Early in Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes, a character, when asked about good and evil, remarks, “There’s always good men on both sides of a good question.” Left unspoken is the fact that there are also horrible bastards on both sides of that same question. Given that the book takes place largely during the three-day Battle of Osrung, the latest clash between the Union and the North in Abercrombie’s First Law world, that’s a fairly succinct summation of what the reader’s in for.
There will be some mild First Law and slightly-less-mild Best Served Cold spoilers to follow.
Taking place some years after the First Law trilogy, The Heroes bears similarities and differences to Abercrombie’s previous standalone work, Best Served Cold. On the one side of the ledger, we have returning characters, common themes, and the seemingly eternal war in the North. On the other side, we have a considerably more compact timeframe than his previous works, along with a broadened cast of POV characters. The sum total is the best of Abercrombie’s books I’ve yet read (disclaimer for Alexis: I haven’t read Red Country yet, Amazon is taking its sweet-ass time getting round to delivering it).
In Abercrombie’s world, leaders are inept or bloodthirsty or both. Good men die while bad men live. A man’s friend is the one most likely to stab him in the back. Farmers are lucky to get through a whole season without their fields set afire or their children killed by raiding parties. Life is Hobbesian: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
But there are moments of almost heartbreaking beauty as well, moments of love and of friendship, when even the hardest man sets aside his mask of war and becomes human, if only for a moment.
One of the things I especially enjoyed about The Heroes is the incredible variety of characters. I’ve complained before, about Abercrombie and other writers, that we so rarely get low-level, everyman POV characters, people who actually end up bearing the brunt of the suffering whenever a badass protagonist starts a war or burns a field or swears vengeance. But here, we get everything, from incompetent generals to ambitious captains to scheming wives to stolid sergeants to malingering corporals to raw recruits. Everything from the point of the spear to the butt. Not only does this give the reader a breathtaking view of the battle itself, but it also reinforces the idea that men go to war for different reasons: some go for glory, some go for redemption, some go for slaughter, some go for the proverbial three hots and a cot. The Union side does seem to have the majority of the frankly incompetent commanders, though. They really could have used a fellow like Collum West…
Sorry, it’s a bit dusty in here. Anyway.
The battle itself is well rendered, about as well rendered as any fictional battle I can remember. Certainly the fact that it lasts pretty much the entire length of the 541-page book helps on that account, but the Siege of Adua and the Battle of the High Places from the First Law trilogy have shown that Abercrombie is as good as anyone in the fantasy genre at the kickass setpiece (certainly the equal of Martin and Erickson). But of course, you can’t have a battle without the men to fight it, and as I mentioned above, Abercrombie gives us a veritable feast of differing characters to follow. Among the highlights are Bremer dan Gorst (disgraced former bodyguard of the King and still the deadliest blade in the Union), Curnden Craw (veteran Northman who always manages to do the right thing), Caul Shivers (about which a bit more below), Finree dan Brock (wannabe Lady Macbeth and the secret object of Gorst’s passion), Prince Calder (son of the late King Bethod and a fair schemer in his own right), and Black Dow, a man who, as the jacket copy claims, “has killed more men than winter” (and if that isn’t badass promotional copy, I don’t know what is).
While first-time readers can certainly jump right in and follow the action perfectly well (more so than Best Served Cold, I’d say), Abercrombie really does reward those who’ve read all his preceding books. There’s a really fantastic cameo from Bayaz, First of the Magi, AKA Asshole Gandalf. There are a fair few Easter eggs that pay off nicely. Often mentioned, occasionally invoked, Logen Ninefingers (though still presumed dead) hangs over the proceedings like the executioner’s axe over a stretched-out neck. But the real treat for the longtime reader is the character arc of Caul Shivers, last seen leaving Styria having lost an eye and whatever vestiges of honor he might have still carried with him. The development of Shivers over the course of Best Served Cold is striking, but it’s only with the passage of time that we can really grasp how terribly wounded he was by his time in the company of Monza Murcatto. And I don’t just mean the eye. Though I will say, I absolutely fucking heart the way Abercrombie replaced his missing eye (I didn’t explicitly mention this in my BSC review, ’cause it would’ve been spoilery, but he starts off with it here, so there).
Of course the battle itself is bloody and horrifying. The ending is fairly ambiguous, in keeping with Abercrombie’s penchant for zigging when the audience expects him to zag. There are a few vaguely disappointing elements (NEEDS MORE DOGMAN), but on the whole The Heroes is a preposterously entertaining read, a must for any fan of modern fantasy. But, ‘yknow, you’re best off reading his other stuff first.