What is a hero? This is the central question driving Joe Abercrombie's latest novel, The Heroes, and coming from such a dark & gritty writer, where convolution and betrayal are paramount, it's a darned good question. The North, "united" under Black Dow's banner, and the Union forces, under the direction of Marshall Kroy, have convened on a small plot of land to wage war. The focus point is a large hill spotted with ancient stones appropriately called The Heroes, named after long dead legends of the North. War is the opportune time to discover heroics, but the question is from whom will they come?
The Heroes is filled with various POV characters. We have Crunden Craw, an aged Named Man who's spent his life as a straight-edge and is known for doing the "right" thing, whatever that's supposed to mean. Prince Calder, the youngest son of the recently murdered King of the North, is a notorious coward and an even more notorious schemer, and it's only a matter of time before he tries to take Skarling's Chair from Black Dow. There's also Beck, a young lad just old enough to take a weapon and enlist, with visions of glory and earning a name for himself. As for the Union soldiers, we have the disgraced Bremer dan Gorst, dispatched to observe the war for the King, though the brute of a man wants nothing more than to earn back his former rank and glory. There's Corporal Tunny, famed for his lackluster life as a soldier and his uncanny ability to turn profit, and who has little desire to rise above his self-interests. Finally there's Finree dan Brock, the only female POV, and the daughter of Marshall Kroy. Finree is manipulative and ambitious, but her marriage to a treacherous noble's son currently stands in her way.
Abercrombie is known for presenting flawed characters with a few good traits in them, and he keeps this up with The Heroes. I personally found the Northmen much more interesting, especially Craw and Calder. It's as hard for the reader to pick a side as it is for those involved in the affair, and I'm not sure which side I wanted to win the battle. This, again, is a very Abercrombian thing to do. Present the sides and muddy them all grey. Ambiguity runs amok here.
The Heroes is Abercrombie's fifth novel, and while it's not necessary to have read the previous works, I think you'd be missing out on some behind-the-scenes things that are likely important to the world of The First Law. Still yet, one could easily enjoy this book for what it is, and that's a fierce battle waged over the course of three days. This condensed timeline works great for Abercrombie, I think, because the sprawling tale that was Best Served Cold seemed to struggle under too much time.
This book was hilarious and dark, violent and oddly beautiful, thought-provoking and entertaining. It's Abercrombie at his finest, and yet I didn't enjoy it as much as The First Law. Part of the problem was that I just didn't care that much about the Union troops. Gorst was annoying, Finree disappointing, and Tunny just didn't have enough time for him. On the other hand, I really enjoyed the North parts, especially whenever the Bloody Nine's name popped up. Even Shivers, who I grew to dislike over the course of Best Served Cold, was fascinating here. Really the only time I enjoyed the Union pieces were when Bayaz was involved, and this only because it left me wanting to know more about what was going on between the First of the Magi and Ishri.
Abercrombie is at the top of his game with The Heroes. The book is fluid and well written. The action scenes are exciting. The implications of the book's thesis question are questionable throughout. It's a standalone novel that leaves me curious to see what's going to happen in Abercrombie's next book. (I believe he mentioned something with a "Western" flair on his blog. Interesting.) If you've never read Joe Abercrombie, I'd recommend starting with The Blade Itself, but you could just as easily pick this one up. It's a bloody book, but you wouldn't read a book about war and not expect otherwise. Especially not from someone as twisted and dark as Abercrombie. Highly enjoyable.
Supplemental Thoughts (CONTAINS SPOILERS)
1. I genuinely wonder if Logen Ninefingers is still alive. It's been 8 years since The First Law. Part of me thinks the man has just settled down in some remote location in the North and has been living a life of ease ever since. Or maybe he's chasing Ferro, though I'd find that hard to imagine. Still, I suspect he's living.
2. What is going on between Bayaz and the Gurkish? Will we ever get to see this conflict played out? I do not trust Bayaz, but I also don't trust the Gurkish, either. Is there a good side here? Considering Abercrombie, I'd say "it's complicated," or, possibly just "no."
3. Shivers' killing blow to Dow in the circle was unexpected. I expected Calder to win, but not like that.
4. Wonder what the Snake of the Talins has been up to, and what's gonna happen in Styria come next book? Recalling Bayaz' "cannon" thing, I expect we may see firearms/artillery, though not many.