My husband read Best Served Cold last year and his response was favorable: “this is [bleeep!]’ed up… I like it”. Now The Mister has been working his way through Abercrombie’s backlog. As a result, I’ve been meaning to try this author, even though I had a vague idea it meant lots of violent action which isn’t usually what I gravitate towards. When Orbit offered a finished copy for review I took the chance to try something new.
The Premise: The southern Army (aka The Union), are fighting for the King against the Northmen horde, led by it’s leader. Minor skirmishes between Union divisions and the Northmen in other parts of the country have culminated in a battle over a small patch of land near the town of Osrung and a ring of standing stones called The Heroes. Over three days the outcome of the war will be decided.
My Thoughts: You know the how often in an epic fantasy series, we follow one or many characters in their adventures and the culmination of the tale is often a big battle between the armies of good and evil? Well, chop off the parts before and after the battle, take out any sense of who are good guys or bad, magnify and expand that, and you have The Heroes. This has the feel of fantasy, but from a new perspective — it’s all about the battle and only the battle, and its third person narrative that hops from one character to the next highlights a dizzying mix of violence, terror, anger, boredom, and insanity brought on by war.
The story focuses on many characters. Some are followed only for a page or two before we jump to the next one, but others we come back to often. We get perspectives from both sides of the battle. There is no main character, but there are characters who we spend a little bit more time with than others. These are Curnden Craw, an old-timer and leader of a dozen, with decades worth of fighting under his belt (a Northman); Prince Calder, the son of a disposed King of the Northman, and known for his aversion to fighting (a Northman with little loyalty to the current leader); and Colonel Bremer dan Gorst, disgraced ex-King’s Guardsman who was appointed “Royal Observer of the Northern War” (a Union man). To a lesser extent the story also spends time with a couple of people with relatively smaller roles in the battle – Beck, a farmboy who joined the Northmen with delusions of grandeur that are soon shattered, and Finree dan Brock, daughter of the Union’s Lord Marshal, and ambitious wife of one of it’s Colonels. There are a lot more characters, but I’ll stop there. I didn’t have trouble with the multiple names, but there’s an “Order of Battle” at the front of the book is very helpful in keeping them straight (additionally, there are maps of the terrain as the battle progressed).
In this story, no one is particularly brave or heroic. Even if they manage to kill many of the enemy, their thoughts are not of great deeds, but of staying alive and maybe advancing their situations in the process. Many of the characters have petty or cowardly thoughts so they may not be particularly likable, but that’s life. Everyone has flaws and issues — some more than others. I found Colonel Bremer dan Gorst and his silent seething anger on the disturbing side even though his fighting skill was unmatched. Calder is a cowardly schemer, but he has a quick wit which balanced that out. I felt similarly about Finree. She has a sharp ambition which tramples over her thoughts for others, but she was smart under pressure. I didn’t really feel that connected to any of these characters though. There was something about each of them that made it difficult. The only character I liked was Craw, because he wanted to do the “right thing” even though this rule of conduct had it’s holes. Maybe it’s his straightforwardness amongst so many characters who are not, that I liked most (whatever that says about me).
Remember The Princess Bride, when the grandson asks his grandfather accusingly, “Is this a kissing book?”. Well, there was a little girl inside me, with her arms crossed and the opposite sentiment about The Heroes. To be fair, this feels like a matter of personal preference – this is just not the book for me. I want to feel a connection to characters when I read a book, and didn’t really find that in The Heroes. On top of that, war stores are pretty much the opposite of what I usually go for, and 541 pages of men killing each other pushes my boundaries. We all bring our histories with us when we read, and I grew up somewhere in the midst of civil war. That dampens my interest in reading about it. On the plus side, the writing was good. Yes, there’s lots of flying body parts, but there’s always something happening and an underlying black humor about it all. I enjoyed some of the lighter moments in the story and in following the unexpected interactions between characters. Small things can have unexpected consequences, and there are brilliant intersects between characters (the last one hundred pages was particularly well choreographed). In the end I may not have been won over, but I’m glad I challenged myself to read this. I would read other books by this author, but perhaps not ones where the focus is on the battlefield.
Overall: This is a book about the kind of war that is face-to-face and hand-to-hand. As can be expected, the plot is grim and violent, but at the same time it has the same characteristics of anything in life, like tedium, humor, and bureaucracy. I’d recommend this book for readers looking for that conveys human flaws and the ambiguity and messiness of real life. I think I can appreciate the strengths of this book but I am a romantic when it comes to my reading, and this is clearly the antithesis of that.
Orbit Podcast w/ Joe Abercrombie