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Descent by Ken MacLeod

DESCENT Ken MacLeod

Author of 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award-nominated Intrusion tells a science fiction story for the twenty-first century – what happens when conspiracy theorists meet Big Brother?
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THE LASCAR’S DAGGERGlenda Larke

The start of a brand new epic fantasy trilogy from the author of the Stormlord series – full of scheming, spying, action and adventure.
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Matthew Stover

“It is the greatest gift of my people, that we can bring our dreams to life for other eyes. Fantasy is a tool; like any other tool, it may be used poorly or well. At its best, fantasy reveals truths that cannot be shown any other way.”

–        Sören Kristiaan Hansen, aka Deliann Mithondionne, the Changeling Prince (BLADE OF TYSHALLE, book two of the Acts of Caine)

A few years before I was born, an American journalist named Edward R. Murrow hosted a program on the CBS Radio Network called This I Believe. Each episode only lasted five minutes, of which three and a half were given over to an essay by a different contributor, each speaking about the specific personal convictions that they felt gave their lives meaning. In the generally terrifying atmosphere of the early Cold War, this program was the closest the 1950s ever got to a viral video. It was the most listened-to English-language program in history at that time, and it spawned books, and records, and other radio programs – some of which continue to this day.

Heroes Die, book one of the Acts of Caine novels - a gritty action fantasy series by Matthew Stover, endorsed by Scott Lynch and perfect for fans of Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, Brent Weeks and Assassin's CreedWhen the good folk at Orbit decided to pick up my Acts of Caine novels, they asked me to contribute a blog-post-slash-promotional-essay or two for their website. I dislike writing about myself in any kind of biographical sense; if I thought that where I was born, my family, education, hobbies and pets and private life generally were any of your business, I’d write memoirs, not heroic fantasy.

I also have very little interest in commenting on my stories. My comments are the stories. Now – despite my dislike – I’ve done both of these things, and reasonably often, because that’s what people keep telling me I have to do to promote my books. The Good Folk, however, gave me license to write whatever I want.

I want to write about what I believe.

Most of what follows will be about story, because I make stories the same way I breathe: even to pause requires an act of will, and if I ever stop, it’s because I’m dead.

So… This I believe:

 

Not all honest writing is good, but all good writing is honest.

 

What’s not said is as important as what is. Often more important. Most of the trick to writing is knowing what to leave out.

 

It’s easier to make people cry if you’ve already made them laugh. And vice versa.

 

Whatever a story’s other virtues, if it’s not entertaining you, you’re wasting your time. A story is only great if it’s great for you. Personally.

 

What any work of art means depends on who you are when you look at it. What you get out of a book depends on what you bring to it. A book is only marks on a page (or pixels on a screen). The story is what happens in your imagination as you scan those marks. Books aren’t deep. Some readers are.

 

“Unreliable narrator” is a tautology. Belief in the reliable narrator is an act of faith intellectually equivalent to belief in the inerrancy of the Bible.

 

(As Nabokov pointed out:) Books are read. Literature is re-read.

 

Two-valued systems break down in contact with the real world. True or false, right or wrong, good or evil: those are for mathematicians and philosophers. Theologians. Out here in the real world? Sure, there are sheep, and there are wolves—and there are also shepherds. And hummingbirds. And dolphins. And asteroids. And . . . you get the idea.

 

I agree with Wittgenstein’s analysis of language and meaning, but disagree with his conclusions. (At least, I disagree with what I think his conclusions are; ask me again in five years, because that’s the soonest I might have it figured out.)

 

Fiction is a slippery critter. From Ernest Hemingway: “You know that fiction, prose rather, is possibly the roughest trade of all in writing. You do not have the reference, the old important reference. You have the sheet of blank paper, the pencil, and the obligation to invent truer than things can be true. You have to take what is not palpable and make it completely palpable and also have it seem normal and so that it can become a part of experience of the person who reads it.”

 

Another from Hemingway: “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”

And one more just for fun: “You know what makes a good loser? Practice.”

 

(Paraphrasing Sartre in On Fiction:) Poetry is an object on the page. Prose is a window into the story.

 

“When old age shall this generation waste,

    Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

   Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

  Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’” (Thanks, Mr. Keats!)

 [And now from The Acts of Caine novels...]

“It is a truism that when one is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The glory of art is that it can show this proverbial hammer how everything looks to a screwdriver—and to a plowshare, and to an earthenware pot. If reality is the sum of our perceptions, to acquire more varying points of view is to acquire, literally, more reality.”

“[He] had his own ideas about art. Art was not the creation of beauty, for him; neither was it merely the reflection of reality. Nor was it the depiction of truth. Art was the creation of truth.”

“Only by touching that living world within myself can I bear the pain of all the lives that come before me.”

 

“Everybody spends their whole lives pretending that shit isn’t random. We trace connections between events, and we invest those connections with meaning. That’s why we all make stories out of our lives. That’s what stories are: ways of pretending that things happen for a reason.”

 

“You never know how things will play out. You can’t. The universe doesn’t work that way. So cheer the f*** up, huh?”

And finally, to summarize:

“It is the greatest gift of my people, that we can bring our dreams to life for other eyes.”

 

This I believe.

 MWS

May 21, 2013

Heroes Die, Blade of Tyshalle, Caine Black Knife and Caine's Law - the four novels int he Acts of Caine gritty fantasy series by Matthew Stover - a favourite of Scott Lynch and John Scalzi

The Acts of Caine novels by Matthew Stover comprise HEROES DIE, BLADE OF TYSHALLE, CAINE BLACK KNIFE and CAINE’S LAW. Pre-order HEROES DIE now for a special introductory price.

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Matthew Stover

Matthew Stover

All Orbit books by Matthew Stover

  1. Nick

    May 21, 2013
    at 3:32 pm

    Reply

    It’s easy to find the MWS fans among my friends. They’re the ones I’ve given his books to. I don’t just hand them out to everybody, though I’ll tell everybody about them. No, I save my Stover books for the friends who are done reading comic books. The ones who want some real literary meat to chew on. This isn’t a light, happy read. This is as complex, intense, dark, and thrilling a set of books as exists anywhere. The best single word for the series is impact. No, no, IMPACT! He just hits so frigging hard. Every word weighed and measured to keep you off balance, to keep you guessing where you’re headed next, to convince you that what you’re reading is a tragedy, only to be astounded at what happens next.

    Lucas, inc. did not choose MWS to pen the novelization of Revenge of the Sith at random. They chose him because he’s one of the finest scifi/fantasy authors alive. If you’re a fan of those genres, you owe it to yourself to quit playing around and read these books.

  2. Freya

    May 21, 2013
    at 3:35 pm

    Reply

    If Mr. Stover writes something, you can be sure that it will be worth reading. This is no exception. Nice job picking him up, Orbit!

  3. Michael

    May 21, 2013
    at 4:05 pm

    Reply

    An absorbing read, but IMO the most apt thoughts on art in the Caine novels wasn’t included:

    ‘Materials are not infinitely malleable, nor should they be – to overwork a piece is to destroy it. Materials have shapes of their own. True art is a negotiation, a struggle, even a dance, between the will of the artist and the intrinsic form – the physical properties of strength and balance, the fundamental possibility – that defines his chosen medium.’

  4. David Davis

    May 21, 2013
    at 4:15 pm

    Reply

    Very nice, Matt. Having read (And re-read and re-read and re-read) all four of these novels I can say that, part of what I love is that while Caine is a brutal SOB, he’s also a THINKER! For the most part he does not simply end lives for nothing more than the fun of it… he has his reasons for doing so and, especially in the latter books, he gives MORE than ample warning that only fools fail to heed.

    Of your musings, above, I have to say that my favorite is “Two-valued systems break down in contact with the real world. True or false, right or wrong, good or evil: those are for mathematicians and philosophers. Theologians. Out here in the real world? Sure, there are sheep, and there are wolves—and there are also shepherds. And hummingbirds. And dolphins. And asteroids. And . . . you get the idea.” though all of them are nice, quick glimpses into some of the underlying writing philosophies of “Matthew Stover – Autor Extraordinaire”. Thank you for taking the time to do this, Mister Stover.

    For others reading this article, and possibly this comment, I highly recommend that you READ THESE BOOKS! They are well worth your time and effort… not simple “junk food for the brain” (not that there is anything wrong with that) they have a number of thought-provoking themes and observations — both overt and covert — laced amid some grand storytelling and wonderful action!

  5. Joshua

    May 21, 2013
    at 4:32 pm

    Reply

    This is hands down my favorite book series which even being a sales agent makes it hard for me to wright a adequate review. MWS has blended everything I enjoy in intelligent discussion into a very entertaining series and at the same time maintained a complete group of very convincingly unique characters. I’ve never read a single series over 12 times before, and I’ve done that just this year alone.

  6. Tony Leclerc

    May 21, 2013
    at 8:55 pm

    Reply

    I am a voracious reader. From the moment I wake up, blearily reading the back of my cereal box, to the moment when I go to bed and check my work email for the hundredth time more than would be necessary to consider myself obsessive, I am never more happy than when I have words on a page.

    There is nobody that I would read more than Stover. His worst work of fiction so outclasses everyone else’s best in the genre, that comparison is just unfair.

    And above all that, is Caine.

    He is the voice at the back of my head whenever I was thinking of giving up. He didn’t tell me to persevere, he told me that if this was the moment to die, then I had better die fighting. Despite not necessarily being the nicest man, he nevertheless informed the man I have become.

    If you haven’t read this book, I will never take your opinion on the genre seriously. No offense, but you have definitely not done your fucking homework.

    Now is your chance. Read the books, then we’ll talk.

  7. MJ Dusseault

    May 21, 2013
    at 10:56 pm

    Reply

    This I believe:
    Matt Stover is the best writer we have today. Disagree if you want to, then read Blade of Tyshalle and get back to me.

  8. Lee Tatum

    May 22, 2013
    at 3:17 pm

    Reply

    Matthew Stover’s Caine series is a brilliant blend of dystopian science fiction (set in the near all-too-believable bleak future) and fantasy (on an epic Grimdark scale). Until “Heroes Die” I’d never read a novel that was such an amazing mix of speculative fiction and fantasy, and before reading Stover, didn’t think anyone could pull it off without leaving the reader jarred and dissatisfied with both genres. But Stover more than succeeds at this magician’s feat and continues to do so throughout the entire Caine series.

    His protagonist Hari Michaelson (AKA Caine) is complicated, violent, messy, and oddly humane, though he’d disagree with me for saying so on that last point. Stover’s narrative structure flows brilliantly, chapters alternating between Michaelson’s life in the “real” world of rigid class structures, studios making the ultimate reality “entertainment,” and his struggles to beat the system and Caine’s life on Overworld, a parallel universe to Earth that’s a bit like Middle Earth on meth, where Michaelson is Caine, actor and assassin extraordinaire. But if Caine were just an assassin, his character and the novel wouldn’t be anywhere near rich and complex as they are. Instead, Michaelson/ Caine is a real flesh & bloody man, with an estranged wife he loves (also an actor, but a sincere “do-gooder” type who’s a Mage, social rebel a la Simon Jester, and great fighter in her own right), friends of a sort he protects in the mode of enlightened self-interest (if you buy the tough line he’s always selling his audience back on Earth), and more convoluted plots and plans underway than any review can or should mention.

    After I finished “Heroes Die,” I bought the next novel “Blade of Tyshalle” without even taking a break, and followed up that equally fantastic novel with book three, “Caine Black Knife.” I just reluctantly finished book four, “Caine’s Law,” because I didn’t want the series to end (unless MWS brings him back, oh please yes!) Rarely has an entire series gripped me the way this one has.

    Any reader who’s a fan of Joe Abercrombie, Richard K. Morgan (both his sci-fi series with Takeshi Kovacs and “The Steel Remains” fantasy series), and/ or George R R Martin will LOVE Stover’s books. “Heroes Die” gets the series off to brilliant, exciting start.

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