The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie
Reviewed by Niall Alexander
11 February 2011
'The runes say...' Whirrun squinted down at 'em like he was trying to pick out something a long way off. 'There's going to be blood.'
Wonderful snorted. 'They always say that.'
'Aye.' He wrapped himself up in his coat, nuzzled up against the hilt of his swords like a lover, eyes already shut. 'But lately they're right more often than not.'
Craw frowned round at the Heroes, forgotten giants, standing stubborn guard over nothing. 'Those are the times,' he muttered. (p.28)
The times are tough for all concerned. For Black Dow’s man Curnden Craw and his dozen, who hold a hillock notable only for its vast rock monoliths—the titular heroes—in advance of a war to end all wars; for "Prince" Calder, disgraced son of the first King of the North (now sadly departed); and for Bremer dan Gorst, formerly the right hand of the most powerful man in the Union, reduced now to Royal Observer thanks to the chilled shitstorm served up in Joe Abercrombie’s somewhat divisive last novel, Best Served Cold, wherein a single-minded cycle of betrayal and revenge saw repeated rinsing—to the point of tedium, even. But Monza Murcatto’s unremittingly grim king-killing crusade is old news now; Talins is leagues away. Herein Abercrombie returns us to the rugged backdrop of the First Law trilogy, where the times are tough for all concerned. But then, when last weren't they?
Whirrun of Bligh scries blood in the stones, and blood there will be—buckets of the gummy stuff—because The Heroes is a chronicle of war: a war the likes of which the North has never seen. Over the twisting course of three days in and around the rural town of Osrung, tens of thousands will march to their ends, Northerners and Union men alike. And all because... well, because Bayaz, First of the Magi, and far from the only returning character making his presence felt in Abercrombie’s latest, instructs them thus. As to the whys and wherefores of Bayaz’s orders, neither side takes much trouble to discover. These are fighting men, by and large. Men whose very names are written in blood, whose past amounts to a litany of battles lost and won. For them, victory is the light at the end of the interminable tunnel. Failing that, survival will surely do. "Let's us get them killed, and not the other way around," (p.114) Craw counsels as the first battle cries ring out; Wonderful, his long-suffering Second, deems this the "Best damn advice about war [she] ever heard." (ibid)
It's a hard life for a Joe Abercrombie character: nasty, brutish, and short, as Hobbes has it. A notion echoed by many a man in The Heroes. "Take it from me, who's lived through more than one melee, wars are hard enough work without people fighting in the middle of 'em." (p.83) With this dubious rallying cry Corporal Tunny leads a band of new Union recruits like lambs to the abattoir. Meanwhile, Gorst muses that "the entire business is an exercise in slaughter." (p.487) And indeed. When you’re not out there slaughtering men first-hand, or else being slaughtered—and needless to say there’s plenty of that—you’re watching men being slaughtered from near or from far, or else planning how best to slaughter them when the opportunity to do so presents itself. And the opportunity’s never far off. Abercrombie has a bit of one-track mind, in truth, and its only destination? Death.
Hardly surprising, really. Alongside inappropriate humor, violence exquisite in its explicitness, a natural gift for character building comparable to Stephen King’s and a taste for the tasteless, brutal body counts are among Abercrombie’s trademark touches. You needn’t fear if you haven’t yet read the man. Those familiar with his back-catalogue will find both reward and resolution in certain callbacks and the aforementioned returning characters, yet The Heroes is as good a place to start reading Joe Abercrombie as any. Come to that, I dare say it could be the best place to begin such a pursuit, for The Heroes represents the author at his bloody best. And I do mean bloody. Be warned, going in: perhaps a third of eighty-odd the characters introduced in the handy Order of Battle appendix prefacing the text have met their maker before the gargantuan clash recounted in this tome is over, for better or for worse.
Yet it’s easy to get attached. The blurb offers up three central characters, and though Abercrombie leverages an array of alternative perspectives from his vast cast, better when addressing such an epic as The Heroes to keep one's focus sharp as the point of Whirrun’s almighty blade, the legendary Father of Swords; these three—Craw, Calder, and Gorst—are in any event our primary narrators. A grizzled veteran who dreams of retiring as a carpenter to a cabin by the sea, Craw is the easiest to appreciate. Accordingly, The Heroes begins and ends with him, a man who has long grown tired of the constant conflict within and without. A good and honest man who, nevertheless, leads his dozen—though they are far from a dozen in number—into battle, into blood... because it’s all he can do. Because neither he nor any of those who follow him can ever go back.
In any other book Craw would live happily ever after. This named man is the heart and soul of The Heroes, yet you sense, always you sense, that this is the latest from Joe Abercrombie: the stakes are high as can be. Some may live to fight another day, yet many, many more will not. As Craw is so fond of saying, those are the times. And as every inch of sinew and gristle a product of them, he is as much a subject of the times as any other—his and indeed our hopes of a happy ending hard-won be damned.
Less immediately appealing are the remaining pair of narrators. One a scheming coward with designs on Dow’s throne, the other a fallen hero who believes he can wash his hands clean in, of all things, gore. Well, the supply is certainly plentiful. And in their ways both Prince Calder, so-called, and esteemed writer of letters Bremer dan Gorst add to it, each hoping to recall some of their former glory. Somewhat unsurprisingly, if you “wash yourself in blood ... you come out bloody,” (p.488) and each emerges from The Heroes—inasmuch as anyone does—slathered in arterial spray.
You’ll find yourself rooting for them all the same. Calder’s woefully inadequate attempts to supplant Black Dow are winning in a charmless way; his indefatigable love for his wife, held hostage by the King of the Northmen, and his bitter brew of feelings towards his sibling, the frustratingly renowned warrior Scale, lend him a degree of humanity; even Calder’s cowardice appeals. When an alliance between the self-styled Protector of the North and the lumbering giant Stranger-Come-Knocking is literally sealed in blood, the squirming Prince is assuredly not alone in feeling “a little fear and a lot of contempt at the level of manliness on display." (p. 62-63)
Gorst is still less sympathetic, more bad guy than good—a Union man, no less—yet undeterred, Abercrombie teases our sympathies towards the miserable, squealing sonofabitch by investing in him much of the humor to be found in The Heroes. Gorst has an answer for everything, even if he keeps most of his astringent witticisms to himself; his stream-of-consciousness rebuttals are antidotal to the unapologetic posturing of most every other character. Whatever your issues with him, he functions at the very least as punctuation of a sort, his scenes a pace-breaking respite from the unending fight between North and not. That is when he’s not fighting himself. Which he is... rather a lot. In fact, he detests the downtime between battles, just as he detests… shall we say everything else?
It goes to show what a master craftsman Abercrombie can be, that readers will find themselves invested in such despicable people as these. And one and all, they are a truly contemptible lot: thugs who’ll surely seem familiar if you’ve ever been mugged or otherwise manhandled, albeit carrying axes and hatchets rather than kitchen knives, with designs on your life as opposed to your shiny new mobile phone. Absolute brutes, make no mistake. Most fiction would have the motley triumvirate of Craw, Gorst, and Calder as the opposing force, yet in The Heroes, they are the heroes.
Abercrombie doesn’t even pretty up all the ugly. True to form, his new book is an unflinching, no-holds-barred, backstabbing, double-tongued, take-no-prisoners portrayal of dark men doing dark deeds. "Decent behaviour... it's out of fashion," mutters Craw before the battle’s even begun, far less lost or won, but "those are the times," (p.24) aren’t they? There are betrayals, treasonous plots minor and major, sudden reversals and surprising revelations. Innocents are split open from end to end like candied treats, major characters wet themselves, fecal matter mixes with the blood and the sweat and the tears of war. Thousands fall—thousands—and for what?
The Heroes is a low book, full of low people, low acts, and low humor... and yet I find myself giving it the highest recommendation, for no one does it better than Abercrombie—no one goes at it with the ruthless commitment he alone owns—and Abercrombie has himself never been better. In just five books, five books in so many years, he has established himself as one of the premiere voices in the genre. His is a particular oeuvre of fantasy, of course: brazen, blood-soaked and as cynical a proposition as coalition government whatever its colors.
The Heroes will not thus be to everyone’s tastes; those who prefer their fantasy classy needn’t wonder whether Abercrombie’s latest marks some about-face in favor of high magic, noble men, and other such dignified doings. It doesn’t. The Heroes is vintage stuff, gleefully uncompromising and as rich in misdeeds and hairy arseholes as ever—in fact readers at ease with Abercrombie’s distinctively bitter brews will find them more mordant than ever. Despite its sheer size, then, despite the odds stacked against it after the relative disappointment of Best Served Cold, there’s not an ounce of fat to be trimmed from The Heroes. The wanton relentlessness of Abercrombie’s last is more carefully measured herein, abutted by frequent reprieves at one extreme and wickedly self-aware asides at the other: much tighter plotting, masterful characterization and a sharp and darkly sparkling wit serve to make the formerly unbearable as near as damn it a pleasure. Observe, and rejoice, as during a break between encounters, one of the “ninety-nine parts boredom [rather than the] one part arse-opening terror" (p.117) of war, Whirrun of Bligh creates "a whole new thing. A forging of the humble parts of bread and cheese into a greater whole.” He calls it “a cheese-trap," and it “tastes like ... progress." (p.280)
As to progress, as to the times, let me leave you with a few choice words from bonnie Prince Calder’s father-in-law, one Caul Reachey. "People are apt," he asserts, "to get all misty-eyed over how things used to be. Age o' heroes and all. Well, I remember the old way. I was there, and it was no different to the new." (p. 636) Except that in The Heroes, in certain experiments conducted on the battlefield by the First of the Magi, there are hints that the times... they may be a-changing after all.
I can hardly wait to see how.
In short: Joe Abercrombie is a lean, mean, killing machine, and The Heroes is his best yet. Smarter, funnier, and harder than The First Law, more considered than Best Served Cold by a great, gory swathe, miss this one and heads could very well roll.