Joe Abercrombie has become one of the UK's top fantasy writers after only 5 books. Many suggest he is similar to David Gemmell which I would not agree with, Gemmell's characters had a nobility and sense of right about them, Abercrombie's are lacking in a sense of nobility and justice and have the whole range of emotions and traits including many that are not at all nice.
So while Abercrombie does play in the Gemmell's genre of fantasy with swords and occasional sorcery, Abercrombie is strong on rich and often deliciously self serving characters spun into a violent and unforgiving world. His first three books, the First Law trilogy were a joy, followed up by a standalone novel set in the same world.
The Heroes is his fifth novel and it is an ambitious and unique take on the traditional fantasy battle story. The Heroes as a title is a clever sleight of hand - it refers to a circle of rocks on a hill, not any set of characters involved in the story. The Heroes are the central strategic goal for two opposing armies, The Union and the North and we see a battle over three days from the perspective of many of the participants. Abercrombie is making a few points here and turns the traditional fantasy battle on its blooded head, here there is no great evil to defeat or bigger picture, it's all a bit pointless. The loss of life for a small bit of ground was much like the trench warfare of WW1 with equally poor judgement and waste of life. There are no good guys or bad guys in this, just two opposing forces being slaughtered for nothing more than a pile of rocks. Wrapped in this mess we have a variety of strong and interesting characters and Abercrombie's trademark dialogue and banter.
It takes a while to get used to the vast cast but the effort is rewarded with a strong reminder as to how good a writer Joe Abercrombie is. Not for the fainthearted or those offended by earthy language though!
Three Men. One Battle. No Heroes.
The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie is a standalone novel set in the same world he created for the First Law trilogy. It follows the course of a single battle, over the period of three days, between the forces of the Union and the Northmen. The opposing armies have been dancing around one another for many months but in the valley of Osrung, they finally come together in a definitive clash.
There are three main characters in the novel. Firstly there is Bremer dan Gorst, a disgraced master swordsman fighting in the Union army. He is attempting to reclaim his place in his King's court and will stop at nothing in order to do so.
Next is Curden Craw, a lifelong soldier in the army of the Northmen. He has reached the age where the appeal of battle is swiftly receding. His nerves and knees are shot and he wants nothing more than peace.
Finally there is Prince Calder, considered a coward by many, he is only interested in power and how best to avoid getting involved in all the fighting. His father was once king of the Northmen and Calder continues to crave the throne.
It is fantastic to read and discover the metamorphosis of these men over the battles duration. Each are forced to face hard facts about themselves and I don't think any end up where they would have expected when the battle began.
The battle itself is a brutal, bloody, frenetic affair and nothing is sugar coated. Men are violently dispatched and little is left to the imagination. The action is merciless and I think the novel is all the better for it. Many readers will be used to a battle in a fantasy novel having an almost clinical description. Abercrombie doesn't write that way. Each and every person on the battlefield has a story and the reader gets the opportunity to experience as many of them as is possible.
The vast majority of the characters have a moral ambiguity that makes it easy to switch your allegiances backward and forwards between the two sides as the story develops. Abercrombie is obviously having fun playing around with this. A chapter will begin written from the perspective of a Union solider and before you know it you are following the Northman who has just beheaded him. I think it is fair to say that some may find this writing style a little dizzying, but I felt it was in keeping with fast paced nature of the novel.
I was initially surprised by how much The Heroes made me laugh. We have a horrific situation where many men are facing an uncertain future. Some will live but a great many more will die. In hindsight though, this is exactly the place I would expect to find the darkest of gallows humour.
There is also a fair amount of swearing in the novel but I find it hard to fault this. Many of the soldiers that take part in the battle are just common men. They have no airs and graces about them. They swear, they drink, they consort with whores. Their human failings make them seem all the more real and they vividly come to life on the page.
The book is gritty and dark, but in turns also insightful and honest. I have always enjoyed the frankness that is displayed in Abercrombie's work and it is shown again here. I think, with one exception, there are no real heroes in the novel at all. This is where the book truly succeeds, it made me question the definition of what a hero really is.
on 8 November 2012
Flipping heck, what a book. I've seen this seems to have some mixed reviews - I don't know what everyone is on because I thought every last second of this was ruddy fantastic, giving me even more reasons to count this world as one of my absolute favourites. You're even giving George a run for his money, Joe...
Catching up with some old faces, and plenty of new, it's been some time since the events of Best Served Cold and the Union are at war again, manipulated by the bastardly Bayaz and supported by the Dogman's dozen (thus shaking my loyalties a little, though he's got not much more than cameos in this).
Ranged against them are Black Dow, having taken Bethod's chain and standing as Protector of the North, with a huge cast of brilliantly colourful characters behind him (well, when it suits them) setting the stage for even more bone-crunchingly brutal violence, with life as cheap as it ever was, and war as terrifying and futile.
I find it hard to write properly about the books I really adore without descending into fan-girl wibbles, but amongst the many reasons why I loved this are:
* Whirrun of Bligh, and the Father of Swords. Utterly nonchalant, slightly spooky and completely hilarious, Whirrun's become one of my book crushes. I should probably save up for some form of therapy.
* The inner monologue of Bremer dan Gorst.
* Calder and his scheming. I've always had a soft spot for schemers.
* Seeing what's become of Shivers, and how others see him.
* Craw, who I now feel almost as warmly about as I do Dogman.
* Possibly the most incredible battle scenes in the whole of bookdom. Particularly the first big one about a third of the way in as we jump from each man as he kills, and is killed in turn.
* The tantalising set up for the future of this world, and the prospect of more adventures to come soon.
Be still, my beating heart...
on 27 August 2012
My first Abercrombie book was Best Served Cold, and its violent and gritty tale of vengeance got me hooked. I devoured his earlier First Law trilogy, and when The Heroes was released I bought the hardback version the day it was available.
I was not disappointed. The Heroes is a tale about a single battle between the North and the Union, and it majestically weaves together many different strands of stories. We see many familiar faces, such as the monolithical Bremer dan Gorst and the frightening Black Dow, and we are introduced to many new faces in Joe Abercrombies ever-expanding world of dark fantasy. My personal favourite - and of many other readers, no doubt - was the slightly off-kilter Cracknut Whirrun, whose every appearance in the novel is both funny and tragic, and thoroughly memorable.
If you liked Joe Abercrombie's earlier works, or if you're a fan of dark and realistic fantasy in general, this one is not to be missed.
on 27 October 2012
Quite simply one of my favourite books of all time! Spread over a few days it manages to assemble one of the best set of characters ever set to print and delivers such a resounding blow to your senses it was a huge disappointment when I finally finished the last page. It really is one of those books you just hope keeps on going wih every turn of the page. Even if one of my favourite characters snuffs it near the end!!! This for me is the peak of what is already a magnificent series so far and is one I'll be recommending and treasuring for years to come. A+, 10/10, Gold Star.
on 6 May 2014
Black Dow and the Northmen have becoming a thorn in the Union’s side. The Union is getting pushy and starting to encroach on land held by Black Dow. There’s only one way to settle this . . . FIGHT!!!
Craw and his dozen have been sent to secure a hill, crowned by ancient standing stones known as The Heroes, which is being held by some of the Dogman’s men. He manages to pull it off without violence. But neither he, nor his dozen are aware of how important that hill is going to be in the coming days, for the Union is marching all of its legions North.
Somehow Abercrombie has managed to take a simple concept as a war, and a pointless one at that, and turn it into a 500+ paged novel, and managed without even having any one main protagonist. What he does do is introduce a rogues gallery of fighters on either side of the war, so instead of one main story arc, we get six arcs that enjoy almost an even amount of page space. The North has its named men, with Black Dow, a charismatic but murderous leader, as their chief. Craw is the ‘I’m too old for this s***’ warrior that tries to the right thing in ever situation, whilst looking out for his crew; amongst whom are Whirrun of Bligh, a legendary warrior who carries the Father of Swords and Wonderful, the only female warrior who can hold her own against any of Black Dows men. Also on the Northmen’s side is Prince Calder, the scheming son of the former ‘King of the North’, who’s smirk and double-edged words only seem to land him in deeper waters. Then there’s Beck, a farm boy who has dreamed of earning a Name and following in his heroic father’s footsteps.
The Union is led by Lord Marshal Kroy, a seasoned general who takes the loss of men personally but is surrounded by sycophants and the King’s old drinking buddies. His daughter, Finree has come along to show support for her husband, a nobleman who’s family has fallen from the King’s favor, whom she hopes to advance through her own politicking. Another man who has fallen from favor is Bremer dan Gorst, a warrior with very few equals but only allowed near battle as the Royal Observer, though his only wish is to fight his way back into the King’s good graces. Then there is Corporal Tunny, a seasoned soldier and slacker. He’s that guy that get you anything you need, polish, extra rations or a blanket, for a price. The characters are colorful and well-realized, making you care for what happens to them and hope for their safety every time they face danger. This in itself is no mean task, as Abrecrombie manages to strike such a fine balance that the reader doesn’t care what side the characters are fighting on, but rather empathise with each characters personal situation instead.
The world-building is gritty and believable. There are no undead, demons or dragons to distract from the action, and the battles are every bit as muddy, bloody and confused as you would expect a battle to be, but even the gore is tempered by that underlying sense that the violence is pointless and dehumanizing. The Union could very well be the Roman Empire trying to conquer the Northern lands of the British Isles, which quickly helps to establish the style of armour and clothing, the style of the architecture and the lay of the land, within the readers mind.
The writing may not be written in stanzas, but Abercrombie has managed to tell the story of an epic battle in the tradition of Homer’s Illiad, choosing to focus on the heroics of individuals rather than force the reader to pick sides and politics. The plot might not enrich your lives, but you will most certainly remember his motley cast of characters and no doubt will find yourself browsing for other titles by Abercrombie.
The Heroes can be read as a stand-alone novel (as I did), or can be read as part of a linked series of books that started with The Blade Itself. What is certain is that Abercrombie has made himself a ‘Named Man’ amongst writers of Fantasy and a contender for the crown of ‘King of Heroic Fantasy’.
A novel of heroic fantasy - a term for fantasy novels with lots of fighting and little or no magic plus no non human creatures - from writer Joe Abercrombie.
It does contain strong language and adult moments.
It takes place in the same world as his earlier books. But there's not too much tie in to those, so anyone who hasn't read them should be able to get into this quite easily.
Although there are slight hints of bigger things going on behind the scenes, it is also a book with a beginning middle and end, and one that thus stands pretty much entirely on it's own.
It runs for six hundred and ten pages. It's divided into five parts. These are further divided into relatively short chapters.
There's a cast of characters at the front.
There's a map of the setting at the start of parts two three and four. Which, in a rather novel touch, changes slightly on each occasion to go along with developments in the story.
Which is all about a battle. The Union, the powerful kingdom from the south of the land, have invaded the North. Northern leader Black Dow and his forces won't go down without a fight.
Part one describes events of the day before the battle that ensues. Which last for three days. The next three parts cover a single one of those. Part five covers what happens next.
There's a big cast of very varied characters. All of whom are caught up in things. Veteran soldiers, raw recruits, and a civilian or two. All of whom will go through an awful lot over the course of a few days.
None of them, though, are heroes.
It's a book all about combat. How veterans cope with it. How raw recruits and the inexperienced have their illusions shattered. And about the sheer confusion and chaos and terror that those involved in it will go through.
In presenting all this, it succeeds superbly.
The action scenes are fast moving and can be confusing as the prose is very fast moving, but that accurately depicts the aforementioned terror and confusion, so it's a style that works very well.
As does the way things are resolved. Wars don't end with last minute assaults on the Dark Lord's castle. They end very differently. Leaving things never the same as they were before. Something else that this gets exactly right with it's depictions.
A really great read if you like this kind of fantasy. Well worth five stars.
on 6 June 2012
The First Law trilogy was a brilliantly warped fantasy trilogy with some of the most memorable characters I've come across. Best Served Cold expanded on the universe and brought to the fore previously small characters whilst introducing new ones, all whilst referencing the events and development of the world we'd come to know. The Heroes continues this, and then some.
The Heroes is a stand alone tale set after Best Served Cold, up in the North, where the Union squares off with Black Dow's Northmen in a 3 day pitched battle. Returning characters Bremer Dan Gorst and Prince Calder become our protagonists here, but the tale is told through a variety of perspectives on both sides of the battle and, more importantly, at all ranks; from the scout to the field marshall. Abercrombie's writing somehow manages to improve with each book he produces and the characterisations here are razor sharp, his dialogue is incredibly snappy and the book flows seamlessly with no down time or filler at any point. The action sequences, of which there are many, are stronger than ever but it is testament to the craft at work that it is often the downtime between engagements, the back and forth of the soldiers, that prove the most entertaining moments. There are so many brilliant characters and moments that it would be a shame to ruin them, but Corporal Tunny and Whirrun of Bligh prove particularly wonderful additions.
The book brings back several old favourites, allowing us to see their development, and keeps us informed as to the overarching conflict between Bayaz and Khalul which dictates many of the events (and those in Best Served Cold). With new novel A Red Country set to be released at the end of 2012 and followed, most likely, by another trilogy, I advise you to devour The Heroes as soon as possible....and then go back and re-read all 5 Abercrombie books in time for the next release. He's that good.
2011 saw some incredibly strong releases; A Dance With Dragons and The Wise Man's Fear in particular. I read all three fairly close together in the summer of '11 and The Heroes was the best of the three. Truly incredible.
on 29 August 2012
I read Joe Abercrombie's 'First Law Trilogy' a couple of years back and, whilst I enjoyed it, I was slightly puzzled as to why he was being praised so highly. The Heroes has changed that. It is a tour de force, one of those rare books that I didn't want to end, and that I lay awake thinking about after I finished it last night.
The 'Heroes' of the title are not the characters in the novel - they are a circle of standing stones perched atop a hill in a contested valley, and the high ground that becomes the focus of the ensuing battle between the Northmen and the Union. Some of the characters are carried over from his previous books, but the novel can be read on its own without detriment - I recognised some of the names but, apart from Bayaz, didn't really remember what they'd done before. And some - no, all - of the characters here are brilliant, fully developed, interesting, sympathetic and believable.
Even though the blurb mentions three particular men, there are many more characters involved, and I loved the way Abercrombie introduced them and then gradually fleshed them out, in all cases totally subverting my expectations of them. Particular favourites: Caul Shivers, Black Dow's enforcer, scarred, one-eyed and exuding menace in a constant whisper; and Whirrun of Bligh, Craw's friend from far to the north and wielder of the Father of Swords, a weapon almost as long as he is tall, and possessing so much history that it rivals Dragnipur in the Malazan novels. To me, both of those characters almost deserve books of their own. Then there's Finree, the ambitious daughter of the Union's Lord Marshall, who has plans for her husband's rise in the political stakes, and is involved in one of the most terrifying, heart-stopping set-pieces I've yet read in a novel.
The action is superbly handled. In one extended sequence on the first day of the battle, Abercrombie takes a character and tells the story from their viewpoint - until they are killed. Then he switches to the view of the person who killed them and continues until they are killed, and so on. There is something intensely fatalistic and emotive about it, that many of these characters don't even know what they're fighting for, just that they've been pointed in a certain direction, and that they're likely to die.
Abercrombie has a lot to say in this book about the nature of heroism, cowardice, ambition, greed, jealousy, manipulation of the truth, and more, yet he does it with a light touch that never loses sight of the characters or their predicaments. His style changes for each character, and it really got me inside their heads, yet it still flows beautifully. It's a gritty, modern take on heroic fantasy. It's about people - there are no fantasy creatures involved and hardly anything in the way of magic. It is a dark book, full of violence, swearing and death, and yet it is leavened with gallows humour (which is frequently laugh-out-loud funny) and quieter moments which are sometimes profound. I think it's an absolute triumph for him.
Taking Ken Grimwood's Replay out of the equation (as it's a very different take on the genre), The Heroes is far and away the best fantasy novel I've read this year. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's one of the best fantasy novels I've ever read. George R.R. Martin may be getting all the attention at the moment, but this book is proof that there are other far better writers of fantasy out there. The Heroes deserves to sell by the shed load, in my opinion.
on 8 February 2011
The Heroes should firmly establish Abercrombie as one of the leading authors in modern fantasy. Arguably, in this reviewer's opinion (with his lukewarm feelings toward Malazan and with the continued inability of GRRM to move on with A Song of Ice and Fire), he is perhaps the best in the genre right now. Maybe, maybe not; but Abercrombie's fifth book certainly does nothing to harm his already strong reputation.
The Heroes is dark and gritty, even by the author's own standards. The environment, the characters and the events are all bleak. Imagine the Black Company dug in for a three day battle minus the comic relief of Goblin and One Eye, plus a big dollop of Malazan cynicism and you'll get a feeling for the atmosphere surrounding the events of this book. Abercrombie slightly over does his rubbishing of heroism on the battlefield - every other chapter does not require characters to reflect on the nature of being a hero - but through smart characters, especially Gorst, the author tackles the issue convincingly.
Although in a way it's disappointing that the more strongly established characters (Shivers, the Dogman, Bayaz) are sideshows in this novel credit is due to Abercrombie for creating new characters or developing older, previously less important ones. The whole gamut of Gorst, Calder, Curnden Craw down to Felnigg and Stranger-Come-Knocking are a wide range of varied and well written characters. Abercrombie's writing is as good as ever too. It perhaps lacks a bit of the sparkle present in BSC but only because the tone is so unrelentingly grim (though the gallows humour present throughout does alleviate things).
There are a couple of downsides to the novel though. One is minor - simply, haven't we been here before? Union soldiers fighting a bungling campaign in the North against hardy but numerically inferior opposition - does that sound familiar? The circumstances are different to what we saw in the First Law trilogy but it's a shame that, after turning to Styria in BSC, the author has returned to another Union versus Northmen conflict in this novel. Abercrombie's North is a great setting but we've seen plenty of it already. I still eagerly await the time (hopefully) that we get to see the Gurkish and southern lands in more depth.
The second, and greater, issue I have with The Heroes is that events never feel significant enough - very little really seems to be riding on the battle. Of course the personal events are the real focus of the story; but the lack of any impact on the big picture strips away a layer of suspense. The First Law trilogy was so excellent because it managed to blend personal tales with an important international struggle. The Heroes never really demonstrates why winning or losing the battle would be significant to either side. Perhaps the futility of war is one of Abercrombie's points but if so it's handled in a way that makes reading this novel less exciting than it should be.
Yet it's tough for Joe Abercrombie. He set himself an extremely high standard with his first trilogy of novels. The Heroes is a very good read but, along with all the above, it never feels quite as fresh and genre-subverting as the First Law books. This is a very good story of a messy battle and some of its participants, but it feels as if that's all it is. Abercrombie pulls some surprises out near the end but still the story doesn't feel as interesting as any of the First Law novels (although I would consider this superior to BSC).
Perhaps that's because it feels like a holding book, something to tie us over until the next stage of Bayaz's war with the Gurkish takes off? The Union has already moved on and with Logen and Glokta having been kept away from the reader for these last two books the time seems ripe for their return. The Heroes is another excellent book from Abercrombie; it's not perfect and not his best, but it does a hell of a lot right and still has me eagerly awaiting the next novel from this world.