The OF Blog: Joe Abercrombie, The Heroes

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Joe Abercrombie, The Heroes

Corporal Tunny tried to hop from one patch of yellow weed to another, the regimental standard held high above the filth in his left hand, his right already spattered to the shoulder from slips into the scum.  The bog was pretty much what Tunny had been expecting.  And that wasn't a good thing.
The place was a maze of sluggish channels of brown water, streaked on the surface with multi-coloured oil, with rotten leaves, with smelly froth, ill-looking rushes scattered at random.  If you put down your foot and it only squelched in to the ankle, you counted yourself lucky.  Here and there some species of hell-tree had wormed its leathery roots deep enough to stay upright and hang out a few lank leaves, festooned with beards of brown creeper and sprouting with outsize mushrooms.  There was a persistent croaking that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere.  Some cursed variety of bird, or frog, or insect, but Tunny couldn't see any of the three.  Maybe it was just the bog itself, laughing at them. (p. 170)

The above quote, taken from Joe Abercrombie's fifth novel, The Heroes, at first glance may not seem to be an important scene or plot event, but it is representative of the style of writing toward which I found myself reacting a few weeks ago when I read this recently-released novel.  Abercrombie's novels, particularly his last two, have always struck me as relying heavily upon visuals in order to carry the weight of his story and sometimes this is unsatisfactory.  Although not nearly as poor as his 2009 novel, Best Served Cold, which I found to be dull, repetitive, and ultimately shallow under its glossy veneer of vividly-described scenes and occasionally amusing character dynamics, The Heroes never rose above its setting. 

Revolving around three days of battle between the Union and the Northmen for control of the northern part of the world established first in The First Law series, the story follows a set of characters, returning and new alike, who are involved in the events leading up to three days of battle and that battle's immediate aftermath.  Doubtless, fans of the so-called "gritty" fantasy would enjoy the grimness of the setting and some of the events that happened to the characters, but I found myself thinking that there was nothing new here, that Abercrombie pretty much was re-exploring the same territory already trod earlier in his first four novels, with nothing really new added to the mix.  The characters did not interest me; there were few complexities and occasionally the dialogue felt stilted and rather trite at times.  It was for me the literary equivalent of seeing Sam Worthington attempt to act in the remake of Clash of the Titans

I just was not engaged with this novel.  A contributing factor might have been reading Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov prior to this, but for whatever reason, the prose just felt flat and lifeless beyond the visuals that constitute a large percentage of this novel.  Some readers just are not drawn to having so much described to them and I certainly found myself glazing over large sections, wondering when something inventive or at least well-executed would appear; it rarely did.  Weeks later, I struggle to remember much of anything about the characters, as they are still mostly ciphers to me, yet ones devoid of any real meaning to be unlocked.

Sometimes, a reader/reviewer just is not drawn to a work and while I could see where some readers might be fascinated by Abercrombie's wit (for myself, it failed to amuse after I sensed only a few humorous notes were being played over and over again through his novels) or by what he has to say about older conceptions of heroic/epic fantasy motifs.  For myself, what he has to say in that regard just does not interest me.  Not a book that I would recommend to people who want more than just a grimmer, more sardonic take on a literary subgenre whose main tenants are so often lampooned.


James said...

Abercrombie's books are strange for me. I really enjoyed most of the First Law trilogy, but the last book left me feeling... I don't know, a bit let down and apathetic. I have meant to pick up Best Served Cold since it came out, but every time I have a chance to buy it, I end up passing it over for something else.

Now, it has gotten to the point that I don't really care when I get to it or even if I get to it. I wish I could say I was excited about The Heroes, but I have felt the same way toward it.

Larry Nolen said...

I started to feel apathetic toward the middle of his third book, so I understand where you're coming from. It just feels like an AC/DC album long after their seminal works - you recognize it, you can almost predict riffs, it's not necessarily atrocious garbage, but it just does not feel as though anything new was ever really attempted.

James said...

I love me some AC/DC, but I was trapped in a car and forced to listen to Black Ice...


Larry Nolen said...

Well, it could have been worse. You could have had to listen to....Journey


James said...

I'm going to go ahead and say I only know one Journey song and that's all I care to know. Kind of like Boston...

Anonymous said...

I had great expectations for the Abercrombie books, but now you have me concerned. I picked up the First Law trilogy at Half-Price Books a few weeks back ... and the back-over blurb on Best Served Cold looked intriguing.

If Joe Abercrombie is a bust, what books and authors *would* you recommend for those of us who want a grittier fantasy and are tired of the same old stuff and want something grittier?

So far the only fantasy I've found that held my interest is G.R.R. Martin's Fire and Ice series and Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller trilogy.

James said...


Larry will be better able to answer this because I believe he reads several hundred more books a year than I do. My two cents though:

Malazan Book of the Fallen - Steven Erikson
Prince of Nothing - R. Scott Bakker
Lies of Locke Lamora - Scott Lynch
The Steel Remains - Richard Morgan

Just sticking to the epic-ish fantasy for now.

Larry Nolen said...

The ones James lists are a fine start. As for Abercrombie, it may be that you enjoy it much more than I have, as much of my concern deals with a lack of development and not with elements that quite a few fantasy readers have enjoyed over the years. Reading this book between Goethe and Dostoevsky is going to magnify the prose weaknesses, among other things.

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