Wednesday, 27 April 2011

JOE ABERCROMBIE'S HEROES

It might be good timing that The Heroes is released around the same time as Game of Thrones is making a big splash in the small pond of HBO series exiled to Sky Atlantic over here. In fact, there are some similarities between George RR Martin's view of swords and sorcery and Abercrombie's, most of which have to do with a harsh but realistic view of battle and a realisation that the intrigues of power are intrinsically more interesting than the details of battle anyway. Both writers also eschew the fanciful language that often accompanies S&S, and Abercrombie manages a good mix of modern idiom and medieval attitude. He is also writing on a smaller scale. Although The Heroes takes place in the world Abercrombie apparently created for his First Law trilogy, and deals with a massive battle between the forces of the Union for control of The North (roughly England and Scotland, though the parallel is never belaboured), the focus is on a limited number of characters, and within the wider scope of warfare, the various quirks of courage and character are allowed to shine through. Like Martin, Abercrombie is also very good with likeable characters with dislikeable traits, which provides a little spice, and his portrayal of the more barbarian leaders of the North, war chiefs who are 'named men', earning, like Indians, their noms des guerres, contrasts nicely with the rather false varnish of civilisation of the nobles and royal lackeys of the Union.

It's a big book that doesn't read like one, once you've got through the first 100 pages or so, and have an idea of who the main characters are. This is a problem, in that Abercrombie needs that space; he can't sketch a character in quickly, partly because they exist in context with numerous others; the relationship of men (and women) in war is one of mutual dependency. But once you do get going, his writing holds you in place; in this he reminds me a little of Glen Cook, whose Black Company S&S novels are much undervalued, and who writes in contemporary, indeed, pared-down, prose.

This is a real problem with sword & sorcery in general. I hadn't read any in some while, and Simon Spanton recommended this book. I suspect the reason is that as we get older, we have less inclination, certainly less time, and probably less need to lose ourselves in entire worlds, which is what the best writers of S&S create, convincingly enough to draw you in, and thereby convince you of the inner drive of their stories; this is something more dynamic than mere suspension of disbelief.

In that context, Abercrombie's not afraid to keep it simple, not afraid to use an epigraph from the baseball star Mickey Mantle, but he always manages to walk the fine line and keep his writing within the murky parameters of his S&S world. There is at least one very moving death scene, and even a little delving into matters of the heart, all handled every bit as well as the action scenes when the battle, a three-day affair like Gettysburg, actually takes place.

Yet the best thing about The Heroes is the way the story doesn't resolve itself until after the battle, and then it moves in directions you would have been hard put to see coming. It reinforces the notion that the battlefield is not where the real decisions are made, and that the role of heroes themselves is nothing like as crucial as the ballads would have us believe. Rather, they exist as a kind of motivation, propaganda if you will; an illusion designed to lull those lured into heading for battle, prepare them for killing and for death. We see the emptiness in Bremer dan Gorst, hero of the North, and in Curnden Craw, the dependable leader of 'a dozen' for the North; we see it in the cowardice of Prince Calder, a character of Shakesperian wit, and in young Beck, seduced into leaving the farm for a life of glory and discovering it doesn't exist. In that irony, The Heroes is completely modern, reminding me of the Korean War films of Sam Fuller and Anthony Mann more than anything else. And that is high praise indeed. I suspect I will be headed back to the First Law books; I enjoyed The Heroes that much.

4 comments :

Reliable dependable House Cleaning Seattle Service said...

The writing and characterizations are so very good. They way he moves from one point of view in battle to the next is simply compelling. A very original take on battle in a fantasy setting.

Micaella Lopez said...

I personally love anything this man writes. In his other books, you have a hard time deciphering who is the good guy versus the bad. You relate to many of his characters and begin to side with both parties. This tale does not disappoint, the brilliant and creative way Joe fills the pages of war, family bonds, vengeance and of course blood is masterful. I hope to read many more from Joe Abercrombie.

Mica
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Visit my site for Fishing Lodge Alaska said...

Joe Abercrombie now has a contractual obligation to produce four new books set in the First Law world. One book will be a stand-alone like this and BSC, while the other will be a trilogy. I can only hope that my favorite character makes an appearance in these upcoming novels.

The bottom line - Excellent book set in a amazing world that is populated by characters with depth.

Marlene Detierro said...

I had such a good time reading Abercrombie's latest story that I didn't want it to end. If I read just one more new fantasy book in 2011 that's two-thirds as good as The Heroes, I will consider it an outstanding year for the genre.

Marlene
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