Joe Abercrombie, The Heroes (2011)

Piotrek: Two armies march to battle. Black Dow’s Northmen and three divisions of Lord Marshal Kroy’s Union soldiers. They meet and fight for three days, and 500 pages, upon a river, next to a small town of Osrung and a famous hill called The Heroes.

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For a teenage me that would be the good parts distilled. Like what the little boy wanted to hear from his grandpa instead of all the talking and kissing and other boring stuff.

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Oh no, no it isn’t. It’s a fighting book. But not about glorious adventures of dashing heroes. It’s about the blood and piss and human stupidity. With very little magic it’s basically a detailed depiction of a fictional battle between Vikings and an early Renaissance army getting medieval on each other.

Ola: Very much a fighting book; nothing less and nothing more. And it’s not even about a whole war, just about one, maybe not even the most important incident, of this war. It’s Abercrombie at his best, reveling in gore and misery, depicting the primitive, intimate and brutal human fighting in all its terrible glory.

Piotrek: There are sagas centred around prolonged wars. Some of Weber’s space encounters can take a hundred pages. In the historical fiction genre though… The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara comes to my mind… a gripping re-telling of the Battle of Gettysburg, highly recommended inspiration of a very good movie. And there are many 2nd World War novels. Ok, so maybe Abercrombie did not exactly invent the wheel here. Still, it is an unique and worthy addition to the First Law world.

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Ola: I’d actually say that the rest of the First Law world is a nice addition to The Heroes 😛 For me this is the pinnacle of Abercrombie’s writing; which, all in all, is quite surprising even to myself, as I’m not so easily sold on purely fighting books – I definitely prefer books with great worldbuilding, well-developed and believable protagonists, sound psychological background… Actually, wait. The Heroes have it all, although mostly only hinted at; so if you want to read this book, better read all the other novels from the First Law world.

Piotrek: Yeah, it’s not exactly a standalone. You could possibly enjoy The Heroes by itself, but if you’ve read the trilogy, and Best Served Cold, your fun will significantly increase. The war is, after all, a continuation of politics, of nations, and old scheming wizards. And of life stories of many characters, some we’ve met before, some newcomers.

Ola: There’s a veritable well of protagonists here. Some of them we meet for a fleeting moment, for they die in the next scene, some of them we should know of old. Whether we cherish them or hate them… Well – much depends on your personal preferences 😉 I for once badly missed Logen Ninefingers. Of course, having him as one of the main players would badly skew the chances, and it’s all Abercrombie’s fault to create so well a character larger than life, but still. Of those who are left… I must admit at the end of the book I really started to feel pity for Black Dow 😉

Piotrek: Bremer is possibly my favourite, a deeply flawed, perhaps broken human being, but after all he went through previously – I’m sympathetic. And he’s basically the only champion in the Union ranks, they have some decent people, and a few passable officers, but most of the great killers are on the side of barbarians. From this lot, it’s hard not to admire Curnden Craw, the last honest man in the North, or the crazy badass Whirrun of Bligh.

Ola: Agreed here. Curnden Craw is almost a substitute for the civilized part of Logen. Almost. As for Bremen, The Heroes are his chance of redemption – a deserved and well used chance. He, and The Dogman, are the only Unionists I was rooting for.

Piotrek: Caul Shivers I’m fed up with, he had his chance to be someone better.

Ola: Again, fully agree. Best Served Cold really ruined him for me, and I’m not talking about the eye :P. But I cannot shake the feeling that Abercrombie used him rather badly to hammer home the point about the flawed nature of inner nobility – it’s fine and nice to be good as long as you haven’t suffered. And that’s something I, being the idealist I am, cannot agree with. So, Shivers in my book is a walking, rasping remorse.

Piotrek: Finree dan Brock is someone to watch, she will go far. She had some hard lessons, and survived to continue her schemes.

Ola: I found the women’s part in The Heroes rather far-fetched. Cannot in good conscience imagine them there, especially after other First Law books. I felt that they were there for the gender parity more than anything else. But the award for the most irritating character definitely goes to “Prince” Calder who in his structure and position resembles definitely too much Jezal dan Luthar.

Piotrek: Much of the best stuff from his previous novels is here, distilled and perfected. We have dramatic duels on a field of battle, pointless assaults and random deaths. Heroes and fools (also, heroic fools) die alike and luck is as important as skill. Although solid armour helps, most of the time. War is as unfair as anything else.

Ola: All right, enough gushing ;). What really irked me was the tried and tested, but nevertheless repetitive structure. Most of the characters, however well crafted, served a specific role on the chessboard of The Heroes. And this time, within one book instead of three, the stitches and the underlying pattern were a bit too visible. Plus, I was really fed up with Bayaz, who here seemed nothing more than another instance of Deus ex Machina. But again, the magi conspiracy theory in the First Law world was the most doubtful part for me from the start.

Piotrek: [spoiler alert] As we are reminded near the end of the book, battles might be spectacular – and terrible – spectacles, but they are just part of the struggle. While soldiers and warriors bleed, chess-masters play their larger games. Khalul’s servant Ishri makes a play at taking North from Bayaz, but despite the stalemate on the field of battle our magnificent bastard secured his flank with a bit of more targeted violence.

Ola: That’s were we differ – for me there is nothing magnificent in Bayaz – he’s just that really irritating head honcho whom the author has given too much power :P. But still, Abercrombie manages to write it so aptly that most of the time you forget to be irked and opt for being awed.

Piotrek: I enjoyed watching it so much, it overshadowed my annoyance with the ineffectiveness of the Union Army. You see, I’m not a neutral observer here. I’m invested. I prefer when civilization wins. And I believe it to be a natural order of things. Union is a strong country, where robust economy supports the territorial and technological expansion. Its army might be ruled by nepotism and political convenience, and ultimately directed by Bayaz, who does not care for anyone’s well-being, but it’s a well manned and equipped force that continuously stays in action. And armies with organized staffs and formal learn, even if the officers buy their commissions. Or they die and battles are lost and so are empires. Officers of the Union don’t want to die, and Bayaz genuinely wants to defeat Khalul. Couldn’t Abercrombie give Kroy one able division commander? Or make him take more active role, not unheard of for commanding general to do so in a battle of this scale. For some reason he couldn’t and it made the book less brilliant for me. Not a lack of total Union victory, but it got predictable, repetitive even… Trilogy, short stories, and here – same mistakes made by similarly inapt officers, battles saved by last-minute, and costly, heroics. Gurkish Empire, Styrians, even Northmen have more disciplined and cunning leaders… why not my guys?

Ola: Well, the Union were not my guys in this fight ;). I much preferred the rowdy, unruly Northmen to the boring, corrupt Unionists. In some fights discipline doesn’t matter as much as individual prowess, luck, or lack of them. Abercrombie in The Heroes chose to depict one of those. And I for once am pretty happy with the outcome. Scotland’s independence! 😀

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Score:

Ola – 9/10

Piotrek – 8/10

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