Often when discussing genre fiction with its nonreaders and detractors, I discover that the aspect that causes the piece to be considered genre in the first place is the thing that causes people to squirm when it is talked about. It would seem that some folks can willingly suspend their disbelief only so far: superheroes (or aliens or elves) just go too far, and the unhappy reader despairs of really immersing themselves in the work. And yet, the fans of those genres not only can accept those things but laugh about it amongst themselves, irate when an author pushes the disbelief too far.
And so it was that, in 1986, a brilliant young writer named Frank Miller decided to contemplate what a world full of superheroes would be like if they really could exist. The result was the seminal The Dark Knight Returns, in which actions have consequences and people become superheroes because they have psychological issues. In the series, Miller posits a Batman in his 70s, paranoid and violent after a lifetime of trying to avenge the death of his parents in what is otherwise described as "the never-ending fight". Never-ending, it turns out, has dire consequences. The difference in the story-telling was stark—for those folks who are more familiar with other media might compare the campy 1960s live action Batman, with Adam West, to the most recent Batman movie, The Dark Knight, for an idea of the scope of difference.
Miller's work was groundbreaking, and as usually happens when groundbreaking work takes place, it was fervently copied. The idea of "grim and gritty" heroes as it became known was duplicated across every major comic company and probably helped inspire a few new ones. The issue was, as usual, that the copies failed in two important ways: they copied the effect of the story-telling rather than examined its causes, with the result that the new branch of story-telling just stagnated as no new ideas were attempted beyond the first steps that Miller set out upon.
Fantasy literature, most often thought of as involving elves and magic, has been typified and celebrated most thoroughly in the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien has been copied flagrantly, but over the decades since The Lord of the Rings's publication in paperback, there have been a number of attempts to do something different, to break out of the long shadow of Middle Earth. But no one applied Frank Miller's superhero logic to the fantastic tropes as convincingly and thoroughly as Joe Abercrombie has in his novels. Abercrombie really works through the implications of the fantasy world he sets up, wondering what it would be like to really live in that world on a daily basis. And with The Heroes, Abercrombie sets his sights on that most epic of fantasy tropes—war in a medieval age. The best mainstream analogy for The Heroes is Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, the Civil War story that rips to shreds any romantic notions of what war is like.
Abercrombie cheats the tropes a little bit in the world he has created: there are no elves and dwarves, usually the first sign that we are in a fantasy world, and while there is magic in his world, it is not pervasive, and practitioners are more likely to be hidden than seen strutting their stuff with large pointy hats and staves. And Abercrombie can also be a little heavy-handed; titling his destruction of the romantic ideas of medieval war The Heroes gives away the irony that its characters and readers feel as the plot progresses. Even though the title refers to a group of ancient menhirs on the battle field between two warring nations, the characters remark on the name of their battlefield with disgust, as they ponder their own role in the war and if there is really any such thing as a hero in their circumstances.
What Abercrombie achieves in his novel is reinstalling humanity in a cliché that is most often reserved for characters that somehow pass into supernatural on the battlefield. In many ways, The Heroes could have devolved into a historic account of troop movements over three days of battle, so determined is Abercrombie to focus on the human aspect of war. But by causing his novel to rotate through characters on all parts of the battlefield, from the newest recruit to the marshall of one of the opposing armies, we get to see not only the war but also its players, in many different lights, building the characters from many dimensions into superbly full and interesting characters. Abercrombie also recognizes that people, strangely enough, are often contradictory—the most noble can do the most heinous deeds, and the most amateur can rise up—especially under pressure, which nothing brings to bear like warfare.
Especially interesting in this light is a character that has had some minor roles in Abercrombie's earlier works, Bremer dan Gorst. Dan Gorst was once the captain of the King's personal guard, but has fallen into disrepute and is tasked to be the Union King's observer of the war against the North. But dan Gorst's narrative is filled with self-loathing and loathing of everything around him, such that his passages become difficult to read, honest though they may be in their evaluation of the Union's leadership. But to the troops of the King's army, dan Gorst is a hero, personally winning major skirmishes in the first two days of the battle for the Heroes, and to the North, he is an implacable though respectable opponent. And what Abercrombie's narrative causes the reader to understand is that none of these visions is wrong—dan Gorst is all of these things, a seething mass of contradictory impulse and reputation, a real person. And dan Gorst is only one of about ten characters that are given the same treatment through the book, a tactic which further casts war itself into a brighter light—in Abercrombie's hands, war becomes a mass of orders given and not received, or misunderstood, sacrifice for no reason, and tragic crashes of soldiers one upon the other leaving behind nothing so much as a field of human wreckage.
The Heroes takes place primarily over the three days of the battle for the Heroes, and each day's narrative includes a different astonishing narrative trick that further informs the tragedy and irony of war. On the first day, for the space of scores of pages, Abercrombie suddenly starts a narrative chain of death—we start with a character from the North and follow him until he is dead, and then the narrative switches immediately to his killer, and so on for perhaps a dozen characters. In this way, Abercrombie shows the sorrow and irony of what one person thinks as he is killed compared to the relief and good fortune of his malefactor, until they too become a victim. Similarly, on the second day, Abercrombie follows a written command given by the marshall of the Union's army, describing how it is perverted not only by circumstance but because of the relationships between deliverer and recipient. And then, in a final twist, the message is lost, leading to horrific action from both parties, making moot the original intent of the message and the effect it might have had if delivered.
On the third day, Abercrombie creates a chain similar to the first, but instead of it being caused by death, the links are forged by warriors seeing each other across the battlefield. The action of this chain parallels the primary battle tactic of one of the armies in the field, thus interleaving personal narrative with something broader and fact-based. And again, it shows how the very personal can affect even the biggest movements in a battle, and thus a war.
Abercrombie is also unflinching in his battle narrative. Let's be honest: people fighting with swords, axes, and arrows do not die in pretty ways. Abercrombie does not play this up—he is not interested in a gorefest, but he plays it honestly, allowing the reader to feel something akin to what the witnesses to such horrible deaths also feels and sees.
All of these factors, and the twisty plot that follows any battle, make The Heroes into a seminal work, pushing fantasy into a place where it can have relevance beyond just the fans of the genre. Abercrombie's writing style changes to fit the characters that are narrating and thus exhibits a versatility and ingeniousness that is remarkable and engrossing. This is the kind of touchstone book that both fans of fantasy and fans of groundbreaking and exciting writing will want to return to again and again.