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Blade of Tyshalle
Matthew Woodring Stover
Del Rey, 736 pages

Blade of Tyshalle
Matthew Woodring Stover
Matthew Woodring Stover was born in 1962. He graduated in 1983 from Drake University and settled in Chicago. He worked as a bartender in a private sports club as well as spending time as an actor, theatrical producer, playwright, and theatre co-founder. His previous fantasy novels include Iron Dawn and Jericho Moon. He lives in Chicago, Illinois, with artist and writer Robyn Fielder.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Interview: Matthew Woodring Stover
SF Site Review: Blade of Tyshalle
SF Site Review: Heroes Die
SF Site Review: Jericho Moon

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

Seven years have passed since the climatic battle on the sands of the stadium in Heroes Die. Hari Michaelson, known to the world as the Actor Caine, has replaced his old nemesis, Arturo Kollberg, as Administrator of the Studio. He and Shanna have married and now have a daughter, Faith. But the years that have passed have not been happy ones for Hari, as he is bound to a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down by the wound he took at the stadium, his career as Caine over, his days spent in brooding and bitter memories as his bodily functions are controlled by the shunt of a neural bypass. In the real world, his wife has become his nurse, and now he can only watch from a monitor while, as Pallas Ril, she continues her adventures on Overworld, a welcome escape from the invalid that has become her husband. Like Hari, Ma'elkoth is also trapped, mortal now and self-named Tan'elkoth in recognition of his fall from deity and the physical loss of Overworld, a permanent exhibit in the Studio Museum where each day he performs for the patrons. But a mysterious illness is spreading across Overland, killing all the inhabitants in its wake, and setting in motion events that may threaten both worlds, and from which no one will escape unscarred.

For fans of heroic fantasy, until now this sub-genre has been established and its traditions fairly well set by authors such as Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber (ignoring for the moment the more literary-adopted antecedents found in Homer, the Norse eddas and sagas, Beowulf or chansons de geste such as "The Song of Roland"), those traditions adhered to and followed most recently by writers including David Gemmell, Glen Cook, Dave Duncan and Robert Jordan in his contract writing for Tor. These last authors, while playing stylistically perhaps with the conventions established early on by Howard and Leiber, for the most part have chosen to cleave to characterizations and storylines that offer little departure from the originals, regardless of any rewards their tales and retellings may offer. Howard's formula was so successful that it has spawned an intentional serialization of imitation. Robert Jordan's work for Tor prior to Wheel of Time is just one instance among many, while White Wolf has recently tried to resurrect Leiber's Lankhmar in the writings of Robin Wayne Bailey. Both publishers and, occasionally readers, recognize a good thing.

At surface, Matthew Stover's two books -- Heroes Die and the subsequent Blade of Tyshalle -- appear continuations of the above heroic tradition, centred on the adventures of an anti-hero, appropriately enough named Caine. But only in the most basic outline of his tale does Stover maintain the traditions of heroic fantasy, its conventions only a guise in which the author enwraps intentions more normally reserved for literature. And I suspect, for the average reader of heroic fantasy, this literary sleight-of-hand might create some uncertainty in the minds of those seeking purely action-driven fantasy, contemplation not usually a factor when reading heroic tales of adventure -- at least not since our high school classes in Homer. Likely most of us who turn to fantasy, especially heroic, have forgotten how to think while at the same time reading, our objectives more imaginatively and superficially pleasurable than intellectual.

For this reason, I am not surprised to find that some readers appear rather tentative or baffled in accepting this novel. As with the previous Heroes Die, the author is once again pushing and blurring the boundaries of traditional heroic fiction, incorporating elements of fantasy, science fiction and horror into a single as well as singular reading experience, using the conventions of heroic fantasy to explore existential and contemporary social -- what some might call more literary -- issues not normally expected within the fantasy genre: works of fantasy incorporating metaphor and symbolism are a rarity indeed. And, he does so with a gritty style and grim, incisive tone and insight into the human condition that bares outward appearances to the bone, with a vividness of language that sets him far apart from the majority of his contemporaries.

Blade of Tyshalle is a leap forward as well as arguably thematically a departure from the earlier Heroes Die. This is not to say that themes and concerns addressed in the earlier novel are not continued here, but that the level and scope of the author's interests have achieved a depth and complexity only hinted at by comparison with the previous novel. Marvellously and subtly interweaving multi-layered motifs and metaphor (for example, follow the many ways Stover uses sculpture -- in particular David the King -- to reveal not only Caine's crisis of identity and relationship to his own existence, but the larger issues of deity and humanity's significance in the universe), within the context of fantasy, Stover examines and explores concepts and issues as diverse and multifaceted as art, religion, alienation and existentialism, chaos theory and quantum probabilities, moral relativism, justice, pedagogy, sexism, and the destructive nature of our own held notions of self-importance in relationship to life and the planet. Many of the scenarios played out in the novel could easily be viewed as possible harbingers of humanity's future, revealed through an unsparing, if compassionate, relentless and stark examination of human nature, as well as an excoriating delve into the individual psyche, stripping away the comforting illusions of depravity and nobility, the mythologies of identity we create not only for ourselves but our species, leaving in its stead the absence of life's meaning as we prefer to construct it, tailored around ourselves, significance or purpose instead found only in how we tell our own stories:

"...that doesn't mean our lives have no meaning... Life might not have a meaning of its own, but the stories we tell about it do... What it means depends on how I tell the story." Further, what anything means "is a function of who I am when I look at it."
Within this novel, for the characters "Change is, itself, the structure of experience," and "Experience is reality." In a world similar to our own where events often overwhelm the individual, where it often becomes impossible to distinguish one person from the many, "All you can control is what you do, and the only thing that is important is that you feel good about it." This becomes the premise of "Cainism," an alternate philosophy and way of viewing oneself within the context of life and the world presented within the novel, not espoused by the character for whom it is named, yet ultimately represented by his thoughts, evolving self-awareness, and actions within the narrative. Through the events taking place, the ultimate freedom and full realization -- one might say apotheosis -- of the individual, separate, solitary yet intimately connected and present within the life around him, is empowered through an expression of self-determinism. Futility resides in viewing life through the dividing and categorizing lens of duality, life itself created and defined by the inherent, animating richness of diversity, both of existence and experience. Several times within the novel it is stated one is the sum of one's scars, the past indivisible from the present or the future. The novel's universe is accepted as a structure of coincidences, random yet cumulatively connected, where one yet possesses the possibility of individual identity, self-realization and expression by asking and answering the questions: "What do I want? and What will I do to get it? Which are, finally, only one question: What is my will?" Deceptively simple, and yet within a world in which "magick" has been lost, beauty is indoctrinated and secondary -- value added to material progress -- where conforming notions of civilization prevail and one's personal value is judged by one's contribution to some larger, amorphous and most often imposed goal and object of "social good," can any message be considered more pertinent, or its aim, for all its simplicity, more difficult to achieve?

As can likely be ascertained, this is a novel that will raise questions, provoke thought and undermine belief. Certainly one can approach it purely for its action-laden story, the strength of its characterizations and the imaginative creations of its world-building: this is a realm where stonebenders sing solid rock into shape, replete with all the players of the realm of faerie and the conventions one has come to expect from heroic fantasy. However, I suspect that should this be your approach, there will be times, as evidenced by previous reviewers' responses, where you will find yourself mentally scratching your head, uncertain of the relevance of certain passages, the significance of digressions from the surface storyline into passages of interior monologue and description that appear to distract from the action of the narrative. This will be unfortunate, for while this novel can be read purely for its story, vaster realms of richness and imagination lie just beneath.

While this is easily one of the best books in recent years, and should mark Mr. Stover's place among the best the genre has to offer, I must acknowledge that, in brief episodes, the author appears to let his tale get away from him, that especially in moments of interior monologue, in his exuberance to create and lovingly fashion an idea freshly born and still maturing -- a desire to examine it from its varied and multiple vantage points -- that, at times, he wanders perhaps too far a conceptual distance from the more tangible thread of his storyline, momentarily allowing the reader to become emotionally and imaginatively detached from the narrative, where the reader is no longer engaged but instead analytically distant. However, considering all that the author is conceptually attempting to confront and examine here, it is difficult to conceive of what other way he might have dealt with certain of his motifs and topics. Finally, there exists, in reading this novel, a sense that the author has yet to attain his full voice, that like the character of Deliann, "he will [try to] tell the story as best he can, and let it grow its own meaning." Far from entirely a flaw, this seemingly organic character in the book's evolving presentation is often one of its strengths, an appearance of the narrative naturally unfolding before the reader's eye. And this observation can only bode good tidings for the future, for surely there are even greater stories to come.

Copyright © 2001 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction, as yet unpublished, although he remains hopeful. In addition to pursuing his writing, he is in the degree program in information science at Indiana University.

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