Literature / The Acts of Caine

You, as Actors, have a precisely defined role, irrespective of whether you swing a blade or throw a lightning bolt, joust or heal the sick. It is purely and simply this: Your function in society is to risk your life in interesting ways.
Blade of Tyshalle

The Acts of Caine is a series of fantasy-science fiction (trending toward fantasy) books by Matt Stover.

There are currently four books: Heroes Die, Blade of Tyshalle, Caine Black Knife, and Caine's Law.

The series's setting is an interesting combination of a futuristic earth run by corporate governments with a strict caste system and loads of repression, and a parallel high fantasy world called Overworld that earth humans have learned to travel to and exploit. This exploitation initially takes the form of The Studio, a company that produces a sort of reality entertainment by sending "actors" to Overworld. These actors are trained in either magic or combat, implanted with a kind of video recorder and sent to Overworld to "risk [their] lives in an interesting way". On the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism, the series tends towards cynicism, although it's not without bouts of idealism. A more detailed synopsis here, with minor spoilers from the first three books.

The books are centered on the character of Caine and his actor Hari Michaelson. Heroes Die tells the story of Hari/Caine as he tries to rescue his love interest Shanna/Pallas Ril from Ma'elKoth. As with all the books in the series, Heroes Die comments on the morality of violent entertainment and explores of a myriad of other moral questions.

Blade of Tyshalle takes place seven years later, reintroducing Hari and Shanna in their later married, unhappy and semi-retired lives (along with the no longer divine Tan'elKoth). This tedium is of course shattered by plots set into action by the corporate leaders of Earth which Hari's friend, Kris Hansen/Deliann Mithondionne tries to avert. This novel turns the moral philosophizing up to 11 or 12, adds questions of identity, resource usage, destiny (or lack thereof) and humanity's drive to exploit and use up everything. It also features the end of the world, in a way.

Caine Black Knife follows Caine in both the present (roughly a year after the end of Blade of Tyshalle) and twenty-five years ago as he interacts with the Black Knife clan of Ogrillos. The present arc of the story includes a broader exploration of Orbek Black Knife, a side character introduced in Blade of Tyshalle. The philosophizing is turned back down to about 8, but questions concerning the legitimacy of guerrilla warfare and online FPSs are still asked. Also has some rather overt references to either the Iraq War or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, complete with a suicide bombing.

Caine's Law follows immediately after (and in some cases, simultaneously with or even preceding) the events of the third book, as Caine faces the consequences of a deal he made with a god at the start of his Acting career—and the fallout from the last book, as timelines begin to get screwed around and gods start to intervene. The philosophical questions return with the advent of a mysterious mythical woman called "the horse-witch" and a recurring theme about the treatment of horses and humans. Caine travel through different parts of his life, trying to put things in order for an explosive showdown with the dark Powers at work.


These books provide examples of:

  • Absurdly Sharp Blade: Kosall combines this with Vibroweapon.
  • Action Girl: Talaan in Heroes Die, Marade in Caine Black Knife, Angvasse in Caine's Law.
  • A God Am I: Shanna/Pallas Ril and Hannto the Scythe/Ma'elKoth. To be fair, they actually became gods.
  • Always a Bigger Fish: In the end, Kollberg is taken by the Social Police.
  • Always Save the Girl: "I'd burn the world to save her".
  • Anyone Can Die
  • Anti-Hero: Caine.
  • Anti-Villain: Toa-Sytell.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: "What do you want?"
  • Ascended Extra: Raithe.
  • Author Tract: A few times, though it never goes on for more than a few pages at a time.
  • Badass
  • Blood Knight: Caine and Berne.
  • Blood Sport: The whole point of Actors like Caine and their Studio-sponsored adventures on Overworld.
  • Book Ends: in Blade of Tyshalle.
  • Bread and Circuses: The function of the Adventures on Overworld is to turn an entire planet into the arena of a Blood Sport for the entertainment of the masses on Earth.
  • Briar Patching: In Heroes Die, Caine uses this as part of tricking Ma'elKoth into following his Batman Gambit. He directly refers to the trope name while doing so.
  • Broken Bird: Angvasse in Caine's Law.
  • Catch Phrase: Berne: "Fuck me like a virgin goat."
  • Charles Atlas Superpower: Hari/Caine. In Heroes Die he tries to vent his anger against a gel punching bag that hardens against force up to the strength of human bone before resetting. Well before he's gotten the rage out of his system, he's easily, repeatedly working it over.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Toa-Sytell's poisoned dagger.
  • Church Militant: The Knights of Khryl.
  • Clap Your Hands If You Believe: "A powerful enough metaphor grows its own truth."
  • Clasp Your Hands If You Deceive: Subverted in Heroes Die, where Kollberg does this to try and keep calm while talking to the Board of Governors rather than trying to be cunning.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Caine/Hari embodies this trope.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Marc Vilo.
  • Cutting the Knot: Caine's usual way of solving problems.
  • Deconstruction: Of a wealth of Fantasy tropes, being a Low Fantasy take on archetypal Dungeons & Dragons settings like the Forgotten Realms.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Berne.
  • Dirty Coward: Lamorak.
  • Doorstopper
  • Due to the Dead: The Last March, a funerary procession of drummers and the bodies of fallen soldiers.
  • Dystopia
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Insomuch as there are happy endings.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Inverted in the Blind God, played straight with the "god" of the Black Knives.
  • Elite Mooks: The Social Police, the Black Knives, Esoteric Friars, and the Grey Cats.
  • Eureka Moment: Toa-Sytell has one when he reads the Monastic records on Caine and realizes that he's an Aktir.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Ma'elKoth's voice is usually described as rumbling.
  • Eye Scream: The first book opens with one. And then there's the Black Knife Kiss.
  • Faceless Goons: The Social Police.
  • Fantastic Racism and Fantastic Slurs: Played with in that the Earth fantasy names for the species are considered slurs: elves prefer to be called primals, dwarves to be called stonebenders, orcs to be called ogrilloi, and pixies to be called treetoppers. The ogrilloi have an interesting nickname in their language for humans too.
  • Foil: Berne to Caine. To summarize a lengthy spiel, while both are vicious and skilled fighters, Berne is The Hedonist, while Caine has a cold discipline.
  • For the Evulz: Inverted. The bad guys always act out of self-interest, ideology, or pure hedonistic lust. The protagonist is the one who, for fun, escalates conflicts almost compulsively. So far, this includes "escalating" a verbal argument into a lethal fight, a skirmish with an ogrillo tribe into ethnic cleansing, and a minor political conflict into a civil war. And the bad guys are still worse.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: Ma'elKoth used to be the wimpy necromancer Hannto the Scythe.
  • Gaia's Vengeance: Chambaraya through Pallas.
  • Glory Days: Ma/Tan'elKoth, Hari, and Shanna in Blade of Tyshalle, some of the surviving Black Knife Nation in Caine Black Knife.
  • God Emperor: The Most Beloved Ma'elKoth.
  • Gods Need Prayer Badly
  • Good Is Dumb: Shanna/Pallas's blindness and moral obliviousness ironically only get worse when she becomes nearly omniscient.
  • Handicapped Badass: Caine/Hari before he he figures out how to magic the bypass. Even with that he's got a noticeable balance problem, and that magic can be shut down.
  • Healing Factor/Healing Hands: The Knights and Priests of Khryl have both — but, seeing as Khryl is a god of war, their powers only work on wounds sustained in battle.
  • Heartbroken Badass: Initially Caine.
  • Heroic B.S.O.D.: Caine after Shanna's death.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Talaan in Heroes Die, Deliann in Blade of Tyshalle. Subverted in Caine Black Knife, where Caine acts to make the Adventure look like this but is really just planning to mess up the Black Knives for the hell of it.
  • Honor Before Reason: The Khryllians, which Caine thinks is stupid for two reasons. First, because despite being merely a grade six fighter, he's managed to kill more than a few Knights by not adhering to any codes. Second, because at one point when Caine insults a Knight's honor by calling him a coward, it ends in a duel to the death.
    Caine: In the end, what was he going to kill me for? Because I called him names. I have my vanity, I just don't kill for it. I'm not pretending I'm a better man than him, I just hate that people say he's a better man than me.
  • Incredibly Lame Pun: Caine occasionally has these.
  • Indy Ploy: Caine's speciality.
  • In Love with Your Carnage: Ma'elKoth has almost said this word-for-word to Caine multiple times.
  • In-Series Nickname: The Social Police are sometimes referred to as "soapies".
  • I Have Many Names: There's virtually no god, main character, or figure of power in the novels without at least two names, identities, and/or titles. Orbek and Kollberg are notable by exception.
    • By Caine Black Knife, Caine himself is known variously as the Lord of Chaos, kwatcharr of the Black Knives, Agent of Khryl, and the Hand of Ma'elKoth.
  • Insufferable Genius: T'Passe.
  • Involuntary Suicide Mechanism: Actors are conditioned not to say that they're Actors, speak Earth languages, etc. This protocol is eventually reversed when Aktir hunters get wise to the simple test of demanding a suspect say "I am an Aktir." in English.
  • It's Personal: Subverted. One of the things that makes Caine/Hari dangerous is his willingness to take all fights this way.
  • Let's You and Him Fight: Lampshaded in Caine's Law.
  • Knife Nut: Caine.
  • Knight in Shining Armor: The Knights of Khryl in Caine Black Knife. They are good guys...but...
  • Knight Templar: The Knights of Khryl.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters
  • Master of One Magic: Lamorak in regards to his Dominate skill.
  • Master of Your Domain: Monastic Control Discliplines.
  • The Mole: Lamorak.
  • Motif: Fire, Water, and human excrement.
  • Moral Dissonance: Caine's not a nice person.
  • Name of Cain: Obviously.
  • Never Bring A Knife To A Fistfight: All Caine has are his fists and maybe a knife, but he tends to come out on top in a fight.
  • New Powers as the Plot Demands: Or rather, new species traits we weren't told about in the last novel, as Caine Black Knife introduces the ogrilloi's horse-outrunning quadripedal lope.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Oh man, poor Deliann...
  • No Dead Body Poops: Repeatedly averted.
  • Only Mostly Dead: Caine in the end of "Heroes Die".
  • Our Orcs Are Different: Ogrilloi
  • Papa Wolf: As per Caine's Third Rule, messing with Caine's family is a good way to get yourself marked for death.
  • Physical God: Ma'elKoth and Pallas Ril, before the events at the climax of Blade of Tyshalle.
  • Powered by a Forsaken Child: In Heroes Die, Ma'elKoth spends the life of his devotees when using combat magic. Unlike most, he is aware of the cost; when he gives Berne a smidgen of that power to use, he reminds the man of the human cost, and he uses this fact against Pallas Ril.
    • Attempted in Blade of Tyshalle with the Blind God and Ma'elKoth trying to gain control of Overworld by mind-raping Faith.
  • Powers That Be: All other gods besides Ma'elKoth and Pallas Ril.
  • Privately Owned Society: Earth
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: Orbek
  • Rebellious Spirit: Caine and the Cainists in general.
  • Red Shirt: subverted. Guys who seemed like mooks in Heroes Die have plot impacts in Blade of Tyshalle, and the unfortunate death of one guard in Caine Black Knife becomes a point of argument between Caine and his Knight of Khryl escort.
  • Rule Number One:
    Rule One: Fuck with me, and you die. This is your only warning.
    Rule Two: What I say goes. Break Rule Two, you get hurt. Break it again, you die. Again, this is your only warning.
    Rule Three: Fuck with my family or my friends, and you're fucking with me. When in doubt, see Rule One.
  • Satisfied Street Rat: Caine to a ridiculous degree, Orbek Black Knife and Majesty/Toa M'Jest to a lesser extent.
  • Schizo Tech: By Caine Black Knife Overworld has shotguns and automatic weapons but is still mainly a medieval-to-Renaissance aesthetic.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Earth's caste system means that most of the Businessmen (management) caste think this way, and the Leisuremen (executives and shareholders) above them are even worse.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: Caine gives one to Ma'elKoth.
  • Sick Sad World: Earth.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: Caine's very foul-mouthed, to say the least.
  • Sociopathic Hero: Caine.
  • State Sec: The Social Police.
  • Stop Worshipping Me: Caine really hates the Cainists.
  • Super-Detailed Fight Narration: "The gassy thing about the figure-four headlock..." *cue paragraph of description in loving detail*
  • Survival Mantra: "Keep your head down and inch towards daylight."
  • Sword of Plot Advancement: Kosall, though a Justified Trope here in that Kosall just happens to do a lot of important stuff. Except it turns out it might also be the sword of a god that was also in possession of an order of knights for the past five hundred years (the timeline gets complicated when gods are involved).
  • Talk to the Fist: Happens no less than five times in Blade of Tyshalle alone.
  • Telepathy: Kris's "flashes".
  • The Slow Walk: Played straight in Blade of Tyshalle, mildly deconstructed in Caine Black Knife.
  • The Unfettered
  • This Is Gonna Suck: Trope Namer.
  • To the Pain: Arkadeil in Heroes Die has a cold, dispassionate delivery of this as he teaches apprentice torturers.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Deconstructed with Shanna and Deliann, both of whom made significant mistakes that aided the bad guys and put innocents in danger.
  • Torture Technician: Arkadeil in Heroes Die.
  • Trying to Catch Me Fighting Dirty
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Mentioned in Heroes Die.
  • Unwinnable Training Simulation: The Lakefront simulation in chapter 0 of Blade of Tyshalle.
  • Vancian Magic: Thaumaturgists pattern spells into physical items, giving them a limited stock, likely as an intentional nod to the series's Dungeons & Dragons inspiration.
    • However, this is subverted in that patterning spells in this manner is done for convenience rather than necessity. Magic requires enourmous concentration to pull off without the aid of these items and only a very small number of extremely skilled thaumaturgists can really kick butt without them.
  • Vasquez Always Dies: Talaan gets hit by this in Heroes Die.
  • Walking Disaster Area: Caine.
  • Warrior Monk: The Monastics. Played with in that they're not a religious order per se, but a brotherhood devoted to protecting the Future of Man and the Covenant of Pirichanthe that keeps the gods in check.
  • Weak, but Skilled: Deconstructed in Heroes Die. Talaan may have more skill than Berne but it isn't enough to compensate for the latter's superior power, which gets her killed.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Eventually, anyone who cares about Overworld asks the Actors this.
  • X Meets Y: Dark Fantasy meets Dystopia.
  • Zombie Apocalypse: HVRP is rather similar to one. Infectees are fully conscious the whole time, and grow more and more paranoid and violent as their physical condition degrades. It was estimated that every victim with the virus killed 2.8 people. It led to the breakdown of standard government and the rise of the Caste system of corporate overlords. Exactly as the Blind God wanted.

Alternative Title(s): The Acts Of Caine

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