The Heroes is a Joe Abercrombie book. For better or for worse, Abercrombie has created a brand for himself with his world, his style of storytelling and characterization, and his view of epic fantasy—or at least his self-conscious decision to undermine its assumptions while working within its frame—that lead to an easy summary for a reviewer: if you liked his other stuff, you’ll like this. It’s a Joe Abercrombie ™ book.
If you follow my reviews and commentaries around this site with any sort of regularity, you probably know that I’m a huge Abercrombie fan. I love his view of fantasy, although I would never want it to be the only view on fantasy I had. That would be depressing, I think, because one of the relentless themes of his work is that victories are hollow, triumph is just another word for manipulated, and almost no one ever changes except for the worse.
My favorite of his books thus far remains Best Served Cold, and reading The Heroes (which I would rank as #2) helped me realize why. I like that book best because it is the most personal of the stories. Monza is on a quest to get revenge. She might be remaking the face of the political world because of who she is assassinating, but all of that is beside the point of what she is doing, which is taking revenge. In both the First Law trilogy and again here, each of the characters has a story and a stake in the events, but the story is not really driven by those motives; the characters’ arcs are yoked to the harness of a master narrative based in events beyond the control of any of them. Perhaps it is merely the measure of control that Monza had over her own fate in Cold that makes it more appealing to me on a visceral, emotional level.
The fact that The Heroes really did not was at the heart of my issue with this book.
The novel was difficult for me to get into; it took me a month or six weeks of reading it pretty much only on my lunch breaks to get through the first three sections, and then I tore through the last two in one night and cut my sleep short by four hours to do it. That’s a hell of a tipping point given that the sections are roughly equal in length and the book clocks in at a cool 560 pages in the US hardcover edition. My slow reading pace is not to say that I was not enjoying the book; I was entertained by what I was reading. What I was not, was gripped by it. And I think that had a lot to do with my reactions to the characters—or, rather, my lack of reactions to them.
One of the advertising taglines for this book is “Three men. One battle. No heroes.” That sums up the book. It is a close-focus view on one battle that takes place over the course of three days; there are five sections, before the battle, each of the days of the battle, and the aftermath. There are more than three point of view characters, but the main storylines revolve around Bremer dan Gorst, disgraced king’s guard, cowardly and despised Prince Calder, and the only straight edge left in the North, the old battleax Curnden Craw. Many, if not most, of the characters are people we have met before in this world. I have not re-read any of the other books recently, so I barely remembered their previous narratives, and that backstory really did not matter for this narrative; it can function easily as a standalone title. Regardless of backstory, the characters posed a problem for me: they were exactly as advertised. No heroes. No one to root for, no side to take, no emotional stake in any of the outcomes. They were interesting to read about, but they did not make me care, and so the first part of the book—especially the lead-up to the first real battle scene—was long and arduous for me.
The moment people started dying it got a lot better. I am not sure if that says more about me as a reader or Abercrombie as a writer, but the aptly titled chapter “Casualties” was the point where I really started to get into the book. But it really wasn’t until I could see the end in sight that I couldn’t put it down.
I know all of the above is critical, but on the whole I really did enjoy this book, and there was never a doubt that I would finish it, that I wanted to finish it…it simply remained an intellectual curiosity for longer than I expected.
The good parts of this novel are myriad. Abercrombie handles a pretty big cast of characters and points of view with ease. It was easy to slip between the points of view while knowing within a few paragraphs exactly who the next one was and where they were in relation to the rest of the cast. The book is in many ways a pastiche of scenes, but they all splash together quite elegantly to create a beautiful Technicolor bloodbath of a battle.
The action scenes are, in a word, glorious. Abercrombie is an ace at writing interesting fight scenes that are varied and often surprising. In a book with as many fight scenes as this one has, it’s an impressive feat for me to say that I couldn’t predict where any given match-up was going, didn’t get bored and feel like I was reading the same fight over and over, and didn’t hear echoes of previous clashes the way—ahem—he unfortunately echoes himself when discussing women’s bodies (two words, Abercrombie: back knobs).
As far as the character stories go, I was pleasantly surprised to find that he did not go full bleak at the end. As perhaps life simply is, it’s a mixed bag. Some of the characters get honors they did not deserve, others actually maintain (find?) a moral code that the reader can almost admire, some find their fates manipulated beyond their ability to comprehend using 100% of their brains, some go back to the mud, some survive. There is no point during the narrative that you are certain who actually will make it to the last page alive, or what state they will be in if they get there, but neither is there an overweening sense that everyone will die, either. If this is Shakespeare, it’s a history not a tragedy.
The writing is sharp and easy and littered with my favorite word (hint: it starts with an f). The battle is as comprehensible as a battle can be. The morality is ambiguous, and so are the characters, because sometimes the bad surprise you with a moment of goodness, and sometimes the good flash an inner ugliness.
In short, it’s a Joe Abercrombie book.
It’s good, if you like this sort of thing. Like Inigo, I love it. Maybe not my favorite Joe book, but one of my favorites of 2011, no doubt.