a review by Nalini Haynes
The Heroes opens with Curnden Craw, a leader of a small band of fighters, taking the Heroes from another band of mercenaries. The Heroes are a circle of standing stones not unlike Stonehenge, but located at the top of a hill in the midst of varied terrain. Craw’s objective is to minimise death on both sides of the conflict.
Craw fights for Black Dow, the leader of the North, with a large but deteriorating army resorting to recruiting boys and unable to properly equip recruits. Beck, a boy of 17, volunteers but is somewhat older than expected at the time of his enlisting. Ishri is a black sorceror from the desert come to fight a war against the Magi from the South, Bayaz. Calder is a prince of the North, whose wife is held as hostage against his good conduct after previous misconduct. Calder schemes revenge against Black Dow.
The army from the South includes Gorst, a former member of the King’s First Guard, sent to be Royal Observer of the war because of his disgrace. Gorst is obsessed with Finree, daughter of Marshall Kroy (head of the army) and wife of an honest colonel. Finree travels with the army in the hope of furthering her husband’s career.
Joe Abercrombie introduces his characters well, bringing them to life with complexity, and developing them in the brief space of this book. Whilst The Heroes is 678 pages, the book covers only a few days, from the prelude to the war until the conclusion. However the characters face circumstances that challenge and change them in this period of time. So much happens that it is necessary for Abercrombie to break up the book into Parts, emphasising the short time frame. I tended to forget that only a day was supposed to have passed in hundreds of pages.
Abercrombie appears to have researched this book by investigating historical wars, the personalities in command, and how their strengths and weaknesses contribute to the outcome of skirmishes and the war. Although the characters are fictitious, I am reminded of Gallipoli as one example of ineptitude causing loss of life whilst achieving nothing. The generals from both sides in The Heroes are described well, giving them each differing motives, outlining the political environment that affects their actions, which, in turn, affects the outcomes.
The futility of war is one of the themes of The Heroes as the justification or trigger of the war is never actually revealed. It is hinted that Black Dow went to war against the south, but the south has come to the north to fight. The waste of life and resources, the stupidity of people involved, is narrated in detail but as a response to the events of the book, not as a lecture. Death is almost a character in this book, as The Heroes discusses in detail how men always seem surprised when their time comes. Abercrombie introduces characters, follows them for a time, and then describes their surprise when they are killed.
Research seems to make even fiction books based on alternate worlds much more realistic. Abercrombie’s research into historical wars and the personalities that shaped those wars gives The Heroes a ring of truth beyond mere fiction. There are numerous passages of text that are, in my opinion, highly quotable, and would only be more quotable if written in text books.
The Heroes reminds me of Good Morning Vietnam, but without Robin Williams’ humour. If this book was a movie it would be like the beginning of Saving Private Ryan but the gore continues most of the way through. This book has a purpose to its gore, themes and goals way beyond any kind of gruesome voyeurism, that makes The Heroes a compelling read. I will definitely be following this author in the future.
This review was previously published in Dark Matter issue 2, January 2011, and predated on this website to reflect the original publication date.