Chronicles of Riddick meets Dialogues. Frank Miller mated with Hume. Heroes Die is bursting with blood, sweat, and testosterone. It also has some nicely captured points on the nature of free will. Whether you’re looking for a nice exciting page-turner or you want to wrestle with one of life’s most important questions, this is an excellent book to read.
Heroes Die is about tension. Whether it’s the base adrenaline-fueled tension of the insanely violent fight scenes, the tension between lovers, or the inherent tension between freedom and choice, Heroes Die sets up conflicts at every corner. Even the book itself is a tension; desperate carnage mixed with a subtle look at what it means to be “free.”
The book revolves around Hari Michaelson, an actor on Earth, and his fantasy counterpart Caine. Scientists on Earth have discovered a way of transporting people to a parallel universe (called Overworld) where actors like Hari lead thrilling lives of adventure and the rich upper castes of Earth can live these adventures via virtual reality. Hari’s wife gets in trouble, and it’s up to him to save her. It’s a pretty standard outline, but the beauty is in the execution.
The execution is very beautiful indeed. Stover’s prose is tight and vivid. Descriptions are imaginative but not overwrought. At 563 pages, this is a decently long book, but each word is worth it. The action scenes which make up more than half of the book are phenomenal. Every other moment seems to put Caine in a nearly inescapable situation, but each time he escapes by the skin of his blooded knuckles without it ever feeling like a deus ex machina.
So often books like these set up a seemingly insurmountable problem with what appears to have absolutely no solution. Then all of a sudden, Hermione has a time-traveling device and the day is saved, or Gandalf is alive again. When this happens, I feel cheated out of a good story Not so with this book. The foreshadowing is incredible and some of the best I’ve seen. Every twist has a precedent, which makes the world feel so much more real, despite the fireballs and elven whores.
Stover does an exceptional job managing the tone of this book as well. Heroes Die starts a bit slow, and the beginning is excessively macho. The first look we get at Hari and his boss is practically a caricature of the “manly man.” Hari is violent and ill-tempered, his boss a crude and greedy executive. Within two or three pages I had an immediate and intense dislike for Hari in particular. He’s a tough guy that lost the girl, and straight away you know he deserves it. He’s selfish with a huge ego and an all around capital “A” asshole.
Caine, on the other hand, is instantly likeable. He is more violent, more selfish, more macho, but most importantly, he is in control. When Hari is transported to Overworld, a new chapter begins, and in Caine’s voice we read, “I am free.” What makes Caine an endearing character is not that he’s a good person; quite the opposite is true. The essential difference between Caine and Hari is their mentality. While Hari has to beat up a gym bag and drink himself into a stupor to try and escape his problems, Caine faces them head on. Caine is a competent asshole, whereas Hari is just a pathetic one.
Most of this book follows Caine, but it’s important to remember that everything Caine does is a reflection of Hari. It’s a complex distinction and a key conflict in Hari’s relationship with his wife. Their arguments revolve around Caine, and the extent to which Hari is Caine. Hari himself wants to maintain the distance, lamenting that on Earth, everyone forgets there is this distinction between Caine and Hari. And yet in practically the same breath he admits that the only time he feels free is when he is Caine. Throughout the book he struggles with his imaginings of what it means to be Hari, and what it means to be Caine. This is not unique to Hari. Everyone from Hari’s bosses to Caine’s admirers in Overworld have legendary and fixed ideas of this man Caine, and Caine’s defiance of these expectations leaves them at a loss.
This is the heart of the book. What does it mean to be an individual, and what does it mean to relate to an individual? Hari visits his father, hoping to unburden his mind and unpack his problems. He feels trapped, with no way out and no choices left. His father tells him that he is a slave to the expectation of others, that he always has a choice and he has but to take it. All of Hari’s problems essentially stem from the fact that everyone thinks they know him. In the minds of billions of individuals on Earth and Overworld, Caine is a beacon of vigilance and fighting. But there is a solid disconnect between this idea and the physical person. It remains to Hari to cast off these expectations and create his own way if he is to solve these problems. But is this what it means to be free?
Freedom is about the ability to make a choice that differs from the expected. You can choose to act in a way that is different from what other people expect and from you yourself have done in the past. In a sense I believe this is true. People have the capacity to change and defy expectations, in ways good or bad. However I don’t think this means we are completely free. We may choose differently, but we choose according to a value. A slave-owner could set his slaves free based on the value of equality in defiance of the value of tradition. To be completely free would be to lack values, to move on whim alone. A sociopath acts in this way, caring only for their pleasure. To be free means to be a slave to one’s own values, obeying them over momentary desires. Hari comes to the realization that he values his wife above all else, and acts accordingly, in defiance of everyone else. This freedom is sufficient: to find your own values and follow them in defiance of your own hunger.