Josh’s Review – “The Heroes” by Joe Abercrombie

The Heroes is a big, brutal book.  It tells the story of the war between the Union and the Northmen, the narrative following several different perspectives from each side of the battle lines.  The primary parts of the story take place over 4 days, and thanks to the perspective shifts, the audience gets to be there for just about all of it.

And, really, that’s about it.  The Heroes is about a war and the people in it, so we don’t really get anything from the outside world.  But where Abercrombie really shines is the way in which he takes a pretty insulated, short-term story like this one and fills it with compelling and engaging characters who can carry the weaker parts of the book.  These characters are sometimes way badass, sometimes way cowardly, but they become engaging in the way that none of them fully match up to the titular heroes we are always being pushed to consider. I called the book brutal earlier not because of the overabundance of bloodshed (although that certainly is there), but because Abercrombie doesn’t pull punches when it comes to shining a clear light on the evil, greedy, weak, or overall distasteful aspects of his characters.  My friend Jesse was talking to me about the book, and he noted that no one really comes out of the ethical blender unscathed, and that’s really pretty true.  Even the people for whom you find yourself cheering end up disappointing you in some way.  And that’s a pretty cool authorial trick–the ability to make your readers question and examine their own character biases.  At no point does it feel manipulative or fake; Abercrombie just paints a dark world, and understandably, it’s full of imperfect people.

Unfortunately, while that trope of hero-questioning and character-questioning is interesting and engaging, it tends to get a little old after a few hundred pages.  Because the plot is pretty monosyllabic, Abercrombie is forced to really work within the constraints of wartime to come up with interesting battle situations and sneaky undercover plots.  The problem with this is that it often feels like the purpose of all of this stuff is to raise one character high (‘Look at how powerful he is’ or ‘What a noble act of mercy these folks showed’) only to undercut them again (‘And then he betrayed his only friend because he’s a coward in his heart’).  And while that reversal is important and great, it gets pretty stale after a bit, and The Heroes is a long book that employs this move over and over again.  It’s like character whiplash that never ends.

The other problem I have with this book is this: as far as I can tell, there seems to be one black character in the novel as a whole, and she just happens to be the mystical, shadowy figure who operates outside of conventional logic, dress, and understanding. (You could even call her exotic.  Maybe even an exotic other.)  I’m not sure how stories in any medium can still get away with doing this kind of thing without some editor or reader or director jumping up and saying, “Hey, excuse me, just a quick thing, just a small deal.  You seem to be a little, well, let’s be generous and say ‘racially problematic’ here and I was wondering if we might fix that.”  This same thing happens in the current show, The Vampire Diaries; every black character present in the narrative is a mystic with strange powers.  And really, The Heroes is the perfect space in which to interrogate this terrible, unsettling trope of the lone figure of the racial minority as the exotic other, especially with the ways in which Abercrombie is already asking us to push and prod at the pre-constructed limits of the hero narrative as it is currently understood.  Unfortunately, he never really questions or critiques this racial narrative.  And even though this book is supposed to be informed by or the byproduct of his earlier trilogy (which might be much more conscious of the racial stuff), it is still marketed as a standalone novel, which makes me think that it should, you know, be able to stand alone.  And in this respect, I’m not sure that it does.

I give The Heroes two slices of lasagna.

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One thought on “Josh’s Review – “The Heroes” by Joe Abercrombie

  1. VDW says:

    I waited three weeks before commenting here to get some distance. Distance I needed because I’m a fan of what Abercrombie has done with his fiction, building a world with a long history filled with people that I wouldn’t trust to take out my trash, let alone set the history of the planet. That said, I can see why this book isn’t the greatest jumping on point for new readers. For me, I got to finally see the North that some of the baddest of the bad originated from in the previous four books. The North is a bleak place; people don’t die and go to heaven, they ‘go back to the mud.’ If I were the Union, I wouldn’t want to fight the bastards. So that was a huge payoff for me personally. New readers don’t know how frightening it is to hear the laugh of the Bloody-Nine echoing through the mist, or just to see Caul Shivers back in the north. New readers’ skin didn’t crawl at the mention of Bayaz or The Cripple. So even though it was marketed as stand alone, Abercrombie couldn’t help but build on what came before.

    In the last part of your review, you point out that the book is, to use your pretty phrase, racially problematic. I see this not as a problem, but rather as an effect of the world Abercrombie has built. The northerners are clannish, isolationist and war-like in the extreme. Of course there are very few outsiders or very little racial diversity in that environment. The only two other kinds of people the north has encountered are: The Union, who warred on and conquered them; and the Shanka, a race of horrible orc analogues. For my part, I don’t feel a need to see the diversity band wagon rolled into the dark fantasy books I read. Things are supposed to be awful. Hard divisions along race lines are pretty darn awful. Also, that one black character had crazy powers due to being an Eater. Eaters are called Eaters because they eat people. Another good reason not to associate with the neighbors.

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