Review: The Heroes

Joe Abercrombie has earned a reputation as a writer of gritty, intense fantasy that’s unafraid to deconstruct and reexamine the typical fantasy assumptions. For many readers, this falls firmly in the camp of being “a very good thing,” though individual mileage may vary (see here for an interesting blog post and an impressive thread of commentary responding to one critic’s unfavorable opinions on postmodern interpretations of the fantasy genre). His freshman effort, The First Law, offered up a fresh, violent, and often funny take on epic fantasy; Abercrombie followed up his well-received trilogy with Best Served Cold, telling a brutal tale of merciless vengeance. As an author, he works well with either small-scale action or grandiose plot lines, and his characters always surprise with their depth and variety, but previous books have sometimes suffered from issues with uneven pacing, particularly Best Served Cold. So how will The Heroes, Abercrombie’s second standalone novel, compare? Good news: very, very well. The Heroes’ structure couldn’t be simpler: one battle, three heroes, three days. But prepare to be amazed by the depth and nuance explored in three blood-soaked days. The Heroes continues Abercrombie’s tradition of richly detailed characters in gritty, violent stories, delivered at a breakneak pace.

So who are these aforementioned heroes? Abercrombie opens The Heroes with Curnden Craw in action, leading his dozen in service to the Protector of the North, Black Dow. Curnden, an honorable warrior with a lifetime of war injuries and scars, takes control of a hill that serves as the focal point for a massive clash of armies. His polar opposite, the conniving Prince Calder, also serves Black Dow, but relentlessly plots to seize power for himself. In the Union Army, the virtuoso swordsman Bremer dan Gorst toils in humiliated misery to recapture his place among the Knights of the Body, as First Guard to the High King of the Union. In addition to the three primary antagonists, The Heroes presents three secondary characters as foils, each different interpretations of heroism. A foolish farmboy named Beck strives to earn his name in battle. Corporal Tunny, the longest-serving (and longest-surviving) officer in the Union, follows orders to the letter, while ensuring his continued survival. Finree dan Brock, wife to a young and idealistic Union officer, schemes for political advancement. A rich cast of characters surrounds these antagonists, some of them admirable, many less than admirable, but each of them memorable. Especially deserving of special mention, the mad Northman Whirrun of Bligh, not written as one of the point-of-view characters, but never failing to captivate in any scene he occupies (his thoughts on the future of eating cheese with bread are particularly amusing).

The last hero isn’t a character at all, but the Valley of Osrung, site of a massive battle between the Union army and the Northmen. At the center of the Valley are The Heroes, a memorial of massive stone pillars that overlook the fields below, their origins long since forgotten. A gorgeous map illustrates the positions of both armys’ units at the start of each day’s fighting. Small details like the names of individual farms, fences, and bridges lend the battlefield a sense of authenticity, further reinforced by Abercrombie’s attention to detail. For anyone who has read military history, the battle maps will feel very familiar, portraying the position of each military unit and giving a good impression of the tide of events. As the battle progresses, the minutia of the battle lines and elements involved never becomes confused or unclear.

So Abercrombie has piled up a group of unique characters on a well-described field of combat, but what purpose do all these pieces serve? How do all of these characters fit into a worthy narrative when the events of the novel occur in less than a week, in one location, during a single battle? After the feeling of bloat that plagued the later chapters of Best Served Cold, The Heroes’s whip-tight pacing never drags or bumps, finding an excellent balance between exciting combat sequences and the maneuverings of exhausted survivors during the evening hours. The opening hundred pages document the lead up to the Battle of Osrung, with the initial skirmishes and the arrival of the armies proper foreshadowing the monumental bloodletting to come. Without spoiling anything — several standout surprises should delight any reader — the next three days of battle are packed with memorable moments, both on and off the battlefield. Abercrombie punches with every word, keeping the combat intense and visceral, but never lingering needlessly. And the arrival of sunset never feels like a disappointment; the nights are filled with just as much conflict as the bloody days. Expect to read The Heroes in a crush of rushed hours, as this isn’t a book that’s easy to set aside.

The denouement will feel familiar to readers of The Last Argument of Kings, displaying Abercrombie’s signature cynicism in regards to the typical conclusion of an epic fantasy tale. That said, while this novel can stand on its own, reading the previous works will ensure a better appreciation for the history of the many characters Abercrombie weaves throughout the story. And don’t let the simple structure fool you: The Heroes throws some curveballs, telling a deep story about the secret motivations of driven people, whether they be wife, warrior, politician, or a meager farm boy. No one is entirely whom they appear to be: the grim duelist is secretly an ingratiating coward, the honorable warrior who always does the right thing is inflexible, bound by a sense of honor that fails to differentiate obvious rights from wrongs. After meeting the heroes of Abercrombie’s latest effort, storybook heroism seems more misguided optimisim than any actual possibility. The First Law trilogy opened the doorway to a tenebrous world, bleak and violent, familiar but often surprising, Best Served Cold expanded upon this vision with a whole new setting occupied by a ferocious female protagonist, and now The Heroes proves Joe Abercrombie’s continuing maturation as a writer. Luckily, we can look forward to much more of Joe Abercrombie’s refreshing interpretation of the fantasy genre.

Plot: 8.5
Characters: 9
Action: 10
Writing: 8.5

Overall (not an average): 9/10

Edition reviewed: The Heroes

* Hardcover: 560 pages
* Publisher: Orbit; 1 edition (February 7, 2011)
* Language: English
* ISBN-10: 0316044989
* ISBN-13: 978-0316044981