The Heroes is Joe Abercrombie's fifth book, and what a book it is. Unlike the sprawling epic format of The First Law trilogy, or the lengthy structured sequence of Best Served Cold, The Heroes focuses on a single event.
Following the unification of Styria, the Union has a great need to reassert itself on its Northern border. Unfortunately, the Northern lands are under the rule of Black Dow, as dark a bastard as ever sat on a throne. Due to some rather clumsy military maneuvering on both sides, the Union/North war has been distilled into an awkward siege in the Valley of Osrung (previously insignificant).
On one hand, this is vastly significant. The Powers and Dominions that rule these lands are deeply involved - including many familiar faces from the previous books. Will the Union prevail? Will the North win out? The importance of this three day confrontation will rapidly become clear, even to Mr. Abercrombie's new readers.
On the other hand, this is a Joe Abercrombie book, so screw the greater significance: this is a worthless valley in the middle of nowhere and a lot of people are messily dying over it. Or in it. On it. All around it. I'd like to make a sweeping point about how the best of a generation are left on the field of battle, but, again, this is Abercrombie, and most of these folks are fairly unpleasant.
If The First Law trilogy was an elegant (if tentative) subversion of the epic fantasy, and Best Served Cold was inspired by westerns, The Heroes connects easily to the military genre. Mr. Abercrombie wisely claims all influences and none - his own blog shows that he's an avid consumer of games, film, television and other books. His research for The Heroes involved researching other military fiction and nonfiction, but the end result of The Heroes is wholly Abercrombie's own style.
If comparisons need to be made (and who doesn't love a good superficial pairing?), The Heroes has a lot in common with The Iliad. Briefly setting aside the plots to both books, in narrative form, the bulk of each is a lot of Named Men hacking one another apart on the battlefield. Homer's epic introduces ten thousand heroes - princes of Greece and Troy, champions from far off lands, warriors of every shape and size. The reader learns about their shining armor, their rocky homeland, their glorious past victories... then they die at the bottom of the page. It is a very casual interpretation of Homer, but The Iliad is the great god-father of the gritty war story, showing that no matter How Capitalized Your Name, there's still someone with a bigger sword. (Or a lucky arrow.)
As the siege of Osrung is only three days, not ten years, Mr. Abercrombie has to be a little more focused in his attentions. As the tongue in cheek title indicates, there are no heroes in The Heroes. Certainly not in the conventional sense. No stableboys vaulting into the prince's saddle, no Tom Hanks-style magic captains, nothing of the sort. At best, Mr. Abercrombie gives us a few people that are really bloody good at killing other people - Shivers, Bremer, Whirrun - but, even in the context of a battle, he makes sure that doesn't seem particularly praiseworthy. A few of the leadership types, say, the aging Curnden Craw, seem to believe in doing the right thing - but, again, what is the "right thing" when what you're doing is mowing down former friends and allies? As with his previous books, Mr. Abercrombie follows a lot of flawed characters doing a lot of very difficult things. The crux of The Heroes isn't what they accomplish on the battlefield, but how they evolve during the course of it.
Character conflict in normal fantasy is about identity - stableboys finding the magical swords to become high kings, apprentices solves riddles to answer prophecies. In The Heroes, Mr. Abercrombie introduces the idea of conflict through self-awareness. This sounds cryptic, but all the important scenes in The Heroes aren't the bits where people are running up and down hills waving swords. They take place the night afterwards, when they stay up too late thinking about what a schmuck they were. In some cases, it takes a lot of yelling and finger-pointing, but, across the board, each of the characters in The Heroes has a brief epiphany where they actually come to see who they really are. Which, of course, then changes who they are. (Abercrombie's Uncertainty Principle: As soon as a character understands himself, he changes to someone different and misunderstood.)
Two years ago, I wrote that Mr. Abercrombie has a unique voice - one that won't be lost in the near or distant future. The Heroes redoubles my belief in Mr. Abercrombie's talents. He approaches fantasy from new angles with creative ideas that are phenomenally well-executed. He adeptly juggles handfuls of brilliant, provocative, entertaining and empathetic characters, and encourages the reader to see the world through their (clouded) eyes rather than his own.
The First Law was great, Best Served Cold was brilliant and The Heroes is truly masterful. Can he continue this trend indefinitely? I certainly hope so. But, you know, you've got to be realistic.