Another review from Vector, circa 2011. (I will compile a proper bibliography one day, honest!)
The Heroes Joe Abercrombie
Earlier this year , in a blog post entitled ‘The Bankrupt Nihilism of our Fallen Fantasists’ Leo Grin rounded on Joe Abercrombie, accusing him of belonging to a group of writers who were ‘clearly bored with the classic mythic undertones of the genre, and who try to shake things up with what can best be described as postmodern blasphemies against our mythic heritage’. For Grin, ‘our mythic heritage’ comprises the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard, both of whom he considers to be vastly superior to Abercrombie. Grin claimed not to be interested in fantasy per se, but in ‘something far more rare: the elevated prose poetry, mythopoeic subcreation, and thematic richness that only the best fantasy achieves, and that echoes in important particulars the myths and fables of old’. Clearly, Grin has a very particular view of what should fantasy consist of, and equally clearly, Joe Abercrombie’s writing doesn’t fit that template (although Abercrombie himself acknowledges Tolkien and Howard as influences, to which I would add Fritz Leiber’s Fafrhd and Grey Mouser stories). However, it is surely going too far to suggest that Abercrombie is contributing ‘another small, pathetic chapter in the decades-long slide of Western civilization into suicidal self-loathing’, employing ‘cynicism, profanity, scatology, dark humor, and nihilism’.
In fact, Abercrombie is doing nothing of the sort. Instead, I would argue that he is doing something that Tolkien simply couldn’t, given the social mores when he was writing and his own literary background as a medievalist, and that is to provide the authentic voices of the ‘poor bloody infantry’ and the villains, voices that are crucially missing from Lord of the Rings except in the crudes of examples. Tolkien does not glorify war but he does ennoble it; after all, it provides the refining fire for many of his characters. They are also positioned within a clear moral framework which shapes their behaviour throughout. There is little room for moral ambiguity, which mostly manifests itself in unwise decisions made for what appear to be the best of reasons. However, with the exception of Sam Gamgee, moral angst is the province of the burghers and the nobility.
One of the most striking things about Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy was his ability to persuade the reader to take a sympathetic interest in the most unlikely people, a prime example being Sand dan Glotka, the swordsman turned torturer. Most memorable of all were Logen Nine-Fingers and his group of mercenary fighters, Named Men such as the Dogman, Harding Grim and Rudd Threetrees, hardened by years of fighting for whoever would pay most. They are skilled fighters who approach battle simply as a job to be done but they have a well developed if idiosyncratic moral code.
In The Heroes, Abercrombie tightens the focus, concentrating on the three days of battle that ensue when the King of the Union goes to war against the Northmen, now led by Black Dow, another former member of Logen’s dozen. The Dogman, meanwhile, is fighting on the side of the Union. And if reference to the Union prompts thoughts of the American Civil War, the model for this engagement would seem to be, in part, Gettysburg, with the Union forces, confusingly, taking on the Confederate role in this fictional encounter.
Abercrombie’s war is anything but glorious spectacle. Instead he gives the reader a polyphonic account of battle, with voices and thoughts from all levels of the two opposing armies, woven into an extended meditation on the nature of warfare itself, and the different ways in which it is fought. The Union forces are run according to a strict hierarchy and fights in a highly structured way that cannot react easily to sudden changes in the battle plan. The army’s leaders have been appointed not according to their abilities as soldiers but through patronage. As a result the men are ill-led and the army makes many avoidable mistakes. The Northmen’s army has a loose-knit structure, with small groups of men who can respond quickly to a situation but who are less easily controlled as a large group. They are, however, led by men who have earned respect, and indeed fear, for their fighting skills. There is a clear sense that Black Dow and his cohorts have some idea of what they’re supposed to be doing.
Yet, Abercrombie shows that the warriors of both sides are beset by similar doubts and worries. Corporal Tunny has learned to survive by getting the raw recruits to do his work and would never dream of admitting that he cares about them, yet poignantly we see him writing secretly to the families of those who died to assure them their sons died good and noble deaths. Beck, son of a Named Man, goes to war filled with high hopes of earning glory, only to realise that he simply is not cut out for the fighting life. Craw, Black Dow’s Second wonders if he is growing too old to fight; Prince Calder, who seeks peace, discovers he has a talent for strategy and treachery, and Bremer dan Gorst is heedless of danger as he expiates his sins through battle. The inept are often rewarded for their stupidity while the competent remain unnoticed. And fighters like Craw and the other Named Men know that the next battle will look pretty much like the last one.
Once again, Abercrombie challenges the received notion of what a fantasy epic ought to look like in what is his darkest novel so far. There is little glory to be found in this epic battle, only profound gratitude at having survived. Abercrombie’s characters continue to find a cynical humour in their situation, not to mention looking out for those closest to them. Abercrombie’s war may be less ennobling than Tolkien’s but his portrayal of it possesses an honesty that Tolkien himself would, I think, have recognised, even if Grin continues to dismiss it as unacceptably nihilistic and inappropriate material for a fantasy novel. I for one am happy to skip the ‘mythopoeic subcreation’ in favour of this stark portrayal of the consequences of war.