Review: The Heroes (First Law World #5) by Joe Abercrombie

Rating: ★★★★☆

Synopsis

Thanks to Orbit for my review copy of The Heroes audiobook in exchange for an honest review.

The war between the Union and the Northmen comes to a head. One one side are all the King’s horses and all the King’s men, a sometimes incompetent but well-armed and plentiful fighting force of Anglanders willing to die for honor and country; that is, if you don’t count Corporal Tunny. On the other side of the war are the Northmen, led by the murderous bastard Black Dow. Dow has killed more men than anyone in the North, and he deposed The Bloody Nine himself to gain his power. Now, Black Dow seeks to gain independence from the crown, once and for all.

Bremer dan Gorst, disgraced by his failure to protect the King at Cardotti’s House of Leisure, is now the King’s royal observer, tasked with writing reports to the King accounting for the movements in the war. For Gorst, though, his sword proves very much mightier than his pen as he relishes the bloodshed that comes with his increasingly violent role in the war. 

Curnden Craw always does things the right way. It seems more and more that men are taking the easy way, though. One of the last respected men in the North, Craw finds himself between a rock and a hard place when his need to do the right thing sticks him up against the inevitable tides of conflict.

Prince Calder isn’t the strongest or the swiftest son of Bethod, but he is the smartest. Avoiding conflict is second nature to Calder, and he prefers to get his acquaintances’ hands dirty with his climb to the top. Northmen spit at his name far and wide, but Calder is ever the hottest iron in the fire, dancing between attempts on his life and struggles for power with mastery that would have made his father proud.

Still other more sinister forces spur on the tides of war, and the common man pays the cost of their lust for blood and power. Bayaz, The First of the Magi and recent member of the Closed Council, takes the driver’s seat in the military plans of the Union. Meanwhile, Ishri whispers Khalul’s will into the ears of Northern leaders. Each have dangerous magics capable of wreaking havoc on the battlefield.

Review

“Death is a bored clark with too many orders to fill. There is no reckoning, no profound moment. It creeps up on us and snatches us away while we shit.”

The Heroes is a brutal account of the three-day war that transpires at a hill, around a ring of old stones called “The Heroes”. The two armies clash, each gaining ground and losing ground it seems by the hour. Characters do their best to survive, try to do the right thing, and some even become so enamored with the killing that they feel more at home in a storm of swords than trying to sleep in their beds.

Black Dow just stood there looking at his hand, his scarred and scabbed and calloused hand. “I was apprentice to a potter,” Dow snorted. “A thousand bloody years ago. Then the wars came, and I took up a sword instead. Always thought I’d go back to it, but… things happen.” He narrowed his eyes, gently rubbing the tip of this thumb against the tips of his fingers. “The clay… used to make me hands so soft. Huh. Imagine that.”

As always, Abercrombie’s characters are rich and deep, each with their own hopes, triumphs, and pitfalls. What I think Abercrombie does best in The Heroes is to show the personal impacts of war, how violence at such a scale will shape how people think and reframe the things they think are important and worthwhile. Still others, like Gorst, only find joy in the mindless violence that war brings. Gorst is one of Abercrombie’s better characters. Gorst’s wallowing in self-anguish and the filter that he uses when speaking to other people are a lot of fun to read. Other POVs like the ambitious and capable Finree and the in-over-his-head Beck are compelling, showing off Abercrombie’s talent for character writing.

“It’s a pitiable fellow who ain’t a hero to someone,” said Deep, “Even if it’s only himself.”

“Or Mummy,” said Shallow.

If you enjoy intense fight sequences, military tactics, and enjoy seeing them play out on a very human, very third-person-limited scale, then The Heroes is a fantastic read for you. I enjoyed reading Curnden Craw and his dozen the best, and Gorst was a fun bit of self-hating levity that stuck out at me. I didn’t feel incredibly invested in the actual outcome of the battle, since I sort of wanted each side to just piss off and do their own thing. But the ebb and flow of battle is fun to read and the way that Bayaz and Ishri meddle in affairs is interesting too.

Go check out The Heroes and get ready for A Little Hatred on September 17th!

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