A month ago, I was a Joe Abercrombie-virgin. Yes, it’s been a month; that’s how long it took me to struggle through his latest stand-alone novel, The Heroes. To be fair, I spent that month moving, building a new version of this website and working on our Locus campaign as well, but I still had plenty of free time to finish the book in a week, had it interested me.
However, it seems everyone has something to say about The Heroes, and a fantasy blog isn’t complete without joining the conversation, so I struggled on. Instead of reviewing the book the usual way, I have decided to explain what I didn’t like about it. It must be said, though, that many reviewers loved the book. Mine is just one voice in the crowd. For a complete picture of what this book is about, I suggest you look here, here and here.
Abercrombie vs. Tolkien
The biggest argument surrounding The Heroes was raised by a very passive aggressive man named Leo Grin over at Big Hollywood. Let me start by saying that I absolutely do not agree with this man. Rather than pointing out any real flaws in the book (or even reading it in the first place), Mr. Grin seems to expect all fantasy to be of the romantic, unrealistic kind that men like Tolkien wrote, where all humans are heroes and all villains are devil-spawn.
I love The Lord of the Rings, but that’s a love despite its unrealism. Let’s not overlook the long-winding arguments raised about Tolkien’s works. Arguments that even led to the publication of The Last Ringbearer, a book that sheds light on the Mordor-side of things and shows that a world is never as black-and-white as Tolkien pictured it. No, I love Tolkien because of his brilliant writing, not because of the stories he created.
Lack of pacing
That is exactly what I didn’t like about The Heroes: the story Abercrombie has created is fabulous, but I simply don’t enjoy his style of writing. My dislike didn’t stem from the grittiness — hell, it was gritty and I loved that — nor was it because it was bloody — though I washed my hands after reading. I simply didn’t like Abercrombie’s style because of his pacing. Frankly, it didn’t have much pacing at all.
Dozens of viewpoints
The Heroes is a brilliant story about war, with smart dialogues and twists and turns around every corner. It just has a bit too much of that. The first 150 pages introduce all main characters, mostly through snarky dialogue. I can’t say how many main characters there are; I lost count. About a dozen, though, and that’s just too much to get to know in a stand-alone novel. The fact that all of these characters needed introduction took all the speed out of the start of The Heroes. The first thirty pages of dialogue interested me, they were something refreshing, and I thought I had a real gem of a novel in my hands, but then they went on and on and on, seemingly without end.
The good news is that after these first slow pages, the actual battle starts and things get better. The bad news is that this battle is narrated through the points of view of half a dozen minor characters, each of whom die at the end of their viewpoint. This is some genuine literary creativity that I can definitely appreciate. After 150 pages of… well, nothing, told from a dozen viewpoints, it just takes all the tempo out of the story at the very moment the pace is picking up. This doesn’t just happen once, either, but it happens three times throughout the story, to the point that a reader gets to digest at least thirty different viewpoints in a novel of 500 pages.
This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if The Heroes aimed to be story-driven, as opposed to character-driven, but it clearly aims for characters. The story is told from these characters and focuses on their experiences and emotions, rather than on the actual development of the battle.
I love characters that are morally complex, especially when done in a realistic fashion. If anything, the characters of The Heroes are some of the best I’ve ever read: morally complex, well-fleshed out, realistic, likeable, heroic, and, most importantly, understandable in the choices they make even when I wouldn’t have made some of the same choices. Unfortunately, the sheer number of viewpoints didn’t just affect the story’s pacing, it prevented me from ever really connecting to any one character. Oh, I loved some of them, I just didn’t relate to them, and that is usually what I’m looking for in a fantasy novel, especially one that focuses on characters more than on its story.
Why should you read this book?
If you are looking for a refreshing and original story about war and the effects it has on people, this will be the book for you. It definitely is a well-thought-out story; the scale is just too big for me to enjoy it. Despite its obvious flaws, however, this is a realistic story with a great premise that many will enjoy. It has the most amazing characters I’ve ever read in fantasy — it just has way too many of them.