Joe Abercrombie

Gollancz (2011)

ISBN: 978 0 5750 8384 4

Reviewed by Gillian Polack

Joe Abercrombie is one of those writers whose name is being bandied around a lot right now. The two things I’ve heard about him is that he’s the anti-Tolkien (actively so, taking the heroic war tropes of the Great Fantasy Novel and squeezing them like soft cheese until they turn into something else) and that he’s George RR Martin without the splendour. Both are partly true, but what I found when I read The Heroes was a fantasy retelling of the grungier and more miserable aspects of the Napoleonic Wars.

The story centres around a valley. Specifically, it’s about the various efforts to take and keep some standing stones on a hill. The stones are called “The Heroes” and the publicity material that comes with the book makes a large play of there not actually being any heroes in the book, that war is not about heroes. This isn’t strictly true. Quite a few of the characters get their heroic moment. They move for an instant outside their usual, or the stretch themselves, or they have a self-realisation and do something impossibly stupid or brave or they change the game just a little. Some of the characters have lives that happen only within the context of the war while others try to use the war as a political tool to gain advancement in their lives outside. All of this adds up to an ensemble piece. Small heroes whose lives become important for a moment before they fade into the background.

Unlike many novels about fantasy worlds at war, The Heroes is not very fast-paced. It’s more like Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage in that respect. It’s a series of very closely interconnected small lives that make up a bigger picture which in turn makes up the picture of the valley with its armies and blood. It’s a tale of war as seen by the human eye. The bird’s eye view comes from standing back and seeing the novel as a whole and realising what a mess this very small arena of violence is and that the bigger arena is probably no more salubrious.

The Heroes is part of a longer story about a much longer war. I know I won’t like the violence, but it convinced me that I have to read that longer story about that longer war, too. Abercrombie is now on my list of writers I must read all the work thereof, from beginning to end. The Heroes might be grungy and miserable, but it is – in many respects – extraordinary. Abercrombie doesn’t need the hype of being compared to other writers (it’s tempting, however, and I shall probably continue to do it): his writing has its own strengths. His words count; his characters are (almost all) strongly differentiated.

What I particularly like about this book is that violence is not without consequences and that heroes don’t stride through the narrative unscathed by what they do and see. That innocence is obliterated systematically and vilely, not through the extraordinary, but by the mundane. That the mundane becomes frightening and that nothing is safe. Ordinary for war. This is a world that reflects our world in that respect. This is why The Heroes made me think of The Red Badge of Courage and also of fiction set in the Napoleonic wars, to be honest, because of the shape of the campaign and its effects on ordinary lives. In particular, it made me think about modern fiction about the Spanish campaigns (not just Napoleonic, but a specific aspect of the Napoleonic). Abercrombie achieves his consequences and his characterisation as much by crossing genres, therefore as by fine writing. His writing is, however, fine.

Where he falls down a little is in the conversations between teams of characters. Each conversation is good in and of itself. These small pieces are slotted neatly in between other events and they show us how characters deal with waiting, with death, with lack of control over their futures. In five hundred pages, however, they repeat a little. We see the patterns just a little too often and they become set pieces rather than underlining and explaining events and consolidating the characters. This means that the climax and resolution (and there is a climax and resolution and heroes do emerge, despite the publicity claiming that there are no heroes) are dragged down a little. The momentum leading to them is less strong than it could be, perhaps. This is not a large flaw, but it did mean I put down the work several times rather than reading it straight through – these quiet moments on the hill with conversations between people I was growing to know were the perfect moment to stop reading for a bit.

Quibbles notwithstanding, I was glad of the opportunity to read this book. Abercrombie doesn’t give a comfortable or cosy read, but he’s an outstanding writer and worth seeking out.