The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie
Three Men. One Battle. No Heroes.
The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie is a standalone novel set in the same world he created for the First Law trilogy. It follows the course of a single battle, over the period of three days, between the forces of the Union and the Northmen. The opposing armies have been dancing around one another for many months but in the valley of Osrung, they finally come together in a definitive clash.
There are three main characters in the novel. Firstly there is Bremer dan Gorst, a disgraced master swordsman fighting in the Union army. He is attempting to reclaim his place in his King’s court and will stop at nothing in order to do so.
Next is Curden Craw, a lifelong soldier in the army of the Northmen. He has reached the age where the appeal of battle is swiftly receding. His nerves and knees are shot and he wants nothing more than peace.
Finally there is Prince Calder, considered a coward by many, he is only interested in power and how best to avoid getting involved in all the fighting. His father was once king of the Northmen and Calder continues to crave the throne.
It is fantastic to read and discover the metamorphosis of these men over the battles duration. Each are forced to face hard facts about themselves and I don’t think any end up where they would have expected when the battle began.
The battle itself is a brutal, bloody, frenetic affair and nothing is sugar coated. Men are violently dispatched and little is left to the imagination. The action is merciless and I think the novel is all the better for it. Many readers will be used to a battle in a fantasy novel having an almost clinical description. Abercrombie doesn’t write that way. Each and every person on the battlefield has a story and the reader gets the opportunity to experience as many of them as is possible.
The vast majority of the characters have a moral ambiguity that makes it easy to switch your allegiances backward and forwards between the two sides as the story develops. Abercrombie is obviously having fun playing around with this. A chapter will begin written from the perspective of a Union solider and before you know it you are following the Northman who has just beheaded him. I think it is fair to say that some may find this writing style a little dizzying, but I felt it was in keeping with fast paced nature of the novel.
I was initially surprised by how much The Heroes made me laugh. We have a horrific situation where many men are facing an uncertain future. Some will live but a great many more will die. In hindsight though, this is exactly the place I would expect to find the darkest of gallows humour.
There is also a fair amount of swearing in the novel but I find it hard to fault this. Many of the soldiers that take part in the battle are just common men. They have no airs and graces about them. They swear, they drink, they consort with whores. Their human failings make them seem all the more real and they vividly come to life on the page.
The book is gritty and dark, but in turns also insightful and honest. I have always enjoyed the frankness that is displayed in Abercrombie’s work and it is shown again here. I think, with one exception, there are no real heroes in the novel at all. This is where the book truly succeeds, it made me question the definition of what a hero really is.