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The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie
Cover Artist: Michael Frost and Gene Mollica
Review by Benjamin Wald
Orbit Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780316193566
Date: 21 October 2011 List Price $14.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /

Joe Abercrombie has become a central figure in the new trend towards gritty fantasy, kicked off by the success of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. Abercrombie's new novel The Heroes exemplifies all of the strengths of this new style of fantasy, and of Abercrombie himself as an author. It eschews the broad scope of many fantasy novels for a closer focus on a single battle that takes place over the course of three days, showing us close up the sordid details of war, the corruption and power lust that causes the battle, the pointless slaughter it entails, and the aftermath of the battle for all concerned. It's a bloody, morally ambiguous, and utterly gripping read.

The novel takes place in the same fantasy world as Abercrombie's previous four novels, and features many returning characters. Having read the previous novels adds some weight and texture to the events of the novel and gives the reader the chance to catch up on the fate of some old favorites, but it is by no means essential to enjoying this stand-alone novel. Abercrombie gives us all the background we need to enjoy the novel, and there is no barrier to a new reader jumping right in.

The novel focuses on a battle that takes place at and around a circle of standing stones called The Heroes. The battle is between the Union, a so-called civilized nation, and the forces of the North, a group of semi-barbarian tribes united into a nation only recently. There are multiple point of view characters on both sides of the battle, and neither side is blameless in the conflict. While this kind of moral ambiguity was present in Abercrombie's previous books, it is especially prominent here. In the First Law trilogy, there is still a clear villain that is worse than the heroes, however flawed and cruel the "good guys" might be. Here, however, both sides are more or less equal parts innocent and guilty.

Furthermore, the shear pointlessness of the entire battle is emphasized throughout; this is no epic clash of heroes, but a bloody and calculated sacrifice of lives for minor political advantage. The entire novel is in many ways a deconstruction of the classic epic fantasy battle. Abercrombie focuses on the petty rivalries between generals on the same side that cost lives, and the even more mundane incompetency that the common soldiers pay for.

This might make the book sound like a bit of a downer, and it must be admitted that it is not the cheeriest reading. However, this is actually an incredibly compelling book despite its dark subject matter. Abercrombie has the trick of writing utterly compelling characters, who hook you into the action effortlessly. Even more importantly, he can make the reader identify with even the least admirable of his characters, and seasons almost all of his villains with some redeeming features. Furthermore, he writes some of the most effective, griping action scenes of any fantasy author out there. I couldn't put this book down; I finished all 540 pages in just two days.

This novel is undoubtedly Abercrombie's best yet, and one of the best fantasy novels I have read in a long time. Those looking for Tolkien-style mythic fantasy had best look elsewhere. However, for those who want a bit more grit in their fantasy, The Heroes should not be missed.

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