Joe Abercrombie’s 2009 novel Best Served Cold was one of the best genre reads of the last decade, fulfilling Abercrombie’s considerable potential and then some. The book combined the grim tone of George R.R. Martin with the vengeance-soaked, bloody epics of Quentin Tarantino and the mission-based structure of something like The A-Team, sketching in a handful of contrasting characters and putting them under the constantly crumbling aegis of Monza Murcatto, a woman trying to avenge her betrayal and her brother’s death, if she can stave off her drug addiction long enough to do so. It’s a hard book to follow, but Abercrombie improbably has with The Heroes, his best book yet.
The Heroes takes place over the space of about a week, with the bulk of the pages given over to a three-day battle to determine the fate of the wild, uncontrolled North. The Union, positioned to the south and much more traditionally civilized than the North, has marched into a small valley, and Northern leader Black Dow aims to make his stand here, holding an insignificant hill featuring Stonehenge-like rocks most people think are more legend than mystical portent. As the battle rages, Abercrombie sketches in more than two dozen characters, getting into their points of view and offering thrilling excitement alongside a more modernist deconstruction of whether this war business is really worth it. It’s as if Tolkien wrote the battle of Helm’s Deep after staring at Guernica for several hours.
Abercrombie has his faults—chief among them an over-reliance on clever dialogue that’s nothing but—but he’s a genius at creating believable characters and situations that are neither too heroic nor too antiheroic. One of the book’s best characters, Prince Calder, a clever fop with a taste for avoiding battle and outsmarting his enemies, will read as a heroic figure to some and a villain to others. The same goes for the rest of the book’s central figures, including Gorst, a monster of a man who only finds purpose in battle; Craw, an old warrior who longs only to do the right thing, but finds morality slipping under his feet like shifting sands; and Finree, a socially conscious young woman who nonetheless craves advancement for both herself and her doltish young husband.
Abercrombie’s shifting viewpoints and ability to portray the rare bits of magic that invade his universe as blinding moments of terror, incomprehensible to his non-magician characters, recall Martin the most, but he has literary flourish to spare. One early chapter begins with a character readers have just met, elicits sympathy for him over a couple of pages, then kills him. It promptly shifts the viewpoint to the man who killed him, then to the man who kills him, then to the man who kills him, and so on. As the sequence continues, and Abercrombie slips in beloved figures alongside the “extras,” he builds suspense and underlines his main theme: Is so much blood ever worth it?
Like all Abercrombie’s novels, The Heroes takes place in the same world as his previous four. As with Best Served Cold, it’s completely possible to read it without prior knowledge of his universe or its characters, though Abercrombie fans will spot recurring characters and thematic touches that weave in with his previous work. It’s a standalone episode in a larger work that should delight both newcomers and fans, a grim, bloody march toward a place no one wants to reach.