The war between the Union and the North culminates in a three-day battle among two small villages, bogs, and barley fields. The high ground is a saddled hilltop ringed by ancient standing stones called the Heroes. The ruthless fighting prowess of Black Dow, the new king of the North, is pitted against Lord Marshal Kroy, the commander of the southern King’s army. The Heroes reads more like historical fiction than fantasy. In true Joe Abercrombie fashion, it’s a grim tale told by an array of intensely colorful and intriguing characters.
Joe Abercrombie is to fantasy books what Clint Eastwood was to Western movies; he’s taken the genre to a whole new level of badass.
From beginning to end, reading about medieval warfare cannot get any more real than it is in The Heroes. This book is sure to give readers the instinctive urge to duck a swinging battle-axe or dodge a spear thrust. As always, Abercrombie is a master of dialogue that ranges from hysterical to profound. While reading The Heroes, the pages (the e-pages, in my case) disappeared and I achieved the Holy Grail of bookworms: the complete mental transportation from reality into the imaginary world. If action is not your thing, worry not.
This is a war story that takes place in the same world as Joe Abercrombie’s other books: The First Law Trilogy and Best Served Cold. Take a gander at the “Order of Battle” — the character list, which is cleverly placed at the beginning of the book instead of the end. Bayaz, Bremer dan Gorst, Black Dow, and The Dogman return from The First Law Trilogy. We also see some of Curnden Craw’s “dozen.” Named Men like the woman warrior called Wonderful and Whirrun of Bligh introduced in “The Fool Job,” Abercrombie’s short in Swords and Dark Magic, are more than enough for established Abercrombie fans. For newcomers, how could you not be enticed by names like Rurgen and Younger (who are described as “faithful servants, one old … one younger”), Corporal Tunny, Caul Shivers, Pale-as-Snow, and Stranger-Come-Knocking? (Notice anything, veteran fantasy readers? Those names are all easily pronounced, making the story flow much better than many other fantasy stories where the author insists on bogging the reader down with words almost humanly impossible to utter.)
As in Abercrombie’s other books, the reader is often drawn to the most despicable of scoundrels like “Prince” Calder, whose clever wit gets him both into and out of trouble, or the standard-bearer Corporal Tunny, a con-artist who is proud that, despite his long-service, he’s managed to rise no further in rank. There is also the politically ambitious Finree dan Brock. In a male dominated society, she strategically designs her husband’s rise to power despite his own lack of ambition. My favorites are always Abercrombie’s warrior-heroes, like Whirrun of Bligh, a.k.a. Cracknut. Each time Whirrun carries the Father of Swords into battle he wears fewer clothes. Col. Gorst is a master swordsman plagued with a high feminine voice. Gorst is angry at everyone, including himself most of all, and can only find joy in mortal combat. Those are only a handful of sensational but believable characters that bring this gritty story to life.
Joe Abercrombie’s writing is both fresh and edgy. He has that deep understanding of the human psyche and society that only the very best writers possess. The only other fantasy author that so grandly wrote such gray tales was the late master, David Gemmell.
I had such a good time reading Abercrombie’s latest story that I didn’t want it to end. If I read just one more new fantasy book in 2011 that’s two-thirds as good as The Heroes, I will consider it an outstanding year for the genre.