What a refreshing story to read. It reads a little bit similar to Glen Cook's Black Company or Lynch's Lies of Locke Lamora because of the bloody descriptions of battle, intricate plot lines and very detailed first person perspective.
Hari Michaelson is an Actor who lives in a vaguely dystopian world where there's a caste system. As an Actor, he becomes Caine in the Overworld - a bare-fist fighter that goes on real adventures for others to experience. Overworld is a separate world where elves, ogres, and magic exist. He is conscripted to kill a veritable god in the Overworld, all for the sole purpose of saving his wife. Expect betrayal, deadly plots, and strange feats of magic.
Now. I absolutely loved reading through this book. It has everything that i hope for: great character development and understanding of what the author is attempting to portray and doing it well. There is character growth, there is great dialogue for the characters, there is brilliant side characters as well as protagonists. Specifically, Caine is great as a protagonist because he is a hero who doesn't shy away from getting his hands dirty, all for the sake of his greater purpose (saving Shanna). It's rather akin to Harry Dresden from the Dresden Files. Balls enough to face a god and give a snappy retort, pure motives, willingness to cut a few people open for that pure motive, and just a whirlwind of action that follows his movements. Fantastic.
And oh man, the romance. Usually I hate romance because authors can't seem to get it right - either too lovey-dovey in an action book, or unnatural, too cliche, annoying interactions that don't fit the characterization, and other reasons. But Stover hits the nail with their interaction. Burning embers from Caine and a bit of fire from Shanna. Never boring, always interesting, and never sacrificing the story or the plot for romance. Instead, because Caine makes love his purpose, it opens the book up to let Caine beat up dukes and guards for the sake of advancing the romance plot as well. Quite adept of the author.
Perhaps my only mild regret would be for the antagonist. That was the only unbelievable part of the story - when Caine pulls a fast one over a god in a few paragraphs. Not likely. Not to mention, I wish there was a little more backstory to this god. it would have given a bit more clarity to the story. So in the end, the change in Caine was a little too abrupt for me to believe - from being a fighter to a logical planner and thinker. I wish there was more time to develop that transition, but I get it... it's an action novel. Not likely.
I love the world. I have never seen anything similar to this in any books I've read - or taken to this level. Just figuring out how the world works (both worlds!) was entertaining and kept me interested. Stover didn't waste any time boring the reader with background and extensive details. He just plops you straight into action and expect you to read the context clues. That's the best kind of writing, and he did it well because there was enough context to figure it all out. Major props.
I do have to say, there weren't that many twists. But the action was fast paced enough for me to enjoy every bit of the ride.
Four stars (so, so close to four and half stars, but I just can't give books that don't make me really think new thoughts higher than four stars. I enjoyed the book thoroughly, but I'm not left with anything to chew on.) Recommended for anybody who loves action-packed science fiction. If you've read the Dresden Files, Lies of Locke Lamora, The Black Company, or thing similar to these books, you'll definitely love this one.
note: don't expect an anti-hero in this novel, despite how it first may sound.