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Book Review: The Heroes

Now in Paperback: The Heroes

by Joe Abercrombie

Orbit, 2011

The picturesque but war-torn world of Joe Abercrombie’s “First Law” series of books features magic talismans and ancient wizards, but other than that, it’s basically northern Britanny during the Viking era – a cold, hard time full of hard men, where kingdoms large and small scheme, make and break alliances, and most of all fight. The first three “First Law” books brought Abercrombie a good deal of richly-deserved praise and fan loyalty, and his latest import to America, The Heroes, is set in that same world, only this time with a much tighter focus: this is the story of one battle, three days during which great armies of men converge on one contested plot of ground and slug it out.

The most memorable of these characters are grizzled old combat vet Curnden Craw and his small band of expert soldiers, including that legend in the North (and in his own mind), ‘Cracknut’ Whirrun:

Whirrun strolled through the gap one of the missing Heroes had left and into the firelight, tall and lean, face in shadow from his hood, patient as winter. He had the Father of Swords across his shoulders like a milkmaid’s yoke, dull grey metal of the hilt all agleam, arms slung over the sheathed blade and his long hands dangling. “Shoglig told me the time, and the place, and the manner of my death. She whispered it, and made me swear to keep it secret, for magic shared is no magic at all. So I cannot tell you where it will be, or when, but it is not here, and it is not now.” He stopped a few paces from the fire. “You boys, on the other hand …”

Something of Abercrombie’s appeal can be seen even in such an ungainly excerpt (his books are intensely contextual and dialogue-driven – they can be tricky to synopsize): he has a great sense of timing, for instance, and a marvellous ability to bring even his comparatively minor characters to life.

His major characters are his crowning achievement, however, and in The Heroes virtually all those major characters are military in some way – this entire book is very much a war-story, not just in the events it portrays but in the atmosphere of machismo settled thick on every page. Military-edged science fiction and fantasy has a long history (probably starting with “Conan the Barbarian”- unless we count Homer, which we probably should), reaching an early kind of perfection in the work of David Drake and gaining a broader modern audience of sci-fi fans with such authors as Mark Van Name, John Marco, and John Ringo, writers whose books are in large part simply advance script-breakdowns for the movies their creators dream of seeing.

If there’s a weakness to this new wave of hard-bitten military fantasies, that’s it right there: the books are so steeped in TV and DVD that they’re storyboarded before they’re written – with the result that there’s almost no actual good prose in any of them. This isn’t an inherent fault on the writers’ parts – it’s obvious from The Heroes and Abercrombie’s earlier books that he has literary talent – but rather a flaw in their artistic indoctrination: none of them has read E. R. Eddison or John Myers Myers, but all of them can quote Star Trek III: The Search for Spock in depressingly thorough chunks. The cinematic provenance of such daydreaming is certainly furthered by Lauren Panepinto and  Gene Mollica‘s vivid cover design for The Heroes, which looks like a production still from 300.

Abercrombie, a fairly young author from Bath, revels in this slangy, younger atmosphere, and it shows in every aspect of his latest book, from the sketchy descriptions of people and places to the excellent meshing of exposition with meaningful dialogue. It’s in the conversation of Abercrombie’s characters that we know most certainly we aren’t in Middle Earth anymore:

“What’s to do?”

“You know.” [war-chief of the Northmen, Black] Dow took the pommel of his sword between finger and thumb, turning it this way and that so the silver mark near the hilt glinted. “War. Skirmish here, raid there. We cut off some stragglers, they burn out some villages. War. Your brother’s been hitting fast, giving the Southerners something think about. Useful man your brother, got some sting in him.”

“Shame your father didn’t have more’n one son,” growled Tenways.

“Keep talking, old man,” said Calder, “I can make you look like a prick all day.”

Tenways bristled but Dow waved him down. “Enough cock-measuring. We’ve a war to fight.”

There is an undeniable kind of feral adolescent greatness on display throughout The Heroes, despite its gently implied generational condescension (perhaps contrary to the author’s own convictions, there is plenty of the gritty horrors of war in Tolkien and Moorcock, for instance). And on almost every page of the book, there’s the author’s signature and beat-perfect humor:

The man with the chain took a step forwards and Finree had to stop herself cringing. There was something in the set of him that made her feel he was teetering on the edge of violence. That his every smallest movement was the prelude to a punch, or a headbutt, or worse. That his natural instinct was to throttle her and it took a constant effort to stop himself doing it, and talk instead. “Do you know who I am?”

She lifted her chin, trying to look undaunted and almost certainly failing. Her heart was thumping so hard she was sure they must be able to hear it against her ribs. “No,” she said in Northern.

“You understand me, then.”

“Yes.”

“I’m Black Dow.”

“Oh.” She hardly knew what to say. “I thought you’d be taller.”

Readers of sharp-elbowed fantasy novels are catching on to Abercrombie in ever-increasing numbers, and the next two years will probably see him gain a much, much bigger readership. If that happens, it will be due in no small part to brawling, sardonic novels like The Heroes, which takes a very old formula and refines it until it’s a knife straight through the bone of your forehead. Henry James aficionados can probably give it a miss (although even they might find themselves hooked).

 

 

 

 

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