The Heroes: Look for gore

Joe Abercrombie The HeroesJoe Abercrombie The HeroesThe Heroes by Joe Abercrombie

Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes is not named for its characters. Instead, “The Heroes” are a circle of stones at the top of a hill. Warriors were presumably buried beneath these stones long ago, and there will certainly be a high number of bodies to bury by the novel’s conclusion.

Yes, The Heroes is a fantasy novel about the soldiers caught in the middle of a war between the armies of the North and the armies of the Union. Readers are treated to scheming politics, petulant and pompous generals, and hard-working soldiers struggling to survive the next battle. There is no overarching purpose or justification to the war or to either side beyond power, so don’t look for good or evil. Look for gore.

The Heroes is a hard-boiled fantasy that fans of Glen Cook’s THE BLACK COMPANY or Steven Erikson’s MALAZAN books will enjoy. In other words, this is definitely not a traditionally romantic fantasy. Instead, The Heroes is a song to accompany drinking and marching rather than swooning and daydreaming. There are no spiritual martial artists who gracefully cut through violent hordes of opposition; there are just hordes of violent opposition.

There is also a strong awareness of fantasy’s conventions. Abercrombie clearly wants to create memorable soldiers — traditional fantasy’s “badasses,” if you will — but he is reluctant to characterize them in conventional ways. For example, Robert Jordan’s Rand al’Thor is capable of silencing a room full of generals with a glance. Pretty impressive, but a little cliché for today’s reader of swords and sorcery. Joe Abercrombie’s Lord Bayaz, we are assured, gives “no immediate impression of supreme power.” However, within a few paragraphs readers realize he is a “badass” because he has silenced a room full of generals.

At times, this self-awareness is refreshing, and it usually leads to a bit of fun at the expense of Abercrombie’s characters. When Stranger Comes Knocking, a giant warrior fighting with the North, at one point reveals his frame, it is described as a “great expanse of body, sinew-knotted like an ancient tree … almost more scar than skin. He was ripped, pocked, gouged with wounds, enough to make a score of champions proud.” It’s hard to imagine Abercrombie describing any of his characters without grinning. And in this way the novel occasionally takes on the gallows humor that one might expect from a group of soldiers. When a group of young recruits join the Union cavalry, one trooper asks why there are no horses, to which the corporal responds:

That’s an excellent question and a keen grasp of tactics. Due to an administrative error, our horses are currently with the Fifth, attached to Mitterick’s division, which, as a regiment of infantry, is not in a position to make best use of them. I’m told they’ll be catching up with us any day, though they’ve been telling me that a while. For the time being we are a regiment of… horseless horse.

I can’t help wondering if this isn’t the reality of army life.

There is little room in Abercrombie’s world for fantasy’s traditional hero: naturally talented, humbly courageous, with a somber sense of responsibility. Surprisingly, this world does not glorify its sadistic warriors. It celebrates grit, particularly the grit of men and women that make the best of bad situations.

Much of The Heroes is self-aware of fantasy’s conventions and can be enjoyed as a pastiche. However, it is first and foremost a novel about (mostly) men fighting with swords in the rain and mud. The majority of the novel’s structure is present to introduce readers to the soldiers and armies of the Union and the North before maneuvering everyone into position around a single hill — the Heroes. A bell doesn’t ring, but eventually the battle starts and fans are treated to an MMORPG raid of epic proportions.

Others wondering whether or not The Heroes is for them would do well to ask themselves whether they are like Calder, one of Abercrombie’s northern generals. At one point, Calder reflects that he feels “a little fear and a lot of contempt at the level of manliness on display.” Readers that expect more than a stiff-upper lip from their heroes should probably read something else. For readers that revel in gritty swordplay, The Heroes is a must read.

The Heroes — (2011) From Joe Abercrombie: Both because the action centres around a ring of standing stones called the Heroes, and because it’s about heroism and that (meant semi-ironically, of course). It mostly takes place over the course of three days, and is the story of a single battle for control of the North. Think Lord of the Rings meets A Bridge Too Far, with a sprinkling of Band of Brothers and Generation Kill. It’s about war, you get me? Principally it follows the (mis)adventures of six assorted persons on both sides and different levels of command, whose paths intersect during the course of the battle in various fateful, horrible, wonderful, surprisingly violent, surprisingly unviolent, and hilarious ways. With the Northmen: a veteran losing his nerve who just wants to keep his crew alive, an ex-Prince determined to claw his way back to power by any means necessary, a young lad determined to win a place in the songs for himself. With the Union: A depressive swordsman who used to be the king’s bodyguard, a profiteering standard-bearer, and the venomously ambitious daughter of the Marshal in command. But of course a fair few familiar faces show up on both sides…

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RYAN SKARDAL, with us since September 2010, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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  1. Ryan- You’re review was spot-on. Well done. I’m just curious about the 3 star rating though. I take that you’re not in the camp of reveling in gritty swordplay? :)
    Nothing wrong with that if you’re not. Abercrombie is one of my favorite authors, but I cannot say enough that he appeals mostly to somewhat twisted taste in story telling. In fact, for me, that’s part of why I like him so much.

  2. “I take that you’re not in the camp of reveling in gritty swordplay?”

    Everything has its limit, unfortunately.

  3. I agree with Ryan. I haven’t even read The Heroes yet, though I have it in audio. The afterglow of Best Served Cold is still with me, so I’m not ready to face any more of Abercrombie’s “heroes” for a while.

  4. Kat- Actually I think you may be surprised with The Heroes. Its not as “icky” as Best Served Cold. To me The Heroes is kinda like a darker David Gemmell on steroids. No real good guys or bad, its just a matter of perspective.

    For some reason, I see you liking “Prince” Caulder. He’s a very resourceful scoundrel, that has charisma despite being coward most times. (actually, calling him a coward is harsh, he just appreciates living more than the other Northmen.)

  5. “icky” — I can tell you’ve read my reviews, Greg! ;)
    I will try The Heroes. Thanks for the suggestion!

  6. I can’t wait to see it, Kat. I always love seeing your perspective in particular for my favorite books. Especially, when it seems like something that guys would like better. :)

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