Review of THE HEROES by Joe Abercrombie
Orbit, February 2011
The Union and their allies are slowly pressing into Northern territory when a mage and senior political officer arrives with new orders. The army is needed elsewhere and the Union must press for an immediate resolution to the conflict. They are ordered to concentrate their forces on the town of Osrung and the nearby hill called 'the Heroes.'
Northern commander Craw has taken the high peak of the Heroes, but he doesn't like the odds of defending it against the entire Union army with only his shrunken 'dozen.' Black Dow, the Northern king, is bringing up his forces, but not in time to keep the Union from seizing the high ground. Outnumbered by the Union forces, beset by political and personal rivalry (including a large faction of Northern fighters actually allied with the Union), Dow must find a way to use the Union's leadership stupidity against them. Of course, Dow knows too well that the Union doesn't have a monopoly on stupidity.
The Union army has a secret weapon--one they don't fully recognize themselves. It's not the ineffective cannons of the mage, it's disgraced former bodyguard Bremer Van Gorst. Gorst is a killing machine who lives for battle.
Author Joe Abercrombie (see more BooksForABuck.com reviews of fantasy by Abercrombie) writes of a dark world where slaughter is sometimes its own reward, where neither the Union nor the Northmen are particularly admirable, where people often choose soldiering because they have no other choices, and where magic may exist but certainly doesn't have much impact on the battlefield or the lives of the characters. Abercrombie is a strong writer and this world is both vivid and populated by characters who stand out--Gorst with his high-pitched voice and cynical attitude, Calder, with his ambition and cowardice, Craw with his sense of honor and disgust over battle, Fintree with her belief in her own cleverness and contempt for those around her.
Part of the darkness of Abercrombie's universe is that it's difficult to find a character to care about. Gorst comes closest, but he's self-involved and harbors a lust for Fintree that's hard to understand, and is a bit too capable on the battlefield. Craw would be a great sidekick, but doesn't make it as a protagonist. Fintree thinks she's too perfect. Calder is annoying. For me, the lack of a strong protagonist with goals and motivation caused problems. I wanted to care about whether people lived or died, but the darkness of the story and the ruthless exposure of stupidity, greed and indifference to life distanced me from the story.
In the second half of the story, Abercrombie's strong writing finally swept me into the story. There were a number of times, as I was reading the first half, that I nearly abandoned this book. Overall, the book rewards the patient, but it's not an easy read.
Too generous? Too stingy. Or did I miss the whole point? Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll publish the best letters I get so let me know if I can use your name.
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