Back To The Mud: The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie (Gollancz, 2011)
It is hard to think of a more appropriate title for a Joe Abercrombie novel than The Heroes (well, perhaps There Will Be Blood but that was already taken). There is a sledgehammer irony to it since Abercrombie has been obsessed with the impossibility of heroism from his debut novel, The Blade Itself (2006), onwards. That book and the two remaining novels of his First Law trilogy – Before They Are Hanged (2007) and Last Argument Of Kings (2008) – take their titles from Homer, Heinrich Heine and Louis XIV. This time round Brecht does the honours: “Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.” So that is Abercrombie’s style of fantasy in a nutshell: an initial bluntness quickly revealing heavy irony with hidden depths below.
As well as slyly addressing Abercrombie’s concerns as a novelist, the title is also literal. The Heroes are a ring of standing stones outside of the town of Osrung. This unremarkable town finds itself the meeting place for the decisive battle in the latest war between the Union and the North, a war that takes place eight years after the events of the First Law trilogy when the two sides last clashed. In case you have forgotten the outcome of that conflict or are new to Abercrombie’s work, the steps leading up to this one are helpfully mapped out at grunt level:
“Black Dow turned on the Bloody-Nine and took the chain for his self.” Agrick realised he might have used some risky phrasing there, started covering his tracks. “I mean, he had to do it. Who’d want a mad bastard like the Bloody-Nine for king? But the Dogman called Dow traitor, and oath-breaker, and most of the clans from down near Uffrith, they tended to his way of seeing things. The King of the Union, too, having been on some mad journey with Ninefingers and made a friend of him. So the Dogman and the Union decide to make war on Black Dow, and here we all are.” Agrick slumped back on his elbows, closing his eyes and looking quite heavily pleased with himself.
“That’s a fine understanding of the politics of the current conflict.” (p.49)
As that quote suggests, the cast are a bunch of familiar faces: friends, foes and those who have suffered reversals of fortune in both directions since we last met them. But not, of course, heroes and villains. From the First Law trilogy, Dogman and Black Dow step free from the shadow of Logan Ninefingers (presumed dead, although I wouldn’t bet on it). Dow gets a chance to hog the limelight which he and Abercrombie clearly relish but Dogman, one of the most interesting secondary characters in the trilogy, is disappointingly merely a bit player. On the Union side, Jalen has achieved an improbable ascent to the rank of general and Bayaz, First of the Magi, returns as the power behinds the throne and one man military-industrial complex. Actually, maybe there is a villain after all. Also fighting for the Union is Bremer dan Grost who is trying to make amends for the events of Best Served Cold (2009) where, as an aside to the main narrative, he fails in his duty to protect the King. The unknowing author of Grost’s downfall, Northman Caul Shivers, also returns from that novel, physically and mentally disfigured with the concept of heroism firmly wrung from his mind. We even have Curden Craw and his dozen of Named Men introduced in ‘The Fool Jobs’, Abercrombie’s contribution to Swords & Dark Magic, Lou Anders and Jonathan Strathan’s superb anthology of modern sword and sorcery. This is not to suggest you need to have read any of these works before starting The Heroes, simply that Abercrombie has been carefully tending this rich stew for some time.
The novel takes place over the course of three days as the battle pushes forwards and back and torrents of blood are spilt to take and re-take insignificant geographical features. This rolling warfare allows plenty of opportunities for heroism, even more for cowardice and unlimited scope for stupidity. As an old Union campaigner puts it to his raw recruits on the even of battle:
Look. You think how stupid people are most of the time. Old men drunk. Women at a village fair. Boys throwing stones at birds. Life. The foolishness and the vanity, the selfishness and the waste. The pettiness, the silliness. You think in a war it must be different. Must be better. With death around the corner, men united against hardsip, the cunning of the enemy, people must think harder, faster, be… better. Be heroic.”
He started to heave his packages down from his horse’s saddle. “Only it’s just the same. In fact, do you know, because of all that pressure, and worry, and fear, it’s worse. There aren’t many men who think clearest when the stakes are highest. So people are even stupider in a war than the rest of the time. Thinking about how they’ll dodge the blame, or grab the glory, or save their skins, rather than about what will actually work There’s no job that forgives stupidity more than soldiering. No job that encourages it more.”
He looked at his recruits and found they were all staring back, horrified. (p.130)
It is not a particularly original sentiment but it is rare for it to be so sustained and all pervasive in a work of commercial fantasy. The old soldier outlines this state of affairs as an inevitability of human nature and this seems to be a view Abercrombie shares. Only rarely do his characters try to oppose this natural law and when they do they are crushed. Ninefingers and Shivers both tried to become good men, to rise above the brutality that they were born into. Over the geographical and spiritual journey, Abercrombie brings them tantalisingly close to the point of achieving this goal before slamming shut the door on the very possibility of such a transformation. Both characters descend into the embrace of fatalism, a stance more than justified by the nihilism of Abercrombie’s universe. In The Heroes it is Calder – youngest son of Bethod, the first king of the North and original owner of the shiny chain won by Ninefingers but now worn by Black Dow – who dreams of a better world:
Calder could hardly keep the contempt out of his voice. “Maybe what the North needs is fewer heroes and more thinkers. More builders.” (p.210)
That struggle to control his contempt is his fatal flaw. Calder may be brighter and more articulate than his fellow soldiers but he is just as constrained by his nature as they are. In the end, a bitter hatred of the world, gloved in self-protective irony, is the best he can manage. Here, for example, is a scene in which he witnesses the psychotic Dow, his master, seal a blood oath:
“The two men stood there as blood streaked their forearms and started to drip from their elbows. Calder felt a little fear and a lot of contempt at the level of manliness on display.” (p.42)
For all the tempering cynicism of such observations, this contemptible manliness is very much on display in The Heroes. Abercrombie has a lot of fun with it and his sharp wit must be one of the reasons for his huge popularity. This is a typical example of the way men talk:
“Got my eye burned out o’ my head.”
So much for calming small talk. “Reckon that could change your outlook.”
“Halves it.” (p.110)
None more manly, none more knowing. The stench of machismo is thick in the air and, as you would expect on a battlefield, women are scarce. There are a few women who have become combatants because, like their male peers, this is the path the world has found for them. Whilst soldiering may not be traditional women’s work there is little sense that they have found any form on emancipated. Similarly, there are a few officers’ wives whose higher socio-economic status merely presents a different of constraints. Chief amongst the noble ladies is the “venomously ambitious” Finree dan Brock (as Abercrombie puts it in his dramatis personae), a self-aware-schemer who is plunged into the world she has always wanted it and finds it more than she can take. You might quibble about the plausibility of her presence so close to the front but she is a very enjoyable character and a welcome perspective in a novel about fighting men. I suspect we have not seen the last of her.
Self-awareness is perhaps the defining quality of an Abercrombie character but at the same time they never have quite enough. Calder has a kernel of goodness inside him – “He’d given up on being a good man long ago, hadn’t he? Then why did he still dream like one?” (p.209) – but, as with Ninefinger and Shivers, it can never germinate. A discovery of the price of her ambition knocks some of the wind out of dan Brock’s sails but whilst she pauses to reflect she can’t escape her Machiavellian impulses.
In the First Law trilogy, the crippled inquisitor Glokta keeps up a sarcastic, self-pitying but self-coruscating internal running monologue in italics. It was impressively bilious, often hilarious but in its cumulative inevitability slightly tiresome. In The Heroes, an identical role is taken by Gorst:
[The sword was] one of the few relics remaining of a time when he was the king’s exalted First Guard rather than the author of contemptible fantasies. I am like a jilted lover too cowardly to move on, clinging tremble-lipped to the last feeble mementoes of the cad who abandoned her. Except sadder, and uglier, and with a higher voice. And I kill people for a hobby. (p.222)
At the climax of the novel, after the battle itself has been fought to an epically pointless draw, Gorst allows all his repressed emotion to boil out. His audience is dan Brock and she is not a sympathetic ear; “hero” becomes a damning epithet. For all the carnage we have witnessed, for every axe-split face and dismembered body, this is by far the most brutal scene of the book.
Of course, there was never going to be a happy ending. This is, dare I say it, the charm of Abercrombie. The Heroes is funny, exciting adventure fiction which is completely guilt free because the reader has nothing to feel guilty about, they have already faced it head on. Every witticism is barbed, ever exhilarating scene of martial prowess must be repaid by the reader with an emotional hangover. Blood, black humour and bile are Abercrombie’s bread and butter and it makes for a tasty dish.
As a final aside, The Heroes has a simply gorgeous map of the area around Osrung, courtesy of illustrator David Senior. In fact, Gollancz are so proud of this map that they have made it the cover, reproduced it front and back on the inside leaf and included amended versions showing the progress of the battle throughout the novel. Still, if you are going to include a map, this is the way to do it; other publishers of fantasy take note.