Wednesday, 20 October 2010
Book review: The Heroes
By Joe Abercrombie
(Gollancz, 27 January 2011)
Joe Abercrombie has undoubtedly been one of the fantasy genre's success stories in recent years. His debut, The Blade Itself, may not have generated the pre-release buzz that accompanied The Lies of Locke Lamora - another notable Gollancz debut - but word eventually filtered through the fledgling blogosphere and soon rave reviews were sprouting up all over the place. Fast forward a few years, and The Blade Itself has allegedly sold more than 100,000 copies in the UK alone. The other two books in The First Law trilogy - Before They are Hanged and Last Argument of Kings - met with similar acclaim and cemented Abercrombie's status as a big hitter in the epic fantasy genre.
Then the much-anticipated Best Served Cold arrived, and seemingly split opinion right down the middle: some readers loved it, others less so. I fell in the latter category, feeling that the book was ponderous, over-long and often lacking the wit that made the earlier novels such a success. There were good aspects of course, but for the first time it did raise a question in my mind, as I imagine it did in those of others: had Abercrombie peaked too early? Would all of his subsequent books gradually decline in quality, as happens with so many authors? Unfair questions perhaps, on the basis of one book, but questions that needed to be answered nonetheless. Questions that could only be answered when The Heroes arrived.
While Best Served Cold whisked the action away to Styria, marking a distinct change in setting compared to The First Law, with The Heroes Abercrombie turns the focus back on the wilds of the north where plenty of blood was previously spilled during the earlier books. This simple geographical change immediately made the novel more appealing to me; aside from the chapters featuring Glokta, it was the story strands that featured the northmen that I enjoyed the most when reading The First Law. Those readers that felt the same should be more than satisfied with The Heroes then, since the novel has more northmen than you can shake a stick (or a huge, bloodstained axe) at.
The novel focuses on a battle fought in the shadow of the Heroes, a ring of stones atop a hill near the town of Osrung. Black Dow, self-installed leader of the northmen, gathers his forces on one side, while the Union forces - led by Marshal Kroy, a familiar face from the past - prepare themselves on the other. Over the course of three days, the future of the north will be decided. There will be blood. And, as with any Abercrombie novel, a healthy dose of treachery.
For the first time, we're given a map inside the book (the closest we've come previously were the artistic flourishes that adorned the cover and certain title pages in Best Served Cold), and a very nice map it is too. In a nice touch, the map is repeated at the start of each section of the book, with markers showing the positioning of the various forces. It's probably not strictly necessary, yet it certainly adds a bit of depth and helps the reader get some flavour for the locales involved.
The main complaint I had with Best Served Cold was that I didn't care for any of the characters - they were, as far as I was concerned, a bunch of scumbags so totally lacking in anything vaguely resembling morals, that I found it extremely hard to care one way or another what happened to them. Abercrombie made his name by inverting various tropes and painting his world in varying shades of grey, but for me he took it too far in Best Served Cold. Don't get me wrong; I enjoy reading about ruthless, uncompromising figures...but I also like to have one or two characters that I can empathise with and root for, and the latter were distinctly absent in Best Served Cold.
Thankfully, this is not the case with The Heroes. There are a lot of characters in this novel (in another first for an Abercrombie novel, we're given a cast list - and it's needed) and while there are plenty of figures for whom morals are an alien concept, there are a fair few who readers can root for and - perhaps surprisingly - even find sympathy with. Craw is one such figure; the leader of a band of northmen, he's tired of war and just wants to abandon it all for a quieter life. He's also a figure that believes in doing 'the right thing' (whatever that might be), and the weariness he shows towards violence and treachery is something that the reader can easily appreciate and identify with. Bremer dan Gorst - a minor character from the earlier trilogy - is another figure who is easy to empathise with; once the king's most trusted guard, he's fallen from grace and must go against his king's orders (by taking part in the fighting, rather than just observing) to win his former glory back. Worse, he lusts after a young lady that he has no chance of wooing. And just to top things off, he has an embarrassingly squeaky voice. Gorst's personal story, as the novel progresses, is an interesting one, mixing humour with bleakness and violence, and he serves as a good example of Abercrombie's unquestionable talent for bringing his characters to life.
Of course, there are plenty of less desirable types too: 'Prince' Calder being one of them. He's another character that Abercrombie portrays very well, somehow making him curiously likable despite the fact that he's as slippery as a snake. Beck, too, is a character with a strong - if predictable - character arc, while there are numerous other interesting figures - Whirrun of Blythe, with his apparent death-wish and huge sword, and Corporal Tunny, with his uncanny ability to avoid actually doing anything resembling professional soldiering, to name but two. If I have any complaints, it's that due to the extensive cast-list, certain people had a habit of blending together (the generals Meed and Mitterick, for example, I repeatedly struggled to tell apart). In addition, the female element is arguably rather lacking as well. Now of course, this is a war novel, so given this fact - and the structure of society in Abercrombie's world - it was inevitable that there would be a lack of female characters. Yet I still feel something more could have been done here. It has been remarked on before that Abercrombie's female characters have, to date, consisted mostly of pyschopaths and alcoholics. The main female interest in the The Heroes doesn't fit in either of those categories, yet her undiluted ambition and the coldness she often displays to her husband don't exactly make her an endearing figure. That said, another female character on the northern side, Wonderful, perhaps redresses this by establishing herself in a position of power solely on the basis of her martial and leadership qualities. Yet Wonderful's a character we regrettably don't see often enough.
The story itself is something of a slow burner - the first 100 pages are more or less used to move all the characters - and troops - into the places that they need to be in. Yet once the action gets going, The Heroes makes for an absorbing read. One aspect particularly worthy of mention is the technique that Abercrombie employs of jumping from one POV to another, often using several different perspectives in the course of a single chapter. We'll see events unfold, for example, from the viewpoint of a Union soldier. That soldier then meets a sticky end on the edge of an axeblade...and the action immediately switches to the viewpoint of the northman that swung the axe. This technique makes for a fluid portrayal of war, lending a very personal aspect to the action. Abercrombie has always been good at battle scenes, and he shows that ability again here with some violent, graphic sequences, that importantly always keep a close focus on the characters involved. It's not all just blood and guts though, as there's plenty of behind-the-scenes maneuvering going on: power-struggles on the northern side and petty politics on the Union side. And invariably there's treachery, and the odd surprise. Nothing comparable to the shocks that Abercrombie served up in Last Argument of Kings, but these twists nonetheless keep the story compelling. My only real criticism here is that I felt the novel could have done with a bit more mysticism - the background struggle between Bayaz and his opponents is hinted at, but doesn't really solidify into anything substantial. A touch more magical chutzpah would perhaps have been a pleasing counterpoint to all the gritty, physical violence.
As always, everything is delivered and bound up in Abercrombie's distinctive style. You know when you're reading an Abercrombie book, and that instant recognition is a very useful thing for any author to have in their locker. There's the dark wit that was often lacking in Best Served Cold, and this humour provides a nice counterpoint to the bleakness and violence. Furthermore, The Heroes is primarily a war novel, and is full of wry details and observations about the nature of war and how it affects people in different ways. The story arc of Beck, in particular, is a good example of this (even if it feels a little contrived and predictable). Subsequently, the use of the word 'heroes' in the title has various meanings: a reference to the physical stones, an ironic play on the nature of the men involved in the struggle, and so on. War, as The Heroes ably demonstrates, is a confusing, messy business.
Verdict: A well-constructed, absorbing war novel that returns to a familiar stamping ground and improves on the flaws of Best Served Cold. Abercrombie appears to have taken the criticism flung his way from some quarters, and has this time produced a more dynamic set of characters that mostly manage to be appealing despite their clear moralistic differences. Though the novel starts slowly, the momentum gradually builds into something unstoppable. There's satisfying character development, exploration of the ironies of war, and of course plenty of blood and treachery, all delivered with Abercrombie's trademark wry humour. The supernatural elements that do feature are handled very well, but it would have been nice to see a little more of them. Still, this doesn't stop The Heroes from being an enjoyable, absorbing read.