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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"The Heroes" by Joe Abercrombie (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Order "The Heroes" HERE
Official Joe Abercrombie Website
Read FBC Review of "The Blade Itself" HERE
Read FBC Review of "Before They Are Hanged" HERE
Read FBC Review of "Best Served Cold" HERE

INTRODUCTION: Bursting upon the epic fantasy scene with his superb First Law trilogy, Joe Abercrombie became the "perfect" representative of the "new gritty" epic fantasy for me and his books have not disappointed so far. Best Served Cold was a top 5 sff of mine in 2009 so The Heroes should have been one of those "beg for an advance review copy" books that I use every spare minute to read when I get them..

Well, there was a hitch, namely the fact that the blurb made it clear the novel is about a battle and while books like that have a storied tradition - I have recently read one such, fittingly called The Battle by Patrick Rambaud and part of a trilogy to boot, that has won one of the ultimate literary prizes in the world, the Goncourt prize in France in 1997 - they do not really excite me that much since they are limited in scope. A battle is a battle is a battle...

On finishing The Heroes, I found myself conflicted - the book is very well written, maybe the best technically of the author so far and with all the stuff I came to expect from Mr. Abercrombie; it even transcends somewhat its limited setting but I still wish it would have been about more as he clearly has shown he can do it in his First Law trilogy and in the superb Best Served Cold. I came from The Heroes feeling I read a side episode in a saga - a long one at over 500 pages - but something that will later be regarded as a minor part of it.

The following will contain spoilers for the First Law trilogy and for Best Served Cold so be warned!

OVERVIEW: Technically a standalone, The Heroes takes place some four years after the end of Best Served Cold and eight years after the First Law trilogy and features many characters from there, though there are several new ones too. I believe that while you can read this one independently, the experience is considerably enhanced if you have read First Law before since a lot of undertones, motivations and general background come from there. The Best Served Cold references are less important except in Bremer van Gorst's case, but that backstory is fully told in due course.

The general outline in a nutshell is that after Black Dow took over the throne of the North at the end of The Last Argument of Kings, the Union objected since it had a deal with Logen Ninefingers and the intervening years saw low-level conflict between the Union troops and their "loyalists" allies led by the Dogman and the Northern clans under Black Dow and his carls.

But now the Union feels the drain in money and resources, the Gurkish are stirring, Styria did not go the way the Union wanted, so the orders came to finish the independent Northmen at all costs, hence a major battle is in the offing. Of course Black Dow has his allies too, while recently returned Caul Shivers is even more savage than usual as his right hand man and "enforcer"...

In the background, young "Prince" Calder, "renowned" as a coward and treacherous plotter and who had escaped execution so far only because his father-in-law is a powerful clan leader and to a lesser extent because his older brother accepted Dow's rule and settled as one of his major carls, wants to survive and just maybe claim want he regards as his heritage, Bremer van Gorst wants redemption for the happenings four years ago at a Styrian party and Finree dan Brock (nee Kroy, the daughter of the Union Army's commanding officer) wants to advance the fortune of her husband who is maybe the nicest character of the author, though of course he is marked as a famous traitor's son. Old warrior Craw and comic-relief corporal Tunny add a grunt's eye view of the events.

The major leaders, Black Dow, Caul Shivers and Bayaz dominate the pages in which they appear, but overall I would say that Calder, Bremer and Finree are the main "heroes" of the novel and they are all done superbly.
We even get the famous internal monologues of the author from Bremer's perspective and those are one of the major highlights of the book.

ANALYSIS: "The Heroes" showcases everything I liked in the author's first four books and while there is a certain predictability to some of the things that happen, there is enough new to keep one happy. The heroes are definitely not that heroic, the prophecies may not quite happen as foretold, everyone gets their say and action and of course there is grit; true grit here as in mud, blood and sweat...

The novel transitions seamlessly between the various pov's and locations while the timeline is roughly chronological with the necessary backstory inserted at the right moments.

From an action point of view, The Heroes has the expected vitality and the battle scenes that constitute the core of the novel are vivid, though the individual combat scenes, including one for the ages that probably best represents the author's take on the fantasy tropes he partly reinforces, partly subverts, were more memorable for me.

The intrigue - especially in Finree's machinations on behalf of her husband and in Calder's attempts to improve his status - was also on par with the author's best and the expected quips kept coming, with Bremmer's monologues maybe not quite as entertaining as Glotka's but close...

The Heroes flows well and despite its heft is a novel one finishes fast since the pages turn by themselves, so from all "check the boxes in reviewing" points of view, an outstanding novel which gets my A++ highest rating; but still, its intrinsic limitation in content left me wishing for a wider scope novel and feeling that in the grand scheme of the First Law universe this one will be just a minor side novel...


Jay Requard said...

Sounds like a really good read! I might have to look out for this one when I go out for a book today.

ito said...

I am reading it at the moment and I have to say that I haven't laughed so much in a while.

Steve said...

Joe Abercrombie is really becoming one of my favorite authors and his new book "The Heroes" does not disappoint.


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