The Heroes – by Joe Abercrombie

I said I was going to read the entire First Law series and I am not going back on my word. So, here I am once again, this time talking about The Heroes, another standalone novel set in the same universe, and more than loosely connected with already established events.

Title: The Heroes

Author: Joe Abercrombie

Original Publisher: Gollancz

Publication Date: 27 January 2011

Genre: Fantasy – Grimdark

Pages: 581

Standalone or Series: Standalone (set in the world of the First Law)

Synopsis: Eight years after the end of the original trilogy, the Union and the North are at war once again. The story is told from the point of view of six characters, all involved in the conflict under different roles: Curnden Craw, old and respected chief of a crew of Named Men; Prince Calder, Bethod’s younger and dubiously honourable son; Bremer dan Gorst, King Jezal’s disgraced former bodyguard; Finree dan Brock, the ambitious daughter of Lord Marshal Kroy; Corporal Tunny, a cynical long-serving veteran; and finally, Beck, a young farmboy dreaming to follow in his famous father’s footsteps. The title is a reference to a Stonehenge-like structure on a hilltop, over which the two opposing armies will face each other in the climatic three-day battle, as well as the grimly ironic deconstruction of what heroism really look like in wartime.

Analysis: The Heroes is written in the author’s signature style, where a deeply subjective third person narration and a prose shaped by harsh irony and relentless cynicism are used to portray the personal shortcomings and the bleak fates of our protagonists.

Now, after discussing Abercrombie’s books over and again, I feel I can’t help but repeat myself by highlighting the core traits and recurring themes of his writing – so I’ll just passingly mention the usual mixture of explicit violence, bleak character study, relentless undoing of any remaning shred of idealism.

As for this book’s specifics: after the interlude of Best Served Cold, that, despite its multiple points of view, was focused on a mostly individual story, The Heroes takes us to the other extreme, using its selected collection of personal perspectives to tells what amounts to a collective experience; we may be witness to the plots and tribulations of this or that individual, but the driving force of all events is a conflict between two nations.

Large-scale historical events were also the topic of the first trilogy; there, however, the author at least pretended to take sides, directing our attention to one side of the conflict, just to reveal at the end the futility of all struggles and the hypocrisy of all causes; here, on the other hand, since the very beginning we get acquainted with contestants from both sides, who are – not unexpectedly – equally understandable, but also equally pointless and despicable. At no point we’re supposed to cheer for anyone, and caring about the outcome of the war is virtually impossible; what we get is a chance to contemplate the intense but pointless struggle of our characters, and the brutish agony of their dreams.

The tight, almost claustrophobic structure of the novel, that renlentlessy follows the rhythm of the battle, with no distraction or breathing space, only enhances the sense of inescapable doom that’s a key feature of the novel.

Conclusions: Really, it’s not you, it’s me. On a strictly aesthetic level, I did in fact appreciate The Heroes: its well crafted and willful structure, the purity of its intent. On the other hand, however, it represent everything that pulls me out of a novel, since I found very little incentive to care about what happened – to the characters, to the world, to anyone and anything. Once again, it’s a good book that I don’t like, and that’s all I have to say on the matter.

Content Warning: Graphic Violence – War – Death – Sexual Assault – Gore – Sexism

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