The Heroes is another story set in the same world as Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy. Veteran readers will be happy to be reacquainted with several characters from earlier books: the wizard Bayaz; the dishonored warrior Bremer dan Gorst; Finree dan Brock, Union Commander Marshal Kroy’s ambitious daughter; Black Dow, the ruthless leader of the Northmen. But if you haven’t read any of Abercrombie’s books yet, don’t worry — you don’t need to have read them in order to fully enjoy The Heroes.
If you have read the earlier books, you’ll recall that a conflict, provoked by the manipulations of two rival magical forces, has been brewing between the Union and the barbaric Northmen who are probably best compared to the historical Vikings. When The Heroes opens, the Union is staging forces to fight. At this point, after much provocation by both sides, the Union is marching as the aggressors and the Northmen are on the defense.
The conditions that the combatants live in vary greatly depending on which side they are on and their station in life. Abercrombie paints a realistically harsh picture of both sides of the battlefield. It’s gritty, dark and, as a soldier, I can say that it’s an excellent depiction of what combat and the movement and life of a soldier would be like in these conditions. For the Northmen it’s rough living, carrying things on their back and living off what they can hunt up or scavenge. The Union is better provisioned, but the Nobility and Officers live in much superior conditions than their conscripted troops.
On both sides of the battle we follow a number of different characters who, in their own way, make mistakes and act honorably or dishonorably. But even when we see heroic or altruistic acts performed, Abercrombie shows us the counterpoint to those actions, the second and sometimes third order motivations that prompt them. So, the awe-inspiring swordsman, the all-powerful wizard, the conniving military wife, the slacker, the grumpy old soldier, the vicious Leader, the devious young man, and the untried new warrior all teach us about honor and courage…. or the lack thereof. Their stories don’t follow the straightforward and expected course; instead, these characters are led through trials and tests that they handle in very different ways and the resulting twisted paths are captivating to follow.
The other thing that is really amazing about Abercrombie’s storytelling is how realistic the combat can be. Things like the strategy of staying on a line with your fellow soldiers makes so much sense when you see how an uneven line can be exploited. His depiction of the rigorous training that the Champion of the Union forces puts himself through translates brilliantly into actual combat prowess. These are the sort of logical underpinnings that take a good story and make it into something truly profound. The why that explains a hero’s greatness is so often overlooked.
The Heroes is brilliant storytelling. The cover reads, “Three men, One Battle, No Heroes” and that is a perfect description. Joe Abercrombie’s latest book should be at the top of your list and even if you have not yet read the previous novels that are set in this world, you should still read The Heroes. Gritty, harsh, powerful storytelling that takes you into the crucible of combat and lets you see how the perception of the hero is not always the reality of the hero.