The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie

The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie

Published by Gollancz, January 2011 (Review copy received.)

ISBN: 978 057 508 3837

680 pages

Review by Mark Yon

First off: for the sake of clarity, I guess I had better point this out from the start:  my name has been used for a minor character in this book. Obviously, I’m flattered and honoured –and I must say that it is very odd, reading your name in print, knowing that in some strange way you’ve influenced the telling of a tale.

I say that because there may be others who will notice this and surmise that, as a consequence, with the reviewer suitably bribed, this review will automatically be fulsome.  And usually if such a situation arose, I would step back and let somebody else review it.

And yet, and yet….This review is pretty glowing: but it is not for that reason.

This book, Joe’s fifth in less than five years (take that, some of you other Fantasy authors who we will not mention here!) and shows that he can write a darn good tale.  And a tale that is more stylistically ambitious and tighter focused than before and yet still clearly Joe. 

For fans of the earlier books, there are some things that don’t change radically. This is not a reinvention but a refinement. 

Like others in The First Law series, we again have a band of heroes, some of whom have crossed paths with us before. We are back in the land of the Nine, with references to characters we may have met before, albeit briefly. (And we have maps, of sorts, which will please many.)

In actual fact, the tale involves bands of men and women, on both sides of a battle, at a time when the War of the North is still rampant. The tale is told from the different perspectives of those involved, both North and Union. On the Union side, led by Lord Admiral Kroy, are three divisions commanded by Generals Jalenhorm, Mitterick and Meed. Much of their actions are told through the character of disgraced Bremer dan Gorst, (who we have met before) and here plays a cynical observer whose efforts here may redeem him in the eyes of King. To bolster the Union ranks there is also a group of Northmen fighting with the Union, led by (old favourite) the Dogman, now sworn enemy of the leader of the Northmen. The opposing side of The North is led by Black Dow and his War Chiefs. With Curnden Craw,  Scale and ‘Prince’Calder (both sons of Bethod, the now-dead King of the North), Caul Reachey, Glauma Golden, and Cairm Ironhead, the Northmen aim to break the Union and create a change of fortunes in the War of the North.

As you might expect from Joe, this makes rather grim telling. It is a tale of dirty battles and skirmishes with the delineation between good and evil thoroughly blurred. As we should expect, there are lots of flawed characters, nasty characters who might be nicer than we think (see also Glokta in the previous series), nasty characters who are just nasty (see Black Dow), innocents who have nasty things done to them… and throughout that Abercrombie sense of dark humour.

Joe’s take on female characters is always interesting, if a little scary. They are often bright in intelligence and yet dark in mood, cynical, assertive, knowledgeable and rather cruel. The new character that fitted this template, named Wonderful, is anything but the name would suggest. I would hate to be on the wrong side of her, but I guess that’s the point.

Through this hefty tome the world of the Nine is expanded, though on a small, focused scale. This is an isolated tale of a battle over three days.  What I liked here is that although at first I thought that the short time and tight focus would limit the tale, in the end, to my surprise, I found it didn’t. I liked the different perspectives on the same battle. It worked. Imagine something like Dunkirk or Waterloo or the Battle of Naseby explained, but in an Abercrombie style and by concentrating on small groups which meet and overlap throughout the story.

This is Epic Fantasy on a small scale, not an epic battle of the scale of Waterloo, yet the horrors and futility of war are shown just as clearly, perhaps more so by focusing on smaller, more identifiable assemblages of characters. Joe combines both moments of gross-out fighting with little moments of internal introspection and clarity. And does so with increasing subtlety.  The point towards the end is that anyone who stands up and fights, anyone who does what is right, or even what is wrong but because they must, is a hero. Though many of the characters are indefinitely moralled, they all play their part.  

Like Best Served Cold, this works well as a stand-alone, though for those who have been here before there are a few nice connections to previous novels. It’s not too obtrusive, but it adds to the tale for those who have read before.

Again, Joe surprises me. The basic premise may not be all that new, but the telling is wonderful. I was genuinely pleased to find that when I thought I knew where the tale was going, it didn’t and that I should’ve realised (again!) that I should not jump to genre conclusions.

This is a fast-paced, hard, mean book, with characters of an ambiguous nature, actions that are decidedly questionable and expletive-rich dialogue that seems to have emerged from the bottom of a sewer. And yet, as it unfolds, for all its potty-mouthing, the tale draws the reader inexorably in. This was a book hard to put down, which for a nearly 700-paged novel takes some doing.

Though I have loved the books before, for me this is Joe’s highlight to date. This is an evolution from, and a distillation of, all that was great in his previous books.  Though there was the odd very minor misstep, I loved it. The man just keeps getting better and better. Damn him!

Mark Yon, October- December 2010   

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