If you’re a fan of total badassery, of giant battles, of soldiery wisdom, or of solid exciting prose you should do yourself a favor and read The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie. Indeed, if someone were to ask me what badass means I might just hand them a copy of this book. Likely if you’ve read and enjoyed The First Law trilogy, or Best Served Cold you’ve already picked up and read The Heroes. Indeed events in The Heroes trace their origins back to The First Law trilogy (I’ve yet to read Best Served Cold) and, while the novel can certainly be enjoyed absent of Abercrombie’s debut series, readers familiar with the author’s past work will definitely get more mileage out of The Heroes.
The Heroes focuses on the set-up and execution of a three day battle in the Valley of Osrung in the North. The Union is desperately trying to keep the North under their control while Black Dow, who betrayed and killed Logen Ninefingers, fights to keep the North free (or at least under his control). The novel goes back and forth amongst several Named men of the North, officers and enlisted in the Union, and several camp followers as well as the battle unfolds. The Heroes manages seamless transitions between these sections offering a variety of perspectives that paints the entire picture in various shades of gray and crimson.
Alongside Steven Erikson, Joe Abercrombie writes perhaps some of my favorite soldiers. While not as heavy handed as Erikson can sometimes be Abercrombie similarly doles out the wisdom of the common soldier with serious aplomb. Abercrombie sticks with two major voices for this wisdom: Corporal Tunny and Curnden Craw. Craw, the grizzled old campaigner, and Tunny, the seasoned opportunist, represent two similar yet differing views on war. Even in the quiet moments of the novel Abercrombie’s ability with dialogue and turn of phrase makes for entertaining reading. In those quiet moments the character that stood out most was the somewhat cracked Whirrun. Abercomrbie’s ability to inject all of the doom, gloom, and fatalism with humor is most readily apparent in Whirrun who, at one point in the novel, “invents” a sandwhich:
“Then, when I’ve got two cut,’ and he dropped a pale slab of cheese on one slice then slapped the other on top like he was catching a fly, ‘I trap the cheese between then, and there you have it!’
‘Bread and cheese.’ Yon weighed the half-loaf in one hand and the cheese in the other. ‘Just the same as I’ve got.’ And he bit off the cheese and tossed it to Scorry.
Whirrun sighed. ‘Have none of you no vision?’ He held up his masterpiece to such light as there was, which was almost none. ‘This is no more bread and cheese than a fine axe is wood and iron, or a live person is meat and har.’
‘What is it, then?’ asked Drfod, rocking back from his wet wood and tossing the flint aside in disgust.
‘A whole new thing. A forging of the humble part of bread and cheese into a greater whole. I call it … a cheese-trap.’ Whirrun took a dainty nibble from one corner. ‘Oh, yes, my friends. This tastes like … progress…”
Moments like that pepper the novel, deadening the impact of the violence to a degree and providing a useful pressure release valve for tension throughout the novel.
The battle of Osrung is crafted masterfully and the description of the first days fighting is perhaps one of the finest bits of military fiction writing that I have ever seen. In a lengthy chapter and extended scene worthy of any big budget action movie Abercrombie crafts an extended single shot action scene that spans an entire battle. He seamlessly hands off the perspective flitting from character to character with a seamless ease that is epic in scope and elegant in execution. An absolutely masterful scene that would have redeemed any lesser novel and catapults The Heroes to a new height that few if any other novels can reach. Joe Abercrombie is to fantasy battles as David Weber is to space battles.
If you like well written military fantasy, are a fan of the grim and the gritty then you really should have read The Heroes by now. This is a massive tome of a novel that can, and likely will, be devoured at the speed of something a quarter of its size. It’s grim, somewhat fatalist tones make it comparable to Erikson’s Deadhouse Gates (my favorite Malazan novel) though leavened with a heavy and welcome dose of humor. This is an almost instant classic and as near a textbook on how to write “military fantasy” as you’re likely to see. Read this book.