And it’s time for another book review! As my book group continues through Matthew Stover’s Acts of Caine series, I’m continuing my own reviews here. Today, we’re looking at the third book in the dark fantasy series, titled Caine Black Knife. My previous review for Blade of Tyshalle can be found here. (Maybe someday I’ll get around to doing a proper review for Heroes Die, since I loved it so much…)
Caine Black Knife is, in many ways, the adventure story that it seemed was just waiting to come out of Stover as soon as I read the first page of Heroes Die. It’s the same unapologetic protagonist in the same vivid world(s), but where Heroes Die focused on the darker side of personal growth and Blade of Tyshalle concentrated on making everybody feel as terrible as possible, Caine Black Knife takes an unabashed joyride through new locations in Overworld (or Home, as it is now revealed to be called).
In this third Act of Caine, Stover goes all in on the humor, the action, and the freedom Caine’s agency gives him. While faction after faction and god after god seek to manipulate him for their own ends, Caine constantly spits in their faces. He prefers, even revels in, being a virtual agent of chaos, free to pursue his own goals and you can damn well deal with it if those goals are at cross-purposes to your own.
This book follows dual timelines (possibly…maybe…), shifting back and forth between the current-time Caine, a few years after the events of Blade of Tyshalle, and the events of Caine’s blockbuster breakthrough Adventure, Retreat from the Boekecken. Now, Retreat is being firsthanded, so presumably somebody is watching it during the same time as the rest of the story, but for all intents and purposes, we can consider these chapters flashbacks.
The give-and-take between the current chapters and the Retreat flashbacks is brilliant. The new location of the vertical city provides for great moments in both narratives, and has that enchanting fantasy world feel.
…you know, when people aren’t getting crucified or thrown off cliffs or that kind of stuff.
Anyway, this book is lots of fun. Certainly it’s more fun to read than Blade of Tyshalle. Caine is here in full force, with one-liners everywhere and entertaining action scenes that grab you. The new factions revealed here, especially the Knights of Khryl, are perfect examples of how Stover uses fantasy tropes to play with reader expectations.
At this point, Stover knows his readers will approach the Caine books with a cynical eye. He plays off of that, giving readers the subverted fantasy tropes they expect…and then turns them around on you by leaving some of those original tropes intact. It’s fun reading through and figuring out which are which.
Overall, Caine Black Knife is a more enthusiastic version of Stover. This is the author reveling in the world he’s created, using the freedom of character and plot that the back-breaking groundwork of Heroes Die and Blade of Tyshalle put down. It’s fun, it’s fast, and it ends the first part of the Act of Atonement on one hell of a cliffhanger.
The funny thing is, while this book is more fun to read and gets a higher rating from me (four stars vs. three and a half) than Blade of Tyshalle, it was still disappointing. Blade was such a gloriously ambitious literary work that the scaled-back themes and more straightforward plot and character development in Caine Black Knife left me wanting more. Caine Black Knife is a very good dark fantasy adventure, but it’s not impressive the way the previous installment was.