Saturday, March 12, 2011
Joe Abercombie first hit the epic fantasy scene in 2006 with his debut The Blade Itself, which was the first book in The First Law trilogy. The Heroes is his fifth book and the second standalone. To this point all of Joe's novels have been set on the same world and have characters that pop in and out of the narratives as he feels he requires them.
Joe Abercrombie has gathered quite a number of fans in his relatively short career and a new Abercrombie is always eagerly awaited. The Heroes was no different.
There's a very short description on the back cover of The Heroes: Three Men. One Battle. No Heroes. That's about as concise as a back cover blurb can get, but it's a very good description of The Heroes. The action concerns a battle between Black Dow's Northmen and the forces of the Union for a valley in the North. It takes place over three days, and as with Abercrombie's other work, ultimately there are no winners from the conflict. The Heroes of the title are a ring of stones, so named because legend has it that some of the heroes of Northern myth and legend are buried under them.
The First Law trilogy and Joe Abercrombie's other standalone work: Best Served Cold, contained a handful of POV characters and assorted other colourful bit part players. The Heroes is no exception. The embittered northern warrior Caul Shivers reappears as does Bayaz the First of the Magi and Black Dow. Both Bayaz and Black Dow will be familiar to readers of The First Law and while Shivers appeared in The First Law he had a much larger part to play in Best Served Cold. The story told in The Heroes takes place nearly a decade after the end of Last Argument of Kings (the final book in The First Law trilogy).
The Heroes concentrates it's story largely on 6 characters: named Northman Curnden Craw, an old scarred warrior who has spent most of his life fighting, watching his friends die, wishing he could do something else and trying to do the right thing. Bremer dan Gorst, a swordfighter from the Union, who lost to King Jezal in a duel in The Blade Itself, failed to protect him from scandal in Best Served Cold and is trying to expiate all his guilt and make people forget his failures by killing as many people as he possibly can in this blood soaked battle. Prince Calder, Calder is former Northman King Bethod's youngest son. Calder is a coward, but he's also a fairly clever strategist and would make a decent leader if he were given the chance, Calder is simply trying to stay alive. Corporal Tunny, Tunny is a career corporal, his very nature makes it almost impossible for him to rise above the rank, however if you want to stay alive in a fight the Union has thrown it's forces into then stick close to Corporal Tunny, he always seems to find a way out. Then we have Finree Brock. Finree is an attractive and ambitious young lady who has come to the front to support her husband, the rising military officer Harod dan Brock. Finree is described as being venomously ambitious and she is, she will do whatever it takes and use whatever influence she can gather to propel her husband up the chain of command. Last of all is Beck, a young Northman, son of a legendary warrior who finds that war isn't all its cracked up to be and neither is being a hero.
Many of the Abercrombie trademarks are present: the gallows humour, the Northmen's stinging wit, the quirky characters that wander in and out of the story, the occasional musings on the situation using the short vignette of a one off character to get the point across, the viscerally described and gory battle scenes, the somewhat open ended ambiguous ending and the conclusion that war is futile, no one ever wins and very few get what they want.
In some ways I felt characters were reused. I found what I felt to be anaologues to earlier characters. Gorst's inward monologues and his bitter missives to Jezal often put me in mind of The First Law's crippled torturer Sand dan Glokta, who prior to capture and the torture that maimed and disfigured him was a nobly born champion swordsman. Whirrun of Bligh, also known as Cracknut, the legendary fighter and wielder of the blade Father of Swords reminded me of Logen 'The Bloody Nine' Ninefingers, the berserk warrior, who was for many readers the HERO of The First Law, there were also echoes of Josef Liechten, another bearer of a legendary blade, from Rachel Aaron's The Legend of Eli Monpress series, although I am sure that resemblance is purely coincidental, there's only so many swordsmen carrying blades of power that authors can come up with. Whirrun is also worth mentioning for his invention of the cheese trap, a laugh out loud moment of the book. Finree made me think of Ardee West from The First Law, only she was meaner, tougher and not a drunk. Calder was Jezal, there was very little difference in the way he thought and acted, Calder had a bit more purpose than the idle rich Jezal, but they could have been brothers. My personal favourite character was Craw, he was one of the most sympathetic characters Abercrombie has done, he was also one of the easiest to understand. I wouldn't be adverse to seeing him reappear some time in the future.
It's a fast paced book, with very few flat or slow bits and seems shorter than it's 498 pages in trade paperback. It does maybe spend a little long wrapping up the stories of its major characters, but people do like to know what happens. Tunny's story in particular seemed to be setting readers up for the next book, which is according to the author's blog a standalone western. Not sure how he'll do a western in his world, but it's his world, so I'm sure he can make it work. If you're a fan of Abercrombie you'll love The Heroes, if not I doubt there's anything in here that will win you over. If you haven't read Abercrombie before and want to know where to start you could pick up The Heroes and be quite satisfied with not having read the earlier work, there are some tiny spoilers and I think having read the earlier books does lend some context and depth to The Heroes. I'm happy and waiting to see what Joe can do next.