Who would want to be a hero? Think of the demands, the ever-increasing expectations. The smiles people present to your face masking envy when your back is turned. Not to mention the indignity of having a bunch of drunken slob soldiers singing dreadful off-key songs about your exploits around campfires. But there appears to be no greater aspiration for a man in Joe Abercrombie's bloody and brutal fantasy world. In the end, though, these men are simply fighting for an idea, and an idea that in most cases hasn't been thought through. They say you can learn all you need to know about a person by how he fills the gap between who he is and who he wants to be. Fill it with a bunch of hacked up corpses, and what does that say? That you're a hero?
It's one of many wise and knowing touches in The Heroes that the titular heroes are not men at all, but the name of a ring of standing stones that will serve as the centerpiece in a battlefield where men will fight and die over nothing in particular. So many wars are like this, especially in medieval cultures. The desire for power feeding powerful egos, a perceived slight building to the point where men in their thousands take up swords for reasons they don't really understand, for arguments that have little to do with them. The men on either side's front lines are no different from one another, really. They've left farms, shops, children and wives, and for what? Some seek a name, or wealth, some seek to be the subject of songs, some want glory and titles and land. Most just want to go home, and in one piece.
The Heroes is a brilliant and brash novel in which a pointless and wasteful battle teaches the survivors who they really are. The story is set in the same world as Abercrombie's The First Law trilogy, slightly in the future of those novels' events and with reappearances by some key players. Not the least of these is arch-schemer Bayaz, First of the Magi, manipulating events on all sides with that infuriating smug attitude of his. The bulk of the action takes place over a three-day period amid a cluster of fields surrounding the town of Osrung and its nearby standing stones. There is no strategic value to this land, no gold or precious ore to be mined here, nothing but some desultory farms with crops soon to be trampled flat beneath the feet of thousands of soldiers' boots. There's no sane reason to fight here. But that's the point. There are rarely sane reasons to fight anywhere. This particular battle is one that must be fought, and quickly, simply so that a more important battle can be fought elsewhere. I can think of better reasons to die.
Some of the men here can't. They have heroism on the brain. They are mostly the youngest, newest recruits, utter noobs convinced of their own inner courage and invincibility. One of these boys has it bad, a farm lad named Beck whose one link to the glorious world of warriors is that his father was a great fighter, Shama Heartless, killed by the Bloody-Nine. Now those are some heroic names, and you can imagine Beck wants one for himself, without the being-horribly-killed part, naturally.
Most of the men here are veterans, jaded, tired, and world weary. But they do what they do because they've nothing to go back to. These are the times, grizzled veteran Curnden Craw tells himself. If you've survived long enough at soldiering to get really good at it, odds are you've been at it too long. Over three days, the armies of the North — led by the vicious and generally unloved Black Dow — will clash with the far-larger armies of the Union, led by the king's commander in chief, Lord Marshal Kroy, and a host of squabbling and jealous lesser generals. One side will gain ground, then the other will, and on and on. Lots of men will die. There will be great acts of gallantry that go unnoticed, and mistakes that bring undeserved glory. A man might save another's life, only to be killed by him shortly after. And even among fighters on the same side, bitter rivalries can be far more volatile in their enmity than any hatred for the opposing armies. As for heroism, well, that turns out to be something that men sing songs about before and after — but never during — battles. As one fighter says, some people will sing about any old shit.
Abercrombie has quickly risen to the top ranks of heroic fantasy. This novel, a stand-alone epic that doesn't require you to have read his others, makes it abundantly clear why. Even among writers known for doing fine characterization, Abercrombie's approach is strikingly effective and not quite like anyone else's. Internal monologues are woven into external action in a way that adds such immediacy to the narrative, it's less like reading about the fighting than being in the middle of it as a war correspondent. The book's very first major battle scene establishes the technique for everything that follows. Abercrombie takes one man as a viewpoint character, follows him until he's killed, then does the same with the man who killed him, and so on. What must go through a man's mind when he knows his remaining life can be measured in minutes, or even seconds? What must it feel like to be run through with a sword, or shot with a crossbow bolt? Sure, it's painful, but "painful" is only a word to those who haven't really felt it. What do you think of at the moment you're drawing your last breath? So few last thoughts are profound.
Some readers think Abercrombie's novels are exceedingly dark and grim, but I didn't think that of The Heroes. It's often bleak, but that's because it's honest. Its most powerful moments are typically its quietest, and interestingly, these can occur in the heat of the action. And frequently — hell, right from its opening chapter — the book is gloriously funny. It's like an epic fantasy version of All Quiet on the Western Front spiked with some of the irreverence of Altman's M*A*S*H. The human tragedy has plenty of comedy to go around.
The Heroes is, in the end, not simply a cynical repudiation of heroism as a notion or anything of that sort. Something like that would be far too simplistic thematically, and frankly, wrong. Abercrombie is certainly cynical about his people and their motives, to be sure. But many of the characters with the most cynical motives end up a bit more circumspect, while others never seem to learn anything. Heroism, oftimes, isn't really what many people think it is. It's also a lot like love, in that if you pursue it with too much single-minded persistence, it will elude you. The characters here who seek to be heroes most aggressively are either deluded in their inexperience of life, or so self-deluded they don't realize their imagined achievements reflect only narcissism and entitlement. "I used to think you were a decent man," says one character bitterly to another after the dust has settled, "but I see now I was mistaken. You're a hero."