The Heroes, by Joe Abercrombie
Whatever happened to the heroes?, asked the Stranglers – well, one thing’s for sure, they didn’t make it as far as Joe Abercrombie’s latest substantial slice of fantasy, because, you see, the Heroes of the title are a group of standing stones plonked on a hill in the North. It’s the kind of hill that, throughout our own history and that of Abercrombie’s fantasy world too, men have been sent to fight and die over simply because it’s as good a place to have a battle as any other – and there is plenty of fighting in The Heroes. If his first forays in to twisted fantasy were his answer to the classic fantasy quest novels that we all know and (some of us) love, this book is instead the author’s answer to Bernard Cornwell, an account of one big battle told from the perspective of multiple participants, and with precious little heroism on show.
The backstory, which is scarcely important, is that the North is as at war with the Union once again. After his betrayal of the Bloody Nine at the conclusion of The First Law trilogy, Black Dow rules the North, but, as usual, the Northmen are not united, and a faction has sided with the Union, led by the Dogman. After some traditional military incompetence, the Union army and the Northern host concentrate for one big, decisive battle, with the Northmen occupying the summit of the hill that is capped by the stones known as the Heroes. Let battle commence…
Events are described from the perspective of a number of characters, George RR Martin-style – none of them are characters who have been central to previous volumes, though we have met some of them. Bremer dan Gorst almost allowed the King to get killed in Best Served Cold, and now he is paying the price by acting as the King’s Observer of the Northern War; Calder, son of Bethod, the first king of the Northmen we have also run across. The third main character is a Northman, a Named Man called Curnden Craw who fought against the Bloody Nine and his crew in The First Law Trilogy and now finds himself in the thick of the violence whilst mourning lost opportunities and thinking about what might have happened if he had not made killing his career. There are a number of lesser POV characters too, as well as appearances by the likes of Bayaz, First of the Magi (nastier than ever, a sort of anti-Gandalf), Caul Shivers and other old friends. Over three bloody days the battle rages, the violence graphically recounted and the military manoeuvres, cockups and triumphs very plausibly described.
Abercrombie’s take on fantasy has always been dark, almost nihilistic, yet shot through with black humour. The deliberate irony of the title of this book is that he does not write about heroes, he writes about ordinary people thrust in to extraordinary situations who seldom, if ever, acquit themselves heroically. The futility of settling arguments by violence is the clear message of this book,making it an anti-war war story – which I suppose all the best war stories are, really – but it’s also a very strong continuation of his excellent previous books, and is sure to be enjoyed by his many fans. Highly recommended both for fantasy readers and lovers of Cornwell and Iggulden.