I’ve been a fan of Abercrombie since first reading Best Served Cold last year, and my admiration of his work continued when I retrospectively read his First Law Trilogy. Most fans will say that Best Served Cold was not quite the equal of its predecessors, and I would respectively disagree. But whatever anyone can say about that book I think there is no denying that The Heroes is an improvement in all the vital areas - prose, character development and plot - over any of Abercrombie’s novels that came before it. This un-restrained war (battle?) saga brings together all the features of Abercrombie’s writing that readers have come to love and dishes out an extra portion of mordant, epic, fantasy-storytelling.
They say Black Dow killed more men than winter and clawed his way to the throne of the North up a hill of skulls.
The King of the Union, ever a jealous neighbor, is not about to stand smiling by while he claws his way any higher. The orders have been given and the armies are toiling through the northern mud. Thousands of men are converging on a forgotten ring of stones, on a worthless hill, in an unimportant valley, and the’ve brought a lot of sharpened metal with them.
Bremer dan Gorst, disgraced master swordsman, has sworn to reclaim his stolen honor on the battlefield. Obsessed with redemption and addicted to violence, he’s far past caring how much blood gets spilled in the attempt. Even if it’s his own.
Prince Calder isn’t interested in honor, and still less in getting himself killed. All he wants is power, and he’ll tell any lie, use any trick, and betray any friend to get it. Just as long as he doesn’t have to fight for it himself.
Curden Craw, the last honest man in the North, has gained nothing from a life of warfare but swollen knees and frayed nerves. He hardly even cares who wins any more, he just wants to do the right thing. But can he even tell what that is with the world burning dow around him?
Over three bloody days of battle the fate of the North will be decided. But with both sides riddled by intrigue, follies, feuds and petty jealousies, it is unlikely to be the noblest hearts, or even the strongest arms that prevail...
The choice of a single battle in a single emplacement for an entire novel is an interesting one for Abercrombie when considering that his books up to now had, generally speaking, been a bit all over the place geographically. This was by no means a bad thing - those settings suited their stories well, but what the limited environment of The Heroes appears to have done is to allow Abercrombie to focus his skill and attention on very specific details, a situation which consequently allows his aptitudes as a writer to shine even more.
To be fair, one can hardly praise Abercrombie for his originality in centering his novel around a single battle. Others have done it before him, and I’m sure many will do it in the future. What he can be praised for is his rendering of this three-day-long battle. His exposition is near perfect and has a symmetric quality to it - and I like symmetry. He alternates between all of the viewpoints in balanced fashion and after having covered a view point from one side of the battlefield he reciprocates the time spent there with a look from a view point on the other side while the transitions are seamless all-around. This adds dynamism to the storytelling and a more varied perspective of the action.
What Abercrombie can also be commended for is his flair in creating lovable characters both amongst the Northmen and the Union men. All of the main characters - and a good few many of the secondary ones - are well fleshed out all or most possessing a sense of humor, particularly reflective personalities and conflicting motives - all good ingredients for intriguing characters. That The Heroes’ characters are so well written is a testament of Abercrombie’s evolution as a writer, seeing as his precedent novel, Best Served Cold, was most often criticized for its lack of believable or engaging characters.
The Heroes, in many ways, reads more like a sequel, or maybe a close cousin to The First Law and Best Served Cold, rather than a standalone novel. For one thing, it features a greater number of characters taken from those books and the many references to past events seem too pivotal to The Heroes’ plot for it not to require the reader to have completed Abercrombie’s previous novels. That said, I think The Heroes is better for it. More and more it feels like Abercrombie has an overarching plan in how the events of his novels are linked, even though he himself freely admits that he still has no precise idea what he will do in the future books his publishers have ordered.
The Heroes is yet another example of how Abercrombie’s ever-so-slightly cynical outlook, gripping depiction of warfare, dark wit and strong characterization simply make for great reading. Quite clearly his best novel to date, with The Heroes there is no more denying (could you before?) that Abercrombie is one of the most talented fantasists working their craft at the moment. Readers of Abercrombie’s previous books should have no fear of disappointment going into this one. Definitely lives up to the hype.
My Rating: 4.5 out 5
Reading Age: 15 and up
Joe Abercrombie's Website: http://www.joeabercrombie.com/
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