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The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie
Book Name: The Heroes
Author: Joe Abercrombie
Publisher(s): Gollancz (UK) Orbit (USA)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Military Fantasy
Release Date: January 27, 2011 (UK) February 7, 2011 (USA)

When Joe Abercrombie releases a new book, the fantasy world goes a little crazy. It would be fair to say that Abercrombie is one of the very best modern fantasy writers in Britain right now and probably the one making the most impact overseas.

Joe’s work is different. We know when we pick up a Joe Abercrombie novel we are going to experience something new, something fresh, and something exciting – yet at the same time still holding that fantasy-like familiarity.

The Heroes follows that pattern. Joe Abercrombie has created a military centred fantasy novel, which offers us a rather unique perspective of war and what it takes to fight in one. We don’t have battalions of brave, invincible men who fight for honour and a cause…not in Abercrombie’s world. Instead we have men who are relatively pissed off with having to fight a war, fighting for who pays best and offers the better chance of surviving.

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They say Black Dow’s killed more men than winter, and clawed his way to the throne of the North up a hill of skulls. The King of the Union, ever a jealous neighbour, is not about to stand smiling by while he claws his way any higher.

The orders have been given and the armies are toiling through the northern mud. Thousands of men are converging on a forgotten ring of stones, on a worthless hill, in an unimportant valley, and they’ve brought a lot of sharpened metal with them.

Over three bloody days of battle, the fate of the North will be decided. But with both sides riddled by intrigues, follies, feuds and petty jealousies, it is unlikely to be the noblest hearts, or even the strongest arms that prevail.

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This novel all kicks off with Craw. Craw is climbing this hill known as The Heroes, his knees are killing him, he is exhausted and scared of the enemy that awaits him at the top. Once he makes it to the top of the hill, he spots the enemy camping around a file on the hills peak. He approaches the enemy, having his men surround them silently. His heart beating the whole time, the possibility of death playing on his mind he raises his hands calls out to them. “Nice Evening!” he says…

The enemy division’s leader Hardbred returns the greeting and the two exchange some banter. Having fought on the same side as many times as the opposing side – Craw offers Hardbred the chance to head off without a fight. Both sides are too old and too tired for that hassle tonight, Hardbred knows when he is outnumbered and Craw knows that Hardbred doesn’t represent any real significance to the union he represents. The whole fighting thing seems a bit pointless for now. So Hardbred heads off and Craw takes up residence on the hill.

Elsewhere we have Bayaz who is the First of the Magi and a representative of the King’s Union. He is of the opinion that things have been going on too long so pays visits to the army’s Commander in Chief. Bayaz demand that things are brought to a conclusion and he gives Commander Kroy and his army three days to do so. No easy task seeing as his army is split up all over the place and currently finding the Black Dow fairly good at evading every attack they try to land upon him.

It turns out that both sides see the key to winning this battle is to gain control of The Heroes and use the scouting views and the fact that they can cut men down as they make their way up it to their advantage. And so it begins…Thousands upon thousands of men begin to converge around this hill which was just days ago seen as insignificant. In less than three days though, there will be a battle in its wake that will determine the fate for our three ‘heroes’ and indeed the control of the North.

From this point, the action focuses on three main characters. We have Bremer dan Gorst who was once a bodyguard to the Union’s King but has since been disgraced. In his new position as informer, he is constantly ridiculed, but as a man used to respect, he wants it back. Then there is Prince Calder, son of a former Northmen King. He has no real interest in fighting for the Black Dow. In fact, he has no real interest in doing anything except hiding away in the safety of his own home with comfort and the company of his beautiful wife. Finally, there is Craw who we have already mentioned. Craw fights for who pays him best, he is honest and for a hired hand – reliable. He and his band of men (a woman too) are aging a bit, but what else would they do if not fight?

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For me…Abercrombie’s strength has always been his realism when it comes to creating characters and his ability to write and depict a battle. The characters within The Heroes feel real. They act, talk and think in a manner that allows you to relate to them and see them as real living, breathing people. Seeing as most are bloodthirsty soldiers though – it’s probably a good thing they are not. The battles are…gory. They are real. They are damned cool too. In fact, I would say that Abercrombie writes a battle scene better than anyone. In fact, I think his battle scenes are so realistic and so disgustingly bloody and full of detail that we should stamp a big (18) symbol on the front cover just to let you know that this book is pretty hardcore. In fact the axe on the cover dripping with blood is a pretty good warning of what you’re in for…arrows through the face, skulls split in two, arms dismembered, brain splatter…it’s all lovely stuff!

The story is pretty standard: Renegades versus a king. But the fact that Abercrombie shows us the characters and emotion behind the Renegades blurs the lines so much that it is difficult to choose a side. As the book itself says, “Three Men, One Battle, No Heroes.” What will make this book enjoyable to fantasy fans is that it is something a bit different. It is a standalone novel that allows a fantasy fan to experience a military experience. Not many fantasy fans would have experienced a fantasy book like this and most fantasy fans would not have picked up a military type book either.

Even with so much blood, so much death, so many political issues and so many doomed to failure characters, you will be pleased to hear that the unique voice that is Joe Abercrombie’s grim, dark humour is still there forcing you to laugh out loud and smirk at the circumstances these characters get themselves into.

Aside from the violence and the amusing undertone of the book there is a story here that is very real and in places even touching. We get views of war from so many different perspectives and such a realistic fashion that you can’t help but feel for the characters. From those who revel in the excitement of war to those who fear even the sounds of battle, from those who fight for a cause or honour through to those who fight just for money or even against their will…we meet characters of all types. It builds in our mind a huge picture of this war and will surely leave you thinking about what a real war would feel like and how it has been experienced by other people. Abercrombie has done something masterful in the sense that he has picked up his fantasy writing blended it with a completely military novel like story and come out the other end with something that feels unique.

– – –

So, any negative aspects? I have heard other reviews suggest that the novel starts slowly. I wouldn’t really agree with this to be completely honest. What I would say is that the early part of the book will require you to think a bit more than you typically would in a fantasy novel. As a fantasy/military split, you need to remember that we have armies, each of these armies is split into groups and each of these groups have their own characters. Making sure you remember who is who, why ‘x’ fights for ‘y’ and what they think about fighting for ‘y’ and of course how their own individual story ties in to the novel as a whole will be key to how much you enjoy it.

Personally it took about 70-80 pages for me to get my head around who was who and where they were going, who they were fighting for, why they were fighting, what their deal was and so on. Once I got there (which was made easier too by a number of the groups meeting up) it became far more fluent and from about page 100 the book picks up pace like an avalanche.

For me this will be in the Top 5 Fantasy Novels of 2011 without a doubt. If you have read Abercrombie’s work before I have little doubt you will find this his best release to date. The fight scenes are sharper, pointier and more realistic. There is better character development. And finally, the narration is darker, grittier and even more seamless than ever. For a standalone novel to achieve so much is simply incredible; a true testament to the skills of Abercrombie.

You can read more about The Heroes on Joe Abercrombie’s website. You can read our interview with Mr. Abercrombie here.



  1. Avatar BoudicaM says:

    I can’t wait for this – I’ve loved all of his other books.

  2. Avatar Sara Megibow says:

    Thanks for writing about this novel! I saw it promoted as the top fantasy release in January and have been looking forward to reading it. It’s on my wish list now. Thanks

  3. Joe Abercrombie mentioned this post on his blog:
    “There is a 5 stars from Fantasy Faction”

  4. Avatar A.J. Zaethe says:

    I have heard legends of Abercrombie for a month or so now and am looking forward to getting into his books. I have seen his books labeled Sword and Sorcery. That is the first time I have ever seen a novel labeled such. I have always just seen High Fantasy and what not. But good post.

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