The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie
Ok, I should be careful here, because last time I reviewed a Joe Abercrombie book he read it and tweeted out my comments on his sex scenes. Thankfully, I loved Best Served Cold so I pretty much only had nice things to say about it. So, for Mr. Abercrombie’s benefit…
THE HEROES IS A MASTERPIECE, BEST ABERCROMBIE EVER BEST FANTASY EVER BEST BOOK EVER. I CRIED THREE TIMES PER PAGE AND LAUGHED AT EVERY OTHER MOMENT. THE HEROES BOUGHT ME THROUGH THE FULL GAMUT OF HUMAN EMOTIONS JOY SADNESS MELANCHOLY HUMOUR ENNUI. MY LIFE WILL NEVER BE THE SAME.
Ok, is he gone? Cool. Well, actually, I really did like The Heroes a lot, but we don’t want it getting to Joe’s head do we?
The Heroes is the second First Law standalone book, although it’s significantly less stand-alone-y than Best Served Cold, which I imagine would have stood up pretty well even without having read he original trilogy. The Heroes feels much more like a continuation of the main series, picking up with minor characters from the original trilogy for a climactic battle in the North. Black Dow, King of the North after his betrayal of the Bloody-Nine at the end of Last Argument of Kings, has been waging war on the Union, with the two forces meeting in battle in a stretch of open land near the town of Osrung. The Heroes takes place over three days, focusing entirely on the battle itself. Our main protagonists with the Northmen are Curnden Craw, a Named Man who fights for Dow, one of the few honest men in the North, Beck, the son of the great warrior Shama Heartless who seeks glory in battle and Prince Calder, the Machiavellian son of Bethod, the former King of the North. With the Union we have Bremer dan Gorst, the King’s former bodyguard, dispatched to the North after failing to protect the King during the events of Best Served Cold. We also have Tunny, a comic relief war profiteer and Finree, the ambitious daughter of Lord Marshal Kroy.
With Best Served Cold and The Heroes, you can really see an author trying to challenge himself, to approach epic fantasy in a different way. The First Law book with the most typically ‘fantasy’ storyline was Before They Are Hanged, and in retrospect I think it is the weakest of the series that I’ve read so far. Where it’s become the norm to consciously reject Tolkein-esque tropes recently, with A Song of Ice and Fire being the most clear example, I can’t think of another author whose weaved that rejection so well into the actual structure of their works. By limiting himself to a three day scope, Abercrombie tells a different kind of story, one which doesn’t rely on the sense of epic which fuels so much fantasy, instead being significantly more grounded and gritty. This is also an extremely thematically tight book which, unsurprisingly, focuses on heroism. The question as to what makes a hero, what a hero even is and why anyone would want to be one is front and centre in this book, with every character grappling with this central question in some way.
The humour and brutal action are all there, with Abercrombie furthering developing his own vivid style. There are few authors like this in fantasy, with many going for the Brandon Sanderson approach of basic prose supporting the plot (which is not a bad thing at all, I love Sanderson), but Abercrombie is developing a voice of his own. The biggest irritation in The Heroes is Abercrombie’s slight propensity to repeat himself. There are only so many times that a character can muse on the ultimate horror and pointlessness of war without getting repetitive. Still, this is perhaps a necessary risk when writing a book as narratively and thematically tight as this one.
I really enjoyed the new crop of characters in The Heroes, as well as familiar faces from the previous books. I was particularly happy to see the return of Caul Shivers from Best Served Cold, having been a big fan of his character arc in previous books. Many of the main POV characters played minor roles in the previous books, and Abercrombie’s turnaround of these characters is fascinating to behold. The revelation that sneering bastard from the originals Prince Calder is actually quite likeable was as good a switch-around as the similar revelation George R.R. Martin made about Jaime Lannister in A Storm of Swords. Similarly, learning that Bremer dan Gorst is in fact a seething cauldron of rage and resentment was interesting as well. There is something of a lack of decent female characters, but given the setting that’s perhaps understandable. I just miss Monzacarro Murcatto, who’s seriously one of the best fantasy protagonists ever.
The Heroes is another great instalment in the First Law world and an interesting literary experiment to boot. Overall, I preferred the scale of the revenge epic Best Served Cold, which matched the epic with the intimate pretty much perfectly, but nonetheless it’s always a pleasure to dip back into Abercrombie’s brutal bloody world.