Ah fantasy, my old nemesis, we meet again. I know I'm reading more fantasy than any other genre at the moment but I still can't bring myself to identify as a fantasy fan, and whenever someone recommends me a book I still open half-expecting to find a story with elf-mages riding dragons to the mystical land of cliche. I wonder if this is why I prefer a writer like Joe Abercrombie, who writes fantasy for sure, but doesn't feel like he belongs there, like he wants to be writing something else entirely, just set in a world other than our own. I mean, his books are all set in the same world for instance, and have some character overlap, but don't feel like a series with numbers on the spine marching off to infinity, any more than a book series set in our world would. Anyway, following up on operatic revenge tale Best Served Cold, Abercrombie turns his talents to a good old-fashioned war story, with The Heroes.
When I was growing up, the genre I probably read the most of was war stories. Sci-Fi was a late adolescent obsession (and in fairness, and off into my twenties obsession!) but what I had access to in the house was a lot of my dads and both grandparents collections which were heavily dominated by war fiction. And its a genre that is frequently a lot less misty eyed about the reality of war than you might think, possibly as many of the writers of the 1950s and 1960s where actually in one. Sure, there was a lot of derring-do, but there was also a strong strain of cynicism, and death and horror. There is also a lot of skill in bringing in characters quickly and being cold-hearted in dispatching them, as well as an undercurrent that some men find a home on the battlefield, no matter how uncomfortable that truth may be. The Heroes plugs right into that tradition.
The novel is very tightly focused, taking place over only a few days (plus some epilogue stuff over the next few weeks) but makes up for that tight time focus by sprawling liberally in terms of its cast. You have a handful of core characters plus a lot recurring ones you drop in on, and then another, lower order of characters that flash through the narrative and often leave it short some vital organs. It has the advantage of keeping the chaos of the battle - with its different officers and battlegroups and smaller fronts - well detailed and fairly clear, but does affect the pacing of the novel, especially in the early going, and whilst some of it pays off, I don't think all of it does.
Once you are through the setup, however, the moves very well indeed, alternating between the chaos of battle itself and the scheming and planning that affects both sides in the overnight lulls. The rhythm here really works, and the characters start to shine out both from their actions in the field and off it, and ultimately its the characters that make this sort of fiction work, otherwise its all just sound and fury. There are also a couple of very clever narrative flushes, including a rolling series of perspective shifts though a battle, with each new character starting from having killed the last.
In the end of course, the battle has to end and we have to see who lives and who dies. In fairness, some of the characters who always felt marked for death do in fact manage to live, which is always nice, and for an author often held up a bloody monster of GrimDark fantasy Abercrombie seems pretty fond of letting some characters have their triumphs, which shows an awareness that "everyone dies" is just as much a mannered cliche as "everyone lives". Here, some live, and some die, and its not always fair either way. It's something a lot of the best war stories return to again and again, and it gives the story an unpredictability, a lack of control, which is the counter to all the dramatic scheming behind the lines.
So where does this leave The Heroes? Its a focused, stand alone novel that doesn't quite stand alone, operating as it does as part of a wider world mapped out in other novels. But whilst that impinges on the plot, and the battle over the control of The North is clearly part of larger changes, it's never feels serialised, and all it's major arcs are either self-contained or left open ended because that open end is the point. Its a war story first, and a fantasy novel second, and don't let the (welcome) return of Grand Mage "Asshole Gandalf" Bayaz kid you otherwise. I liked it so much I'm going to roll straight into Abercrombies Western, Red Country, and pretend that isn't a fantasy novel either.