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Book Review: The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie

Genre: Sword and Sorcery, Military Fantasy
Hardcover: 512 pages
Publisher: Orbit
Publication Date: February 7, 2011
ISBN-10: 0316044989
ISBN-13: 978-0316044981
Author Website: Joe Abercrombie

The lovechild of The Killer Angels and Conan the Barbarian, Joe Abercrombie’s newest stand-alone novel, The Heroes is more of the same gritty, violent, tragicomedy that has propelled Abercrombie to the top of many fan-favorite lists.

Set in the same world as the First Law trilogy and Best Served Cold, The Heroes occurs later in its history, at a point where The Union and Black Dow’s Northern Tribes are finally going to meet on the field of battle. The majority of the action takes place over the course of three gore-filled days as the fighting individuality of the Northmen clashes head-on with organized warfare of The Union. It’s like the opening sequence of Gladiator was spread out to Gettysburg length. It is amazingly complex, filled with a variety of characters, carefully written use of the created terrain, and highly different and fully elucidated styles of combat. It’s the perfect blending of military history with fantasy.

Though filled with a myriad of supporting perspectives, Abercrombie sticks with his preferred method of relating the story through three main protagonists. Readers of the First Law trilogy will see that each of the these characters has a direct analogue to the leads of his series. Colonel Bremer dan Gorst is like Inquisitor Glokta, a broken, pitiable man who wants to be recognized for his achievements. Finree dan Brok is like Captain Jezal dan Luthar, a noble bent on climbing the social ladder. And Curnden Craw, Northman, is like Logen Ninefingers, a follower of the old ways of honor and nobility who is aging out of his chosen profession. In essence, neither Abercrombie’s theme nor characterization has changed one bit, only the circumstances.

But what circumstances! Through multiple perspectives (though the three main ones provide the bulk of text) and a surprising series of events, Abercrombie demonstrates his unique skill for turning a hack and slash story into a philosophical work on the nature of war, the individuals in it, politics in general, and life itself. Though Abercrombie’s viewpoint is nihilist, he still manages to find honor among thieves. It is a unique, quirky, unusual type of honor, but each of the characters have a heroism about them. The book is far from a heroic fantasy in any sense, but yet it has heroes, even in in the midst of a pointless battle.

Abercrombie, simply put, has done it again. Though there is some repetition of theme and characterization, the work itself is marvelous. I simply could not stop reading it. Abercrombie makes his characters so real to the reader, and though the book is rife with dark and angry themes, it is fascinating to watch its human creatures muddle through their circumstances, never denying their nature, only powering through their misfortunes. Unlike the hero of other fantasies who becomes a leader, is lauded, or is seen as the redemption of mankind, Abercrombie’s heroes rarely get their due. It gives these fantasies a tone of authenticity, of a how the often idealized battles we like to portray in story and film might have been really like.

The Heroes is a bloody, gore drenched book. There are very few pages lacking violence, and Abercrombie is quick to describe the hacking of heads and bodies in detail. Weak stomachs beware. Readers who dislike profanity should also steer clear, as Abercrombie’s characters are not noble people, nor are they idealized. They are gritty, profane, human characters who freely speak their minds.

Fans of Glen Cook, Scott Lynch, and Steven Erikson will thoroughly enjoy this tale. Reading any of Abercrombie’s previous works is not required, though it helps. This has been my favorite read of the past year and I cannot recommend The Heroes highly enough.