When it comes to the work of Joe Abercrombie, I tend to be a little overzealous in my praise of it. When I first wrote my reviews of the First Law Trilogy and Best Served Cold I was still fairly fresh off his work and was still overzealous in my praise. While my scores of Best Served Cold and The Blade Itself haven't changed I would change the rating of the remaining two. Looking back at it, I would give Before they are Hanged 9 out of 10 and Last Argument of the Kings 9.5 out of 10.
I think anyone who has read his work knows that his stories are very character driven, more focused on their lives and how the event of the story affect them rather than actual plot. As a result, you always get great cast of characters who are very dynamic and diverse, often coming into full circle at the end of the story. The trade off for this, however, is that the main story lines tend to be a bit thin. While they are full of a lot of great head turning twists and the way they are taken is always fresh, they're nothing revolutionary. This was something I felt needed to be addressed. The books are still great but that was something I felt I had to mention.
With that said, it's time for the Illusive One's Review of his latest book The Heroes. It was released back in January in the U.K., and in February in the U.S., but I only got it in April and finished it in May. Why did I wait so long to do a review on it? I don't know, but here it is now. For those of you haven’t read the First Law Trilogy or Best Served Cold, I would recommend skipping this review as it contains spoilers for them.
The book takes place about seven years after the end of Last Argument of the Kings. After Logan Ninefingers' apparent death at the hands of Black Dow, Dow took over the North as “Protector of the North”. For reasons never entirely explained the war between the Union and the North started up again in full earnest. Neither side has been able to gain an upper hand, as the Union hasn't been able to draw Dow into a decisive battle and the North can't drive the Union out.
The Magi Bayaz, however, finally gets sick of these delays and offers the Union Commander Kroy a choice: End the war before the campaign season ends or he'll have the Union Government pull their forces out of the North. After realizing the Union is heading for their capital, Black Dow gathers his forces and heads to intercept the Union Army and both sides collide in a Valley of Osrung,
Now this is where things start to get interesting. Ninety percent of the book actually takes place in a time span of three days. Much of it is the battle itself and just as much is about the planning of the battle, camp life, and how the war is affecting the characters. Now that may not sound very interesting, but it is executed perfectly. What really makes it work is that it contains protagonists and points of views from both sides. You want to see each character make it through this battle and want to see both sides win but know that this can't happen.
The main three protagonists are the ones who make it all work. The first of these is Bremer dan Gorst, a disgraced master swordsman. He was actually a character introduced in the First Law Trilogy and became one of Luthar's body guards and the closest thing he had to a best friend. During the events of Best Served Cold, however, Monza's revenge mission took her to a whore house that Luthar was at. Long story short, the whore house burned down and a lot of people were killed and Gorst was the scapegoat.
Now that's just back story. He now views himself as a man with nothing to lose and everything to gain. Off the battlefield he just seems like a spiteful ass hole, (or at least he is in his head), but on the battlefield he is the biggest badass there is. The fight scenes told from his point of view are the best and the guy is like a damn machine. No one can stop him and no one can beat him and he is a hell of a character in this regard. He loves fighting, he's the best at it, and he knows it. Throughout the book, several champions of the North are introduced and the fights between them and Gorst keep you in suspense and on the edge of you seat, (although they did have a few unexpected results). There were, however, two major problems I had with this character. The first was that there was one person I really wanted to see him fight but unfortunately it never happened. I won't tell you who it was but if you read this book and Best Served Cold, you'll know exactly what I mean. The second is that he is kind of a static character. He doesn’t change at all and remains the same throughout the entire book and that may put some people off.
Then we have “Prince” Calder. The opening more or less explains his character; Prince Calder isn't interested in honor, and still less in getting himself killed. All he wants is power, and he'll tell any lie, use any trick, and betray any friend to get it. Just as long as he doesn’t have to fight for it himself. That about sums it up. He was another character originally introduced in First Law, as the son of the King of the North Bethod who was killed by Logan Ninefingers towards the end of Last Argument of the Kings. His character is actually pretty interesting as he is more of a thinker and a diplomat then a fighter which is in direct contrast with Northern culture. It's interesting to see how he interacts with people who have no respect for him and would rather see him dead. He's one character who goes through dramatic changes but how and why is something you'll have to read the book for.
Last we have Cunder Craw, a veteran fighter of the North. He comes off as being the world weary member of the characters; one who has spent all of his life fighting with next to nothing to show for it. He's at the point of his life where all he thinks about is his past and what may have been and what he thinks he should have done. Other than that, there isn't much to say about him as he is the least interesting of the three, though he does go through a good amount of development.
Then we have a number of minor characters who were great if not as good as the main three. First you have Beck, a young man fresh off the farm. He's basically doing what every kid dreams of doing; going into battle and claiming glory for himself but finds that it's not all its hyped up to be. Another interesting one is Finree dan Brock, daughter of Kroy and wife to a Union Colonel who is venomously ambitious. The last and best of all, however, is Corporal Tunny. This guy is just a trip. He's one of the worst soldiers in the Union Army, yet he has survived and been in more wars then most people his age have. He's a war profiteer and is just hilarious. In the book, he has to mentor a number of fresh, clueless recruits who have no idea what they’re in for. Beneath his funny lines and abrasive personality, he seems to have uncovered a kind of wisdom about the army and society in general that most people never do. His character isn't the biggest badass around and he's not the smartest either, but he is still probably one of the best fantasy characters ever created.
As with all of Abercrombie's previous books, it had great characters and great fight scenes. However, in this book it seems like he finally perfected the fights as they are more vivid, more intense, and still place you in the character's shoes. The constant shifting of point of views between sides was something that kept the book intriguing and kept you from rooting for either side and was a brilliant move on Abercrombie's part. Within this book, I also found the exception to my Red Shirt Character Cliché, (see my January Top Ten Biggest and Least Favorite Fantasy Clichés for more details). Within this book was one of the most surreal chapters I have ever read. In it, the story is told through the point of view of a random soldier who is killed by another soldier and the point of view shifts to killer who is then killed by another solder and the point of view shifts again and it goes on in this fashion until the end of the chapter. It was probably one of the best chapters I have ever read in any book and was something that I had to mention.
The only criticism I have deals with the plot itself. While it was incredibly well executed, just having it span over the course of a week and having most of it take place during a single battle isn't something that appeals to me. It just seemed too small in the time scale department and felt more like the climax of a story rather than an entire story. Also, it didn't have any head turning twists at the books end. In previous books, it was always about the Magi using the nations of the world to fight their battles for them. It was something that was never in your face and only subtly suggested and the end always would slam it in your face with a massive twist. In this one, however, it was apparent from the start and the end twists weren't that shocking.
Still if you like Abercrombie's previous books, I say give this one a read. For what it is, it's a great piece fantasy literature. It's certainly a lot better than all the campy crap that's out their but it's not as good as Best Served Cold or Last Arguments of the King.