(2010) Joe Abercrombie, Gollancz, £14.99 (hrdbk) / £14.99 (trdpbk), 680pp, hrdbk ISBN 978 0 575 08383 7 / trdpbk ISBN 978-0-575-08384-4
This is a dark sword and sorcery tale which follows on from Abercrombie's previous novels – 'The First Law' trilogy and Best Served Cold. Anyone who has read these novels will recognise a number of characters who appear in this book and references to their back-stories. The book focuses on a battle of strategic importance where the fate of the North will be decided and the lives of many involved with the battle will be changed forever. It is set in a pre-industrial era where characters live, and die, by the sword.
The participants of the battle all have their own personal agendas and motivations for being there, and in some cases these reasons vary. Bremer van Gorst is a disgraced swordsman who is looking to reclaim his honour and intends to do whatever he can to attain his goal, regardless of the number of lives lost along the way. In contrast, Curden Craw isn't too fussed by the prospect of war or its outcome and just wants to do the right thing, but in a realm filled with conflict, the right thing can be a hard thing to identify. Prince Calder is out for any opportunity to attain the power he desires and would rather not fight for it himself, preferring instead to identify opportunities to obtain it by other means and preferably not to his cost.
A different aspect of the tale of conflict is told from the point of view of a young Northman who is yet to experience war and sees it as an opportunity to make a name for himself. It is minor characters such as this who add an effective background for the setting of this book, and their experiences add to the narrative of tale and the description of the horrors of war versus the expectations of those involved. The description of the strategies and the actual conflict itself add suspense and make for a gritty, well paced read.
Added to this, the development of characters along the way, and the surprises that Abercrombie includes in the story, mean there is always something going on to ensure the reader keeps turning the pages. The distinctive narratives for specific groups of characters, a prime example being the Northmen, adds to their characterisation and culture. It is also nice to see knowing nods towards characters introduced in previous novels, such as Shivers, who strikes a chill into the hearts of many due to his scarred face and his metal eye.
The environment in which the novel is set is well used, setting the scene effectively and providing an interesting backdrop to the characters. This includes 'The Heroes' in question, a small hill in the midst of the battlefield where opposing forces are set to collide. It takes its name from a series of stones set upon it, known as The Heroes.
Given the battle subject matter, this could have been quite a grim novel but Abercrombie handles it well with uses of humour and the opinions of characters towards one another. There are uses of swearing and descriptions of gore along the way, but the changes of scene from battlefield to other locations ensure this is not too overplayed.
It is likely to be enjoyed by anyone who has enjoyed Abercrombie's previous works and also functions well as a stand alone novel. It would also appeal to appreciators of the sword and sorcery genre and anyone who enjoys a good war story.
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