Friday, April 8, 2011

Book Review: Joe Abercrombie's The Heroes



They say Black Dow’s killed more men than winter, and clawed his way to the throne of the North up a hill of skulls. The King of the Union, ever a jealous neighbour, is not about to stand smiling by while he claws his way any higher. The orders have been given and the armies are toiling through the northern mud. Thousands of men are converging on a forgotten ring of stones, on a worthless hill, in an unimportant valley, and they’ve brought a lot of sharpened metal with them.

Bremer dan Gorst, disgraced master swordsman, has sworn to reclaim his stolen honour on the battlefield. Obsessed with redemption and addicted to violence, he’s far past caring how much blood gets spilled in the attempt. Even if it’s his own.

Prince Calder isn’t interested in honour, and still less in getting himself killed. All he wants is power, and he’ll tell any lie, use any trick, and betray any friend to get it. Just as long as he doesn’t have to fight for it himself.

Curnden Craw, the last honest man in the North, has gained nothing from a life of warfare but swollen knees and frayed nerves. He hardly even cares who wins any more, he just wants to do the right thing. But can he even tell what that is with the world burning down around him?

Over three bloody days of battle, the fate of the North will be decided. But with both sides riddled by intrigues, follies, feuds and petty jealousies, it is unlikely to be the noblest hearts, or even the strongest arms that prevail…

Three men. One battle. No Heroes.

            - Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes

I had grown tired of Fantasy.

After all the long years, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was done. Finished. I was over it. This was sad, because I had grown up on Tolkien, on Lewis, on White, on Alexander. Jack Vance’s Lyonesse is still one of my favorite books, but the truth was undeniable, and that was, barring a few notable and well deserved exceptions, if I never read about another wistful elf maid in a flowing gossamer gown staring longingly out her moon-lit tower window again, that would be just fine with me.

The problem was I still really liked bits of the genre. Big bits. Dungeons. Dragons. Knights. Kings and castles. All that. I wanted it, but I didn’t want the lame Ren Faire bullshit that came with. I couldn’t take that “forsooth” crap anymore. No, thank you. And the next portly asswipe in goatee and curling moustaches that says “Have at thee!” at me is getting a boot to the nuts.

I was done.

But I didn’t go easily. I still trolled the fantasy section at the bookstore from time to time, but… meh. I tried Jordon’s Wheel of Time series, and for a time that was alright, but well, we all know how that worked out, or didn’t. Then I found George R. R. Martin. The Game of Thrones and the rest of the Songs of Ice and Fire series that followed were like a well deserved and long anticipated homecoming. Fantastic, yet real. Noble, yet brutal. A grand and sweeping multiple POV fantasy masterpiece, brilliantly realized. Incredible. Amazing. And the HBO show looks like it’s going to be even more amazing than one has a right to expect. I consider him and Tolkien as bookends to modern fantasy. Unfortunately, while it’s true that George R. R. Martin is not my bitch, and despite the fact that the latest novel is coming out in a few weeks (allegedly), it has been almost six years since the last one.

Six years?

Six years!

I met my wife and got married in the time since the last one, which, let's be honest, was just treading water to appease the fans anyway, and George, baby, in the time since… I have strayed.

And that’s when I found Joe Abercrombie.

And up they came indeed. Four of them. New recruits, fresh off the boat from Midderland by their looks. Seen off at the docks with kisses from mummy or sweetheart or both. New uniforms pressed, straps polished, buckles gleaming and ready for the noble soldiering life, indeed. Forest gestured towards Tunny like a showman towards his freak, and trotted out that same little address he always gave.
“Boys, this here is the famous Corporal Tunny, one of the longest serving non-commissioned officers in General Jalenhorm’s division. A veteran of the Starikland rebellion, the Gurkish war, the last Northern war, the siege of Adua, this current unpleasantness, and a quantity of peacetime soldiering that would have bored a keener mind to death. He has survived the runs, the rot, the grip, the autumn shudders, the caresses of Northern winds, the buffets of Southern women, thousands of miles of marching, many years of his Majesty’s rations and even a tiny bit of actual fighting to stand – or sit – before you now. He has four times been Sergeant Tunny, once even Colour Sergeant Tunny, but always, like a homing pigeon to its humble cage, returned to his current station. He now holds the exalted post of standard bearer of his August Majesty’s indomitable First regiment of cavalry. That gives him responsibility—” Tunny groaned at the mere mention of the word. “—for the regimental riders, tasked with carrying messages to and from our much admired commanding officer, Colonel Vallimir. Which is where you boys come in.”
“Oh, bloody hell, Forest.”
“Oh, bloody hell, Tunny.”

The Heroes is Abercrombie’s fifth book, all of which take place in the same world, but you don’t have to have read the previous four to appreciate this one. Yes, the First Law trilogy (starting with The Blade itself) is a trilogy, but Best Served Cold stands alone and so does The Heroes. However, reading all five in order will give you the bigger picture of the world and add some weight to the familiar names that occasionally stroll through the various tomes.

Abercrombie’s world is one that at once resembles our own and yet is fundamentally different. He uses that old trick of brushing up against familiar cultures and countries and lands, drawing a quick sketch, and then skipping away again into new territory, so the reader will be comfortable settling in at first and yet enough of a stranger in a strange land to require the hand of a skilled guide to get around, a position Abercrombie excels at.

Some Background:
There were once three brothers. Juvens (the father of magic or High Art, as it’s called), Kanedias (or The Maker, a kind of scientist-magician and creator of technology, whose ancient House of the Maker is a looming and featureless giant gray mass of stone still rising over the capital city of the Union), and Bedesh (the one who famously destroyed the Old Empire—an ancient Rome like country now lost to antiquity and a near nuclear holocaust level of destruction). Eventually, Juvens and Kanedias warred and Juvens was killed, which caused his students—the Magi—to kill The Maker in revenge. But are the stories true? Is that how it all really went? History is written by the victor, after all. Now, thousands of years later, the Magi still haunt this world, and through their myriad of agents and spies, apprentices and puppet armies, they are locked in eternal struggle.

Quickly now:
The three major countries involved in the near constant series of hot and cold wars are:
1. The Union, a large kingdom similar to Europe made up of a handful of formerly independent states and now governed by a King and Senate. It is the plaything of Bayaz, First of the Magi.
2. The Gurkish Empire, similar in set up to middle eastern empires of old, run by an Emperor and more importantly, Khalul, The Prophet, Second of the Magi, and his Hundred Words, a troop of half demon/half human vampire-esque warriors.
3. The North, a rough alliance of tribes patterned on Vikings and Celts and Huns and other barbarian cultures of old. They are a harsh people where warriors become recognized as Named Men (kind of like officers, but more generally regarded as bad ass) after proving themselves on the field of battle.


There are more nations, of course, like the Mediterranean-esque island nation of Talins, which is run by the Snake of Talins herself, Monzcarro Murcatto (the main character of Best Served Cold) for instance, but they do not feature as prominently in this specific book, so I will refrain from going into further detail...

No, this book focuses on a three day battle in an unremarkable valley in the North and two armies: Bayaz and the Unions’ red-coated masses on one side and the hardened warriors of the North backed by an agent of the Prophet, moved by the fingers of Khalul, on the other. More so, it’s about a handful of people on both sides, who they are and why they fight and their struggle to stay alive, to survive.

And that is how this book fits in with the others, in the larger story sense. And that’s part of what makes them such a great all together read; the story is about the continuing war between two opposing and opposite and inhuman forces, but it's never told from the grand heights. Bayaz, Khalul, they are unknowable things; they're dangerous, monsters in human skin. This story is about the people on the ground, the ones struggling in the wake of the giants that stride amongst them, and down there, it's never black and white. It's never good versus evil. It's all shades of gray and the only Heroes that ever appear in this story are the ancient ring of stones standing atop a useless hill in that unimportant valley.

Dark and grim, but funny and insightful, full of mud and blood and steel and death, but brimming with real life and honest characters, Abercrombie writes the type prose that draws you in and moves you along; the kind of prose that tells a great yarn in a grand way. It’s big and it’s bold and yet it's quietly human too and all in a story that is too damn good a time to put down.

I love it.

Conside me a fan.

Great settings:
“The place was a maze of sluggish channels of brown water, streaked on the surface with multi-coloured oil, with rotten leaves, with smelly froth, ill-looking rushes scattered at random. If you put down your foot and it only squelched in to the ankle, you counted yourself lucky. Here and there some species of hell-tree had wormed its leathery roots deep enough to stay upright and hang out a few lank leaves, festooned with beards of brown creeper and sprouting with outsize mushrooms. There was a persistent croaking that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. Some cursed variety of bird, or frog, or insect, but Tunny couldn't see any of the three. Maybe it was just the bog itself, laughing at them.”

Great characters:
“When it came to hatred, Brodd Tenways had a bottomless supply. He was one of those bastards who can't even breathe quietly, ugly as incest and always delighted to push it in your face, leering from the shadows like the village pervert at a passing milkmaid. Foul-mouthed, foul-toothed, foul-smelling, and with some kind of hideous rash patching his twisted face he gave every sign of taking great pride in.”


Great times,
Jon

No comments: