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Author: Joe Abercrombie

Title: The Heroes

Publisher: Gollancz

Paperback: 610 pages

ISBN: 978-0-575-08385-1

Price: £8.99

Publication Date: 10/05/2012

For a novel that is overflowing with characters and action it is somewhat of an irony that The Heroes of the title refers not to any of the soldiers or warriors who inhabit the book’s pages, but rather to a ring of stones that will become the centerpiece for the three-day battle around which Abercrombie focuses his fifth novel in The First Law universe [Northern lore has it that the ring of stones mark the burial places of heroes of old].

And, as the battle ebbs and flows over those three days, you begin to realise that there are no heroes in this book. For this conflict is one of total and utter pointlessness, one in which lives are lost and destroyed for no discernible reason. There is no reason to fight this battle. No land or gold to be had. Only some crops and a scattering of farms. Worse than this, it is a battle being fought merely in order that a more important battle can be fought somewhere else and at another time.

In many ways this novel is an indictment of war and the haplessness of officers and commanders who sacrifice the lives of their soldiers through their pure incompetence. And yet, at the same time [and I don’t feel in the slightest bit guilty for saying this], The Heroes is fast-paced and bloody and a hugely entertaining read that I went through in only a couple of days.

The cast of characters is massive, but once again Abercrombie shows himself to be a dab hand at showing readers new sides to characters that have previously served as minor figures in the previous novels set in the world of The First Law. So, in The Heroes one of the major Point-of-View figures is ‘Prince’ Calder, who was last seen in Last Argument of Kings, lurking in the shadows with a flatbow as The Bloody-Nine fought for his life. And yet in The Heroes, despite being fairly unlikeable to start with, Calder evolves. In many ways he can be seen as very similar to Jezal dan Luthar from The First Law trilogy, in the manner that he starts out as a self-centred fool and evolves [well, a bit!].

Then there is Bremer dan Gorst, who has appeared briefly in all of Abercrombie’s novels to date – but always as an adjunct to far more important characters and events. Here, after events in Best Served Cold, he finds himself in disgrace and sent away from his place beside the King of the Union to be with the army. Burning with guilt and resentment, Gorst is desperate to prove his mettle and gain himself redemption, and thus flings himself recklessly into battle [and trying to be a ‘hero’].

They are fantastically well done, and it was great to see them being fleshed-out in this novel. Being completely honest though, what I loved most about this book was the way in which the reader gets to see other old characters through the eyes of these new Point-of-View characters – so The Dogman, Black Dow, Yoru Sulfur and Bayaz, all make appearances and it is interesting to see how others perceive them and to look at them in a new light.

And this most applied to my favourite character from the earlier books, Caul Shivers. Shivers started off life in The First Law universe as a fairly laid-back figure [literally. In his first appearance in Before They Are Hanged he was lazing in a tree when he met the Dogman!]. And over the course of Best Served Cold he tried to become a better man. But now, horribly scarred and with a metal eye and a croaky whisper for a voice, he could well be the cruelest character in all of Abercrombie’s books – which is really saying something.

Having seen him as a main Point-of-View character before, it is fascinating to see the fear that he inspires in other people in The Heroes. And, so brutal is he at points in this novel, that I started to wonder whether my previous attachment to him as a character was clouding my judgement of him in this book!

And this is where I do wonder at the idea of calling this a standalone novel. Yes, it is undoubtedly a self-contained novel that can be read, and enjoyed immensely, without having read the previous books. But, just like with his previous novel, Best Served Cold, I really do think that you miss a lot of the nuances, in-jokes [there is still a refusal to name the King of the Union and there were a couple of tantalizing mentions of a major character from Best Served Cold who I hope will be returning soon – well, three to be exact] and the brilliance of the world that Abercrombie has created if you haven’t read the books that came before this one .

However, that isn’t to say that this doesn’t work on its own – because it really does. Looking at it on its own, I can assure you that this is a dazzling and captivating fantasy novel that really puts you at the heart of the violence and action. You can really see Abercrombie growing as a writer and trying out really exciting and innovative new techniques which made this novel feel really fresh to read, especially for someone like me who has read a lot in the genre over the years.

One example of this originality of approach comes in the first major battle sequence, where Abercrombie selects a character and shows the battle through their eyes. Right up until the point that they are killed. Then he moves to the view-point of the person who killed them, and follows them until their death. And so on. It is really clever as an idea, but it is made to work by the way in which Abercrombie is able to make us relate to these characters, even though they are very minor, and also makes us able to feel their fear in the swirling, chaotic mass of the battlefield.

And this, once again, is what makes Abercrombie so good. The characterisation is detailed and believable, with some of the characters learning and evolving from their experiences, whilst others appear to learn precisely nothing from the violence and slaughter. And the battle scenes are a delight [although probably not for the legion of, fictional, figures who meet the Great Leveller in this novel]. It’s definitely a hefty book, but I couldn’t put it down and am now hankering for my next fix of the world of The First Law.

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