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.