Friday, February 04, 2011

Review: The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie

In a few short years Joe Abercrombie has risen to be one of the hottest young authors writing in fantasy today, and deservedly so. In The First Law Trilogy Abercrombie takes on the standard epic fantasy trilogy – only he turns it upside down, inside out, slits its throat and yells FU. In Best Served Cold (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) he writes the fantasy version of a revenge novel, only bloodier, darker and more disturbing. In his latest novel, The Heroes (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound), Abercrombie attacks the war novel while he slowly hangs, draws and quarters a traditional idea of heroism.

The Heroes focuses in a way that few fantasy novels do – essentially, the novel takes place over only three days at a single battlefield. The back and forth seizure of high ground, the taking and re-taking of key river crossings, cavalry charges, ambushes and all that abound. Yet as typical with Abercrombie’s writing, the way that the characters themselves view it says it all. From the young recruit eager to gain a name and become a heroic legend like his father to the wizened old soldier who wants nothing more to get away from it all to the ambitious daughter of a general seeking to increase the influence of her dishonored husband, to the cowardly plotting once prince of the North to the disgraced former guard of the King, Abercrombie shows the horror, futility, irony, and viscera of war.

In other reviews of Abercrombie’s books, I’ve worried about him becoming something of a one-trick pony – sure he may do the one trick really well, but it can be tiresome. Especially when the trick is overwhelming darkness and a total lack of redemption in characters. With The Heroes, I’m happy to see that Abercrombie shows what I’ve always suspected – that he isn’t a one-trick pony, that he skewers one-trick ponies and slowly roasts them. One of the first thoughts I had while reading The Heroes is that it’s good writing, not the standard good storytelling of fantasy writing, but real talent at work where just a few words provide multiple meanings and depth. Now I’m not saying that Abercrombie has become a literary stylist or anything, just that he’s honed his craft and improved his skill as a writer with every book he’s published.

Subversion is one of the favorite catch words in fantasy these days – right behind gritty. Both words find themselves use routinely in reviews of Abercrombie’s work and deservedly so. Forget gritty – for an Abercrombie book it’s kind of like saying the sky is blue. But subversion – this is where Abercrombie’s writing really sets him apart. A key component of so much of the fantasy genre is heroism. And it may be this very key component that makes fantasy so appealing to read – after all, Western society loves the hero. Forgetting entertainment (which could go on forever), think of how quick society is to label someone a hero – be it a war hero, someone who rescues a baby from a burning home, a child battling cancer, etc. Hell, our society is so fascinated by heroes that it came up with the idea of superheroes. In The Heroes, Abercrombie uses a classic war novel in a fantasy setting to explore the idea of heroism. As one would expect, Abercrombie takes a deeply cynical and ironic view of heroism, but never a simplistic one.

One of the issues I have with Best Served Cold is that it is too dark, too cynical, and simply over does the lack of redemption in revenge. The characters were well done, just not likeable enough to truly enjoy the book. In The Heroes Abercrombie rediscovers that balance between levity and cynicism that made The First Law so much fun while it depressingly dismantles the ideal of epic fantasy. The Heroes is dark, it’s gory, it’s futile, yet it’s entertaining – a near-impossible balance to achieve, yet so important for success in a genre dominated by escapist reading.

The Heroes is a mostly stand-alone novel set in the same world as Abercrombie’s other novels. The story is self-contained, yet many of the characters and the background conflict between Bayaz and the Prophet are dealt with in his other books. So, even though the story is stand-alone and could work as an introduction his fiction, a reader does benefit from having read Abercrombie’s other works.

Abercrombie continues to show growth and improvement as an author and The Heroes is stellar example of why he has become so popular in a relatively short time. The Heroes showcases the strengths of Abercrombie’s writing – characterization, dark ironic wit, and not-so-subtle subversion of traditional fantasy ideas. And Abercrombie is never afraid to get dirty, really dirty. 9/10


bloggeratf said...

Just finished it myself and was equally impressed with the writing. That stood out more than anything for me. I would love to see some historical fiction in the same vein.

My only disappointment was that the bloody nine might actually be dead. I had hope for a cameo or a short scene with him in it, but I guess it was not to be.

Ted Cross said...

Nice review. I have all of his books sitting by my bed, waiting their turn in line. I am in the middle of Scott Lynch's books right now. I am looking forward to seeing how I like Abercrombie.

Linda said...

Thanks for this Ken. Nice informative review. It's very timely; I saw this in my bookshop's newsletter onthe weekend and was thinking about buying it. I will.

Neth said...

Glad you guys like the review. This one is Joe's best yet.

Fence said...

I've just read this, and it is the first by Abercrombie that I've picked up, I guess that means I've a lot more reading to do :)

I have to say that at first I didn't think I was going to enjoy it, I like a book to have at least a few characters I can sympathise with, and these all seemed a bit too unlikeable for me, but I grew to sympathise with some of them, and in the end was rooting for a few of them :)

Neth said...

@Fence, if you had trouble sympathizing with the characters in The Heroes, good luck with Best Served Cold. Redemption of any sort is in short supply.


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