Top critical review
Decent, but Abercrombie's Weakest Novel
on December 21, 2012
The Heroes is a standalone written by Joe Abercrombie. It takes place after his First Law trilogy and Best Served Cold. Although it is a standalone novel and you can read it well enough without reading the previous four novels, the Heroes will spoil a lot of their major plot turns. So you're best off starting with the Blade Itself and working through Best Served Cold before you take on the Heroes.
Stylistically, the Heroes is very similar to Abercrombie's other books, so if you didn't enjoy those books you almost certainly won't like the Heroes. Abercrombie writes violent, bloody books rife with bad language and sex/sexual references. So if that's not your style, you probably shouldn't bother with any of Abercrombie's books.
The Heroes tracks the events of a three-day battle between the Union (more or less an analog of England) and the North, a barbaric people currently under the rule of Black Dow, a vicious killer. The story is told from a number of points of view: Some returning characters, such as the Dogman, Bremer dan Gorst, and Calder, and some new characters, such as Curnden Craw, a straight-edged Northern warrior, Finree, the ambitious wife of a disgraced but decent officer, and Beck, a young Northman who dreams of becoming a great warrior like his father. Given that the novel is almost exclusively about a war, the Heroes is bloody even for an Abercrombie novel.
Although I think the Heroes is Abercrombie's weakest work to date, it's still worth your time. As always, his creates and develops some really entertaining characters - Whirrun of Bligh is hysterical, Beck develops in an interesting way, Black Dow is fleshed out into a surprisingly three dimensional character, Calder actually becomes worth caring about, and so on. There are some weaknesses though. Although Curnden Craw is a likable character, his straight-edge philosophy also makes him enormously predictable. And although Bremer dan Gorst has some really entertaining fighting scenes, his internal monologues are all basically the same and tend to the really whiny.
Further, Abercrombie still writes some of the best action scenes you'll find. His fighting is very realistic - it's not the high minded swordsmanship you find in a lot of fantasy novels. Instead, it's dirty, gritty, desperate. People through mud, kick their opponents in the crotch, try to blind them, etc. Whatever they can to survive. And Abercrombie's ability to describe the action can leave you breathless. Abercrombie introduces a method of describing a battle whereby he jumps from perspective to perspective as characters come in contact with each other. Often, the points of view in these chapters come from random one-off characters that are never heard from again and aren't much developed, but they demonstrate the flow of fighting beautifully. Finally, Abercrombie continues to write some really snappy, believable dialogue, even if it is sometimes over-the-top and seems custom made for a film adaption.
My biggest problem with the Heroes is that, unlike Abercrombie's other works, it tended to be a little boring at times. About halfway through the book I lost interest, put it down, and didn't pick it up again for about two months. When I did pick it up, I found that the tempo picked up and the book became rather interesting. But the first 250 pages or so were a real slog. For whatever its merits (and the Heroes has quite a few), I can't give more than three stars to a book who's first half bored me so much I had to stop reading for a long while. Further, Abercrombie's writing tends to be pretty predictable in my opinion. It works fine in his other novels because the books are just so darn entertaining, but the Heroes isn't nearly as entertaining as his other works, so the lack of surprise really serves as a hindrance.
So if you have enjoyed Abercrombie's other books, you really should read the Heroes. It's lower quality, in my opinion, but it ties up a lot of loose ends and does have some really entertaining moments and some good character development. Further, the second-half of the book was far better than the first. The Heroes warrants three stars, which I consider a decent review, but the book was a bit of a disappointment considering Abercrombie's prior novels.