For me, reading Heroes Die, the first book in the Acts of Caine series by Matthew Stover, was like being an archaeologist and discovering that Ancient Romans had flat-screen televisions. It’s one of the best examples of grimdark fantasy that I’ve read, and it came out in 1997, one year after Game of Thrones. I’d never heard of it until it was recommended to me by a reddit thread and I decided to give it a go. I have no doubt that if Heroes Die were released today, with the booming expansion of grimdark in recent years, it would be championed as one of the finest examples of the subgenre along with books like The Blade Itself (2006), and Prince of Thorns (2011). Yet released in a time before grimdark was even really a thing, with a pulpy cover, Heroes Die and its sequels are mentioned far less frequently in the grimdark community than they deserve.
The series is a clever blend of science fiction and fantasy. In a dystopian future Earth, where corporations oppress the public into a rigid caste system, a breakthrough in technology allows people to be sent through to an alternate dimension, Overworld, a fantasy world filled with elves, dwarves and magic. Hari Michaelson is an Actor, one of the select few sent through to live out Adventures, which the public back on Earth can experience in real-time through his eyes with the use of complex virtual-reality equipment. While on Overworld, Hari lives as his alter-ego Caine, a ruthless assassin who kills targets with his bare hands. Although this mix of sci-fi and fantasy sounds like it could be cheesy, it’s flawlessly executed, and Overworld feels like a real place with as much blood and shit as anywhere, with racism against the ‘subhuman’ fantasy races, a deep magic system, and a pantheon of gods that seem to be background details at first, yet become more integral to the plot as the books progress. It works great both as an interesting setting and as a metaphor for why we read fantasy in the first place – to escape to somewhere where, despite the danger of monsters or bandits, we’re free to wander off into the woods or alleyways with nothing but a sword just to see what we find. When Caine is first transported to Overworld in Heroes Die, his thoughts articulate this feeling beautifully:
“The sun is brighter here – a richer yellow – and the sky is more deeply blue; the clouds are more full and whiter, and the breeze that pushes them carries a faint undernote of green and growing things. It’s a beautiful day; I can barely whiff the shit trodden into the well-churned muck that passes for a street, and the flies, swarming in blue-shimmering thunderheads over the heaps of random trash, sparkle like gemstones.”
Not only is the setting of Heroes Die astounding and original, but Caine is one of my favourite grimdark protagonists, along with Jorg Ancrath and Logen Ninefingers. He’s at the end of his Adventuring career and in his forties when Heroes Die begins, and the confidence and arrogant humour born from decades of Adventuring contrast well with his deep-rooted self-loathing. He’s also an incredibly interesting mix of intellectualism and brutality, with a professor father but a brutal under-caste upbringing in the slums. He’ll snap someone’s neck while quoting Nietzsche or break an arm while ruminating on the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird. New layers peel away from Caine until the very end of the series and discovering them is a delight. As a reader I found myself constantly surprised by Caine’s ability as a strategist and manipulator, as well as his breathtaking competence as a killer. As Caine himself puts it in Heroes Die, “there is a time to be smart and careful and look before you leap, and there is a time to just rock and fucking roll.”
Structurally, Heroes Die is a sword-and-sorcery fantasy adventure with its constituent parts braised in extra-strong grimdark sauce. Caine’s ex-wife Shanna is also an Actor, who plays a mage named Pallas Ril. On Overworld, Pallas has been captured by Ma’elkoth, the god and emperor of Ankhana, for trying to save innocents who would be killed by Ma’elkoth and his government as scapegoats for the empire’s problems. Caine juggles the demands of Earth and Overworld, cutting a bloody swath through Ankhana to save Pallas Ril while raising hell for his audience back home, generating questions in the reader about whether his noble goal justifies his brutal means, questions that Caine himself dismisses as irrelevant.
Despite Caine’s lack of concern for the morality of his own actions, at the core of the novel are deep philosophical issues. Heroes Die, and the whole series, feels like the lovechild of a philosophy lecture and a gladiatorial battle. Stover phrased it beautifully in an interview when he said that he has “a pretty good grounding in what college kids these days call Dead White Guy Lit, which means my head is crowded with an assload of allusions from Homer to John D. MacDonald.”  The book looks at why we, as a species, have always been so entertained by viol