From Publishers Weekly:
After two fantasy novels (Iron Dawn; Jericho Moon), Stover combines fantasy and SF in this vigorous adventure story. Our world has developed a hyper-rigid, occupation-based caste system in which the reading of freedom-based philosophy, from John Locke to Robert A. Heinlein, is punished. For entertainment, people participate vicariously in recorded Adventures from the Overworld, an other-dimensional realm of sword and sorcery with its own repressive government. On Earth, Hari Michaelson is the most popular Actor in Adventures; in Ankhana, with its rich palaces and criminal slums, he is known as Caine, the Blade of Tyshalle, famous assassin and warrior. Tired of killing, Hari agrees to return to the Overworld, driven to save his estranged wife, Pallas Ril?Actor and sorceress, unable to return to Earth due to a powerful spell?and ordered by the Studio to kill the tyrant Ma’elKoth. Stover’s writing throughout is unoriginal but vivid, and his story is well plotted (though relentlessly violent), with numerous noteworthy secondary characters, from Hari’s father to Kierendal, the non-human manager of a vice-den in the Overworld’s Alien Town. Hari begins as a stereotyped cold-blooded killer but develops credibly, gaining a sense of moral responsibility and realizing that his true enemies are not on the Overworld but within the Studio that directs his life for its profits. Stover’s fans and those who like their fantasy/SF tinged red should enjoy this energetic tale.
I feel like the last person on the planet who hasn’t read this book. There are a few reasons I was staying far away from Heroes Die for so long. First, it’s a scifi/fantasy hybrid and I wasn’t sure how I’d like that. Second, this book 100% falls into the “don’t judge a book by its cover” category I mentioned in a previous post. Please, take a gander at that horrible cover art. So, I’d look at the book and think, “everyone says it’s really good but how good can it really be if it fits into both scifi and fantasy with that horrible cover?” Yes, judgmental of me, which is why I finally read the book and am now in the process of uncomfortably eating my words (hey, you can’t fault me for being honest…).
This book is a happy mix of genres allowing the reader to get a light, non overbearing taste of science fiction while they read about Hari’s Earth which is ran by a capitalistic, media driven government and a caste system reminiscent of India. The fantasy, swashbuckling, sword driven part of the book comes from Caine’s adventures in Overworld. Now, since I feel like I am the last person on the planet to read this book and since I’m not big at giving out plot information in my reviews, I’ll end my recap there.
The main reason the duel science fiction and fantasy genres of this book kept me skeptical on how great it really would be is because I couldn’t imagine an author who could attack both “worlds” and keep them equally realistic. It seemed, for some reason, like an impossibility. Stover, however, blew any of my preconceived notions out of the water. Hari’s earth is not only believable, deftly created and incredibly detailed, but it’s also thought provoking, which (in my opinion) is one of the reasons science fiction is a fun genre to read. Overworld, however, is just as believable as earth but for the exact opposite reasons. Stover really showcases his talent for writing both science fiction and fantasy with Heroes Die, and I’ll be honest with you, it’s impressive. Even readers who are more leery of science fiction (or fantasy) will probably find that this book will easily introduce to them either genre in a comfortable, not-too-shocking way.
And there is one of the reasons this book is fantastic. Stover does an amazing job at writing a book with two distinct realities absolutely paralleling each other, and neither reality is any more or less detailed or realistic than the other. In doing this, he not only raises ethical questions for the characters, which they will have to painfully wrangle with, but also for the reader. It’s an ambitious feat, impressively and even (at times) subtly accomplished. Stover has insured that, no matter what you think of this book, some of the ideas and moral qualms will undoubtedly stay with the reader past the point where they finish the final pages.
Stover’s writing is incredible, flowing, detailed but not overly so. His plot is well paced, despite a semi slow start which may require some readers to read 100 or so pages before they feel fully absorbed in the story. Stover does an incredible job detailing some epic fights in back alleyways making me wonder if the man has ever taken part of anything like that himself. Whether you are reading about Hari or Caine, either character is a force to be reckoned with.
Heroes Die spans the gamut of the human experience. While, at times, Caine/Hari may seem larger than life, his overall quest to find his estranged wife whom he loves is the humanizing point where much of his character hinges in this book (and has caused a lot of literary-style english 1010ish discussions online) It’s incredibly touching and relatable to see this hard-as-nails character bending the powers of heaven and earth to find Pallas Ril and bring her home safely, despite everything he learns about her, their situation and etc.
And Stover manages all of this world building, character grinding, cleverly detailed, heart pounding plot action in less than 600 pages.
It should be noted that there is a fair amount of language in this book and some (very) detailed gore. If those things bother you, you’d probably want to steer clear of this book. It’s uncompromising in almost every way and many readers who are bothered by this kind of thing could find the language and gore “in your face” and thus, detracting from the actual enjoyment of the book itself. This book also switches from first to third person quite often and while Stover does a good job at it, some readers might find it annoying (though I have yet to see a complaint about this point online. Maybe I’m just not looking hard enough).
All in all, Heroes Die is an impressive feat and Stover does a wonderful job creating two worlds filled with depth, complexity, moral issues and everything else an epic fantasy/scifi book needs. The plot is relentless, the writing is flawless (despite the colorful language and detailed gore). This is a book to read if you are in the mood for something different and new ideas that will stick with you long after you finish the last pages.