and held himself; he was potently, almost fiercely, alive at all times. Caine, too, had a quality of relaxation, but there was nothing loose about it; instead it was stillness, a meditative readiness that seemed to flow out from him and fill the room with capacity for action, as though all around him ghosts of imaginary Caines performed every movement that was possible within the space: every attack, every defense, every leap or flip or roll.
And then, a few pages later:
Kierendal's growing insouciance vanished like smoke before a gale; the black and lethal fury that flooded Caine's face when he spoke that name terrified her more than had his earlier threats. It was as though all of those ghost-Caines that had filled the imaginary air suddenly turned and whipped faster than thought back within his body, to make him so ferociously present that he seemed to burn with a scarlet flame.
A warning to the squeamish: Heroes Die does get gory.
I jam the knife into his eye. Bone crackles and blood sprays. I use the knife to twist his face away from me: a bloodstain on this livery could be fatal, on my way out. He flops like a salmon that's found unexpected land beneath an upstream leap. This is only his body's last unconscious attempt to live; it goes hand-in-hand with the release of his bowels and bladder. He shits and pisses all over himself and his satin-weave sheets -- another one of those primordial reflexes, a futile dodge to make his meat unappetizing to the predator.

Now I suppose you'd like to know something about what the book is about. Hmmm. Where do I begin? Not only is the plot complex and gripping, it is just plain big ("epic," according to the marketing department). It contains enough beauty, love, violence, soul-searching, ugliness, humour, drama, and passion to keep me hooked from the first word to the last.

It's about Actor Hari Michaelson; Assassin Caine, his alter ego; and his struggle to unify these two halves of his self. It's about his estranged wife Pallas Ril, an Actor who believes the welfare of the Ankhanan people is more important than the entertainment of wealthy Earth-bound audiences -- and who puts her life on the line (or, literally, OFF the line) to follow her ideals.

It's about the inequities of societies -- technological and otherwise -- that rely on a class system to keep a small group of people in power by oppressing the masses. It's about the misuse of power, and about revolution.

And if you'll forgive my getting sentimental for a moment: It's about never, ever giving up on ourselves or the ones we love. No matter what.

Heroes Die has my vote for the SF Site: Best of 1998 as the best novel (genre or otherwise) of 1998. I eagerly await Stover's next Adventure.

Copyright © 1999 by Regina Lynn Preciado

Regina Lynn Preciado writes and edits for a living. Her short-lived film career began with a role as an extra in The Empire Strikes Back: Special Edition and ended with another in The Return of the Jedi: Special Edition. She wants to be an astronaut when she grows up. Or maybe a train engineer. Want to know more?

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