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.
The Windup Girl is a soft apocalypse novel set in a future in which climate change has destroyed nations and changed the world. Combustion technology is mostly history...everything is powered by hi-tech springs. The evil oil companies have been supplanted by vile genetics corporations that released engineered crop-destroying diseases in order to take control of the world's food supply.
In Thailand, a pseudo-American undercover corporate agent plots to steal that country's resources and force open its markets. A Trade Ministry official plots a revolution. A captain in the Environment Ministry--charged with preventing both human and crop epidemics from breaking out--is less corrupt than the rest of the nation's power brokers, which makes him a hero of the people. And a "wind-up" girl--a genetically engineered Japanese mostly-human servant--is systematically abused for profit until she snaps and changes the course of Thailand's future.
I was actually pretty bored through the first half of the book. It plods. The author uses a lot of Thai, Japanese, and Chinese words as if their meanings are obvious in context. I guess sometimes they are. NONE of the characters are easy to identify with, they're all unsympathetic and self-involved. They were well-drawn though, with believable, complex motivations; self-involved in different ways and for different reasons. I think that's why I stuck with this book even though I was bored. It showed promise. (Plus I liked the kink-spring technology that everything runs on in Bacigalupi's post-oil future.)
It got more interesting. Political maneuvering, inter-ministry espionage, corporate espionage, megadont attacks, betrayal, schemes and plots and surprise revelations eventually combined to turn a dull book in a fascinating setting into a fascinating story. Weirdly, I liked the inconclusiveness of a lot of the plot elements as well. A second wind-up girl is just forgotten. The truth about a dead character who talks to a living one is never addressed. A kidnapped woman's fate is never revealed. And after the Trade Ministry defeats the Environment Ministry in the climactic revolution, the author throws two more twists into the mix that make everything up to those points almost irrelevant. I found it oddly satisfying. If there's ever a sequel, I'll read it.
[SPOILERS ahead] In the first panel, she skillfully and remorselessly kills a man. And beats the shit out of a bike thief for good measure. Scarlet then speaks directly to the reader while recounting her story, why she is what she is and does what she does. And it turns out that she has no training. She's just a kid whose boyfriend was murdered by a corrupt cop looking for a convenient patsy. She's pissed and starts attacking corrupt authority figures with an absurd level of success.
It's kind of a strange message. It shoots for "Give up your apathy!" but lands on "What's could go wrong with serial vigilante murders? Give it a try!"
Bendis uses some nifty framing: 12-panel spreads that sum up someone's life, Scarlet describing events out of order and as they happen to her... It has an interesting look, lots of muted grays and browns except for her bright orange hair, which pops. I think Scarlet uses that photo-conversion process from Ex Machina, or something similar.
Then this sentence clinched it for me: "Then the oblique (drops) turned round (drops), swallowed up by the earth underpinning the grass, and the grass and the earth seemed to talk, no, not talk, argue, their incomprehensible words like crystallized spiderwebs or the briefest crystallized vomitings, a barely audible rustling, as if instead of drinking tea that afternoon, Norton had drunk a steaming cup of peyote." I have no idea what I just read. The only reason I didn't stop right there was because I didn't have another book with me on the bus.