Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Great Reread Project Mark III

A couple of years ago I did a series here about my favourite books and authors. Once I'd completed it, I got to thinking that I had all these great books that I'd loved and I rarely ever reread (too many shiny new things to take my attention). I made a resolution to reread more. I'm now on my 3rd go round the alphabet and thought that this time I'd blog the rereads, we'll soon find out if the 'suck fairy' has come to visit any of my favourite stories.

I guess the above picture gives away my choice this time.

Joe Abercrombie first came to attention of fantasy readers in 2006 with the publication of The Blade Itself, the opening volume of his epic fantasy First Law trilogy.

He followed that with 3 standalone books all set in the same secondary world as First Law and often featuring characters from that trilogy.

The Heroes is the second of those. Abercrombie was inspired by works like George R.R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, Glen Cook's Black Company books and even Steven Erikson's Malazan series. He became one of the first of a new wave of fantasy authors favouring a low magic approach, gritty 'realistic' settings and characters who are largely absent a moral compass.

While the standalones are just that and can be read without having read the original trilogy they do feature characters from that and occasionally reference events that take place in it. To keep readers spoiler free I'd advise reading both the three books of First Law (The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged and The Last Argument of Kings), then Best Served Cold (the first standalone book) before tackling The Heroes.

A lot of readers that I've seen tend to rate Best Served Cold as the best of the standalones, if not Abercrombie's best book. I swim against the stream there. I did like Best Served Cold, but once I got into it, it became rather predictable.

The blurb on the back of The Heroes says simply Three Men, One Battle, No Heroes. That's a wonderful summation of the book, although there are more than three men and more than one battle, but there are indeed no heroes.

The book is the story of a battle between the forces of the Union and the Northmen. The Heroes of the title aren't people at all. It's the name given to a group of large standing stones, on top of a hill, which the Northmen will hold at any cost.

The Heroes covers a number of people involved in this fight. From the driven Union soldier Bremer dan Gorst, fighting to redeem himself and possibly not just seeking glory, but death in the getting of it. The leader of the Northmen Black Dow, an amoral vicious killing machine, who only exists to bring misery to anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path, his trusted lieutenant the straight edged Curnden Craw, who is sick of all the fighting, but just doesn't know how to stop doing it. There's Prince Calder, considered a coward by his own people in the north, but really just someone who's trying to survive as best he can. Finree dan Brock, a young military wife who wants to make things better for all involved, but at the same time advance her husband's career in an upwards trajectory. Corporal Tunny, a wily Union soldier, who always comes out alive and generally richer in the doing of it. Finally there's Beck, a young Northman who is trying to make himself a hero in an effort to impress a long dead father he never even knew.

The side characters in this are also marvellous, mostly from the north. I particularly liked the female warrior Wonderful and the reckless sword wielding philosopher Whirrun of Bligh. It's no coincidence that Whirrun is one of the funniest characters in the book (it's worth it just for his 'cheese trap').

Abecrombie's metaphor laden descriptions are great to read and really paint a picture. He shines when he writes battle scenes. One of these is a chapter long and puts the reader right in the middle of the action. Moving from participant to participant, the story continuing as one fighter is cut down and then picking up with the soldier who did the deed and entering their PoV. It is a masterful piece of writing.

There is no magic in The Heroes. If it weren't set on a fictional secondary world it could almost qualify as a piece of historical fiction. It is a wonderful bit of writing and a superlative example of the sub genre that has come to be known as 'grimdark'. I highly recommend it and there's no better way to say War is Hell.

Next, whatever I pick from the B's on the shelf.

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