My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Black Dow and the Northmen have becoming a thorn in the Union’s side. The Union is getting pushy and starting to encroach on land held by Black Dow. There’s only one way to settle this . . . FIGHT!!!
Craw and his dozen have been sent to secure a hill, crowned by ancient standing stones known as The Heroes, which is being held by some of the Dogman’s men. He manages to pull it off without violence. But neither he, nor his dozen are aware of how important that hill is going to be in the coming days, for the Union is marching all of its legions North.
Somehow Abercrombie has managed to take a simple concept as a war, and a pointless one at that, and turn it into a 500+ paged novel, and managed without even having any one main protagonist. What he does do is introduce a rogues gallery of fighters on either side of the war, so instead of one main story arc, we get six arcs that enjoy almost an even amount of page space. The North has its named men, with Black Dow, a charismatic but murderous leader, as their chief. Craw is the ‘I’m too old for this s***’ warrior that tries to the right thing in ever situation, whilst looking out for his crew; amongst whom are Whirrun of Bligh, a legendary warrior who carries the Father of Swords and Wonderful, the only female warrior who can hold her own against any of Black Dows men. Also on the Northmen’s side is Prince Calder, the scheming son of the former ‘King of the North’, who’s smirk and double-edged words only seem to land him in deeper waters. Then there’s Beck, a farm boy who has dreamed of earning a Name and following in his heroic father’s footsteps.
The Union is led by Lord Marshal Kroy, a seasoned general who takes the loss of men personally but is surrounded by sycophants and the King’s old drinking buddies. His daughter, Finree has come along to show support for her husband, a nobleman who’s family has fallen from the King’s favor, whom she hopes to advance through her own politicking. Another man who has fallen from favor is Bremer dan Gorst, a warrior with very few equals but only allowed near battle as the Royal Observer, though his only wish is to fight his way back into the King’s good graces. Then there is Corporal Tunny, a seasoned soldier and slacker. He’s that guy that get you anything you need, polish, extra rations or a blanket, for a price. The characters are colorful and well-realized, making you care for what happens to them and hope for their safety every time they face danger. This in itself is no mean task, as Abrecrombie manages to strike such a fine balance that the reader doesn’t care what side the characters are fighting on, but rather empathise with each characters personal situation instead.
The world-building is gritty and believable. There are no undead, demons or dragons to distract from the action, and the battles are every bit as muddy, bloody and confused as you would expect a battle to be, but even the gore is tempered by that underlying sense that the violence is pointless and dehumanizing. The Union could very well be the Roman Empire trying to conquer the Northen lands of the British Isles, which quickly helps to establish the style of armour and clothing, the style of the architecture and the lay of the land, within the readers mind.
The writing may not be written in stanzas, but Abercrombie has managed to tell the story of an epic battle in the tradition of Homer’s Illiad, choosing to focus on the heroics of individuals rather than force the reader to pick sides and politics. The plot might not enrich your lives, but you will most certainly remember his motley cast of characters and no doubt will find yourself browsing for other titles by Abercrombie.
The Heroes can be read as a stand-alone novel (as I did), or can be read as part of a linked series of books that started with The Blade Itself. What is certain is that Abercrombie has made himself a ‘Named Man’ amongst writers of Fantasy and a contender for the crown of ‘King of Heroic Fantasy’.