Joe Abercrombie – The Heroes (2011) Review

the heroes

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I keep saying this with every Abercrombie novel, but Joe Abercrombie is one of the best in characterization of all fantasy authors working today. And he is at his very best in writing about common, plain, rural people – the simple and brutish folk of the North, in his First Law world. In his writing, he adopts the wry, comedic worldview of these people and lets it shine through his descriptions, and so each chapter is voiced through the mental disposition of the main character of that chapter. With Abercrombie, the arts of description, characterization and tone are all wonderfully merged together in a smooth, organic way of storytelling.

The title The Heroes sure doesn’t refer to the main characters, at least, at first it doesn’t, but the story makes me wonder if Abercrombie is trying to dissect heroism. The Heroes are a circle of Stonehenge type monoliths on a hill, overlooking the big battle, while the main characters all end up in this battle through motivations that you wouldn’t label as heroism. There’s a cranky, scared old-timer named Curnden Craw who is a warrior out of habit, a reluctant fighter. There’s Bremer dan Gorst, addicted to violence, and he’s out there to bring glory back to his name. Prince Calder, the son of slain King Bethod and a smooth talker, is out there to reclaim power back from Black Dow who is currently occupying the throne of the North.

All end up in a pitched three-day battle that occupies the entire novel.

The setup is very cinematic, even so far as titling book sections as ‘DAY ONE’, and the tension ramps up wonderfully. Abercrombie’s second great talent is describing skirmishes (and this novel is naturally filled with them) and what’s so great about them is the realistic, shitting-your-pants emotional reactions of his characters. He gives us a taste of what is to come right in the first part of the novel, the ‘DAY BEFORE’ section, where we follow the sad, old Curnden Craw and his group defending a hill. The story completely enveloped me as we follow the emotional rollercoaster of ending up in a pitched fight and hearing the arrows whizz by as we stumble over a rabbit hole and feel blood spattering on our face.

The characters are constantly vulnerable, yet constantly confronted with life. The dullness of it, the horror of war, the frictions of army hierarchy, the slog, the struggle of every little thing. Curnden Craw charges with his fellow Northmen, but his knee hurts. And then he has to come up with words to give the fallen a proper burial. Only a stoic, sardonic outlook keeps everyone sane, and “a proper way of doing things” to hold on to some basic humanity. Abercrombie’s style of grimdark is not to glorify violence, but to be brutally honest.

It took me a while to truly warm to these characters. Calder could be imagined as Tom Hiddleston’s Loki from the Marvel movies. The inner narration is done this time not by Glokta but by the hero Bremer dan Gorst, who has a rather crude, self-pitying voice. It’s interesting how we follow characters from different layers in the hierarchy, so that we follow the battle from every perspective – from the young warrior to the arrogant generals. The Northeners remain the funniest characters to read about with their warrior culture and wry dialect.

The Heroes has some of the best fight scenes in all of fantasy literature. This is straight from Homer’s Iliad, reminding me of Hector and Ajax fighting across the Greek fortifications on the beach near Troy. It also reminded me of the attack scene early on in the movie The Revenant, where we follow one character after another, where the killer of one man becomes the man to follow next. The book does similar tricks a few times, ranging all over the little valley of the battle. With some duels, I wanted both characters to win, or didn’t want to see one of them die yet, and I had to cover the page ahead to keep me from glimpsing the end.

The Heroes was the book I was hoping to get when I originally bought The Blade Itself. The first trilogy gave glimpses of what could be, if the plot had a stronger focus. And then the sequel Best Served Cold was only about vengeance, vengeance and more vengeance and so felt very monotone to me. The Heroes, in contrast, finds the perfect balance between all these elements: a tight, focused plot and an emotionally richer tale. Had this been a debut novel, then it would have been an earthquake in the genre. Now it is the best polished work of an experienced writer who grew into his full potential.

Even so, even the writer’s best work made me feel that something was still missing. Maybe it is that there is practically no magic in this novel? No, that’s not it. It’s that – with the exception of one or two fight scenes – no individual scene made me go “wow!”. And none of the characters were as interesting as Glokta or Logen. Bremer’s personal thoughts weren’t nearly as compelling as Glokta’s, the young soldiers weren’t memorable and the old ones felt like rehashes of every though Northern bastard. I just can’t give it the highest mark, because even though it is truly an accomplished novel when I look at it with an analytical eye, my personal sense of enthusiasm was never stirred that much.


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5 Responses to Joe Abercrombie – The Heroes (2011) Review

  1. Bookstooge says:

    The whole “grimdark” just keeps me from trying out Abercrombie. And when you mentioned the lack of magic, well, magicless fantasy is one of the new killers for me. I won’t read it…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. bormgans says:

    I dropped out of Before They Are Hanged about halfway in because the more I read, the more it felt cartoonish and superficial. Your review makes me want to read this though. Could it be read as a stand-alone?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it can be read as a stand alone. Normally, I would not recommend this, but since you’ve read the first 1.5 books, I take it that you are familiar with the names Bloody-Nine, The Dogman and Bayaz? They are often referred to or play minor roles in this novel.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Joe Abercrombie – Red Country (2012) Review | A Sky of Books and Movies

  4. Pingback: Review: The Trouble With Peace (2020) by Joe Abercrombie | A Sky of Books and Movies

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