Sunday, March 18, 2007

Heroes Die: A Book Review

I finally finished Heroes Die by Matthew Woodring Stover. I spread it out over a number of late night reads and enjoyed it thoroughly. He is immensely talented and surely the name Ma'elKoth is one the great names conjured up out of a purely fictional and literary imagination. Call me Ma'elKoth.

There were, however,a couple of really loose ends in the book. Ma'elKoth's origins are only partly delineated. He was once an individual known as Hanto the Scythe that Caine knew at one point in the past and then somehow discovered how to change himself using the magic that seems to be readily found in Ankhana. He found some sort of crown, was a minor thaumaturge who put a few bits and pieces together and presto he becomes a God???

I note that Heroes Die was adapted from a much larger work and I'm not sure it quite weathered the translation in spots such as this. The whole issue of why magic works in the overworld and not so well on earth is only noted in the interview with Stover in the back of the book. It would have been nice for there to have been a greater explanation of the differences between Earth and Ankhana and indeed for what appears to be the historic transfer of elves and trolls and the like off earth to Ankhana. When did this happen, or did it happen? There are too many assumptions that the reader has to make on these natural questions.

Reading into the book and noting Stover's use of certain words, I would say he was a Dungeons and Dragons afficionado at some point in his life. The word "geas" is not a word used outside of many circles aside from Celtic mythology and Dungeons and Dragons. There is in this crowd a kind of cartoonish morality that forms from playing with what is clearly fantasy. Just as a player shoots cartoon bad guys with no remorse (they are after all not real) Berne's raping of an elfin whore and leaving her legs twitching in an alleyway after he mounts and apparently kills her is a piece of utterly juvenile, immorality. This kind of mindless engagement in FIKI (fuck it, kill it as noted in How to Manage Your Dick) is part and parcel of the deconstructed liberal morality of science (and ultimately the left), itself based on the notion that there is no observer of quantum events other than ourselves.

Stover's buying into this largely reactionary post Christian morality is proof, so to speak, of the pudding. He claims in the interview in the back of the book that "What I am trying to get at in my book is this: reality has no moral pretend that it derives from supernatural authority is childish." "Morality is an arbitrary creation that supports culture specific social orders." This sort of statement is valuable because it is in a very real sense where the rubber meets the road. Without some theory of human goodness, there will be little or no goodness. Surely the Roman Empire, to wander off topic a bit, bears witness to this. Indeed, Bern and to a lesser degree, Caine's behavior and the behavior of the studios is a powerful testament as to what can happen to a society when there is no objective and reliable standard of morality that society can refer to.

I loved the notion of either being downcasted or upcasted and yet the social acceptance of such silly conventions could only come to be in a world that evolved away from or without Christian values. This may in fact be the direction that the world will move in and it is worrisome. Indeed the deconstruction of Christian morality, which insists that there is an eternal observer of the cosmos (God) is entirely at odds with the vision of a universe where brute force prevails. In this Stover's tale succeeds admirably: (although this is not at all his intention) he shows what happens in a deconstructed universe of cause and effect that is never judged, never held up to any standards other than those we ourselves impose upon it. In this, we have an entirely existential tale, full of sound and fury (to twist Shakespear a bit) and signifying, in the strangest sense, everything and nothing.

Nonetheless, I loved this book and will most certainly read The Blade of Tyshalee with hopefully equal pleasure.

Sean O'Reilly

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