Review: THE HEROES, by Joe Abercrombie

The HeroesThe Heroes by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

About two chapters in, and I’m finding it engrossing and entertaining. My first Joe Abercrombie book. I love his dialogue and his characters, who are very human and easy to engage with.

Full review of the HEROES, epub and audio version:

My first reaction to THE HEROES was “Oh great, another one of those middlin’ fantasy pseudo iron age novels, with noble savages against corrupt civilized foes and blah blah blah”. I can’t help it. I worked in a bookstore for much of my early life and you get a feel for this kind of mush. By chapter 3, I was asking myself “Who IS this Joe Abercrombie fellow, and why haven’t I read everything he’s written yet?” I am currently working on that goal.

Disclosure– I’m reading the epub version on my ancient Nook 1, AND listening to the audio book, which I was fortunate to find at the library. This review encompasses both.

THE HEROES is a standalone novel in the world that Joe Abercrombie has made. I confess that I don’t know much about the setting– it obviously references events in the past that may or may not have been part of earlier novels. Mr. Abercrombie has written a trilogy in advance of THE HEROES, the “First Law” Trilogy: THE BLADE ITSELF, BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED, and LAST ARGUMENT OF KINGS. My friend Scott assures me this is a shared universe with THE HEROES and characters from the trilogy repeat in THE HEROES.

The Setting is a sort of Borderland area between the vaguely defined “North” land (reminiscent of Scotland or England’s Northern region) and “The Union”, reminiscent of England. This Northland appears to be a gloomy place (as Scotland is reputed to be from time to time) and it rains a lot. The entirety of the novel transpires during the course of a single battle in which all of the characters, high and low, Union or Northmen, take part on some level.

Characters– these are Mr. Abercrombie’s strongest suit as a writer. The characters in THE HEROES are the best part of the novel. The plot is rather linear (as you might expect during a battle), but the cast of interesting people on all sides of the battle gives the plot a unique energy and tone. My early expectation of Robert E. Howard style “virtuous Barbarians triumphing over the stupid effete civilized folks” plot were quickly dashed. The Northmen are not barbarians, they are quite civilized in their own way and mean to hold on to their land by hook or crook. The Union are not entirely a pack of preening, effete villains; there are subtle shades of gray on both sides of the conflict, and the characters that Mr. Abercrombie creates, great and small, give voice to the story with eloquence and wit. On the Northern side, standouts were old campaigner Curnden Craw, a real “straight edge” who obsesses over three things: “the right way” to do things, the good old days, and how badly his knees hurt after decades of campaigning. Whirrun of Bligh is a classic wandering hero of sorts, the kind of man that they will write songs about some day, but in the here and now of THE HEROES he’s just a bit of a nutter. ‘Prince’ Calder is a schemer and rascal of the old school, but one can’t help but like him, of course. On the Union side, the main POV character is Bremer dan Gorst, the hard as nails, disgraced killing machine with the high squeaky voice, who is assigned to the Northern War as the Royal observer and whose unctious battle reports start every chapter. There’s also minor POV characters of every rank in the Union army (and one or two hangers-on) that help round out the Union side. My favorite was the surprisingly eloquent and philosophical Corporal Tunney, standard bearer of the First Cavalry Regiment of General Jalenhorn’s division, who could have given Colour Sergeant Bourne of ZULU a run for his money in general eloquence and the philosophy of a soldiering life.

If THE HEROES has an intentional theme, it’s about courage: men who are brave, men who aren’t brave, men who pretend to be brave and men who don’t bother pretending. As the narrative transpires over the course of a three day battle, there are plenty of opportunities for characters both high and low to display both physical and moral courage or the lack thereof. I loved the battle sequences, but I loved the shifting perspective even more. A brutal hand to hand conflict may be taking place in one location, as described through the eyes of a minor character.. then he’d get a pike through the guts and the action shifts to the pike wielder, hopping back and forth all over the battlefield in a chaotic sequence. In Joe Abercrombie’s eye, war is chaos personified; a vast conspiracy of incompetence starting with the highest of the high and rolling downhill to engulf the innocent and guilty alike. In THE HEROES, War is an enterprise that nobody seems to want to partake in (with a few exceptions, and they are either power-mad or loony), yet few seem to be able to escape.

CONCLUSIONS: In a short phrase, I loved this novel. THE HEROES is brimming with interesting characters, excellent, almost philosophical dialogue, and pondering on the human condition. Not to mention some kick-arse action sequences. I was unacquainted with Joe Abercrombie before but I assure you he is on my radar now. I found myself trying to read the epub and listen to the audio book almost in tandem. I’m not sure who the narrator was, but I suspect he’s the same chap who narrates the Sharpe audiobooks. He has a mastery of regional British accents that adds tremendous character to the dialogue. Seek out the audiobook if you can. I thoroughly recommend this book!

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