The Heroes, by Joe Abercrombie, is a magnificent high fantasy novel. Taking place over the course of about three rain- and blood-soaked days, the story covers the battle for the control of the North: Black Dow and his scruffy, scary War Chiefs hoping to gain some more ground to the south, and the well-armored, rich Union armies unwilling to let them encroach any further. There are three main characters - Bremer dan Gorst (Union), a disgraced but lethal fighter; Curnden Craw, the North's last honest man who just wants to retire; and clever "Prince" Calder, devious coward and world-class smirker - but the cast numbers in the thousands, most of whom get slaughtered. There are, I believe, exactly four women with speaking parts in this book - there's not a lot of room for women in this war.
And what a war! The Heroes is a brutal, bloody battle fantasy that is clear in its belief that there are no heroes in war, only lives wasted. There are no elves or unicorns in this fantasy novel; there's hardly any magic. What there is is battle. Abercrombie writes the most incredible, visceral and easily-pictured battle scenes I've ever read: I got the idea of reading the book in the first place from a mention in an A.V. Club article that posited that a scene with Gorst and Calder's brother meeting to fight on a bridge was one of the writer's favorite pop culture moment of the year. And yes, that scene very nearly lives up to the hype (although my favorite scene - discussed in this A.V. Club review - begins with one unknown, very minor character who gets killed after several pages and then the viewpoint switches to the guy who killed him, until that guy gets killed and the viewpoint switches to his killer, and on and on. In addition, this book is very funny: twisted, dark and British-dry. I laughed out loud several times. When's the last time that happened in a high fantasy novel (that wasn't written by Terry Pratchett)?
In case you couldn't tell, I really, really liked this one. The Heroes is my first Joe Abercrombie novel, but it won't be my last. I've already gotten Best Served Cold, his other stand-alone novel set in the land of The First Law trilogy (this time starring a girl!) and I can't wait to start it.
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