When I saw that another Big Rock book had been published with Larry Niven's name on it, I may have set my expectations a bit too high. Where Hammer is steak and potatoes and really good IPA, Stone is roadside carnival popcorn. It's decent but not very satisfying and you can tell it's been sitting in that bag under the heat lamps for a while.
Around 2020, a team of scientists launches experimental nanobots into space in hopes of mining the wealth of the solar system. The project apparently fails when communication is lost, but some 30 years later an asteroid piloted by the nanos is on a collision course with Earth and the scientists must reassemble to save the day. In the meantime one of the scientists has secretly infected the world with more nanos that eliminate disease, kill rapists and bullies, advance women's rights, regrow amputated body parts, improve memory, halt the advance of deserts, and reverse the aging process.
The book is packed with two things: science fiction literary references (I got a lot of them but I could tell I was on the outside of the joke a lot of the time) and mildly bawdy sex humor. All the newly nano-youngified scientists just can't keep their hands off each other.
The prose is adequate. The dialogue is occasionally humorous but mostly clunky. The plot structure, which jumps between timelines for a while, is handled clumsily. I did enjoy the descriptions of the evolution of nano "civilization", as institutions such as war and economy are invented.
Stranger reminds me of another Heinlein novel (Friday) in the way the plot keeps jumping lanes. First it's a David-vs-Goliath thriller in which a motley crew of good Samaritans must protect the innocent prodigy from the greedy, dastardly world government. Wait he's safe now, and it's a coming of age tale with a unique perspective. Blink, and it's a quirky essay: On Religion and Human Sexuality. I know this is supposed to be a literary great but the story's lack of "identity" kept throwing me.
The gender politics were...interesting. A weird mix of ahead-of-its-time feminism and throwback chauvinism. On one hand, Heinlein's female characters are capable and independent. On the other they're always looking to get married, and are routinely called by infantilizing pet names like "sweetfeet", "child" and "cherub". One hand: the utopia Smith tries to build provides flawless birth control and STD prevention to women, who have the ability (thanks to Martian psychic discipline) to make rapists and other purveyors of violence just disappear forever; it's a sexual egalitarian paradise. Other hand: one of the three chief protagonists remarks offhandedly that 90% of the time when a woman is raped she's at least a little bit at fault (I looked for some indication that this was stated ironically or in ignorance, but I don't think that was the case). I realize that Stranger was published in '61, but the feminist schizophrenia was still jarring.
It reads like a series of unrelated short stories involving assorted versions of the main characters. It's explained in the prologue that these events might be happening, or could happen, or are happening out of order, or didn't unhappen, or something. A weird framing device has Caine pin his father--who's brain dead somewhere else with cables coming out of his eyesockets...isn't he?--to the ground with his sword while people who are not who they are (yes I typed that correctly) come and talk to him. It's exactly as unclear as it sounds.
Okay, the ending did tie much of it together--and in fairly awesome fashion--but not all of it. And I still have a bald spot above one ear from all the head-scratching.
Caine's Law was for me the first disappointment of the series. I think this was the first time I've ever felt too stupid for whatever I was reading....and I'm still waiting eagerly for book 5. Sigh.
Interspersed with these chapters are flashbacks to Caine's first Adventure, which took place in the same location and made him an international star. Extensively, creatively, nauseatingly violent, as usual. Nobody paints a picture of credibly exploding viscera like Matthew Stover.
He makes numerous confusing references to characters and events which appeared briefly and in passing 200 pages earlier. Or--with no explanation--in 2nd person. Possibly as "God". Or something. The first time I read Caine Black Knife, I found it frustratingly hard to follow. More recently I read it in sequence with the other books and it improved dramatically. It's a 3 star book on its own, but if you can track the plot it transforms into a hellaciously good book, mixing the best action writing in the business with thoughtful interludes of philosophy and a grim civil rights story.
Seven years after the events of Heroes Die, Hari/Caine is paralyzed from the waist down, chairman of the studio he detests (basically the carrot half of what keeps him in line), his only friend is Tan'elKoth/Ma'elKoth, the captive man-god who took his legs and his career, and his marriage is once more slipping away from him. The only really good thing in his life is his step-daughter Faith.
In addition to milking Overworld for profitably violent entertainment, the studio is now stripping it of its natural resources, dumping slag and waste in their place. When the studio unleashes a devastating plague to stem native resistance, Caine comes to life once more, launching a plan to save the natives of Overworld. But his accumulated enemies conspire to take his wife, his father, his daughter, his reputation, and his life. Caine is utterly broken. Like, Cool Hand Luke-broken.
The second half of the book sees Caine directing an insurrection in the Ankhara dungeon, believably winning fights in spite of his paralysis, and ultimately leading a national rebellion while trying to save the world from the horrors of pandemic and--worse--colonization. Stover does not think small.
It's a substantial shift from the first book of the series. Where Heroes Die was an adventure story, a test of will, Blade of Tyshalle explores theology, genocide, the consequences of overpopulation. It's no longer just a story about one man, what he wants, and how far he'd go to get it.
It's maybe a little blasphemous how Stover turns monotheistic religion (Christianity) on its head. Ma'elKoth is 7 feet tall, inhumanly beautiful and articulate, powerful beyond belief, a natural leader..."God", by every indication. Caine is snide, brutal, terrifying, yet he's the one trying to save the world. It reminds me of To Reign in Hell: maybe God just had better PR.
There's some excellent backstory taking us to Caine in Actor School and introducing an old friend/ally. There's a neat little mythology overlay: each chapter is preceded by a short story about a mythological character who corresponds to someone in the story. Caine/the dark angel, Shanna/the part-time-goddess, Ten'elkoth/the god who was a man, etc.
At times I was head-over-heels in love with this book, but towards the end I felt like some of the mystical stuff got away from the author. Like he was making it up as he went with little regard for the amazing world he'd spent so much time building. Still an easy 5 stars though.