Sunday, 19 June 2011

The Heroes: Joe Abercrombie

I've long argued that you can't write about a battle in a satisfactory way, and that the smartest thing a writer can do, once faced with a battle, is to cut away from it and come back for the aftermath. It turns out that I wasn't completely correct in this assertion. Joe Abercrombie's The Heroes is an entire book about a single three day battle, and it actually works. Not only that, but Abercrombie doesn't cheat; he keeps the focus of the entire book on what's going on right now; there are no detailed flashbacks or other narrative manoeuvres to widen things out. The characters are preoccupied by things which happened in the past, but those things are sketched in just enough to give them some weight rather than recounted as full size episodes. Pretty much, The Heroes is all battle, all the time.

Now, of course, some things stay true. One of the reasons that it's hard to write about a battle is that it's very difficult to give a sense of how a battle develops without stepping outside of the immediate frame of reference of the viewpoint characters. Abercrombie has always worked by establishing some strong viewpoint characters and switching between them to let us see as much of the action as he wants to show us. In The Heroes, he sticks with this, but uses a lot more characters and switches a lot more often. And because it's just a book about a battle, rather than something longer and larger, he can do something authors don't usually do, and make some of the viewpoint characters very senior officers. Usually it's hard to craft a good narrative around generals, because it's hard for a reader to identify with generals, and it's also quite hard to construct an interesting narrative arc around someone who's already at the top of their career. But if you're writing about a battle and one of your unspoken rules is that anyone can die at any time, you have a bit more latitude.

Coming from Abercrombie's previous work, The Heroes felt a lot less rich than I was expecting; there's only so much development can happen in a three day battle, and a lot of what happens is entirely predictable. Abercrombie is making the point that war is hell and largely futile, and so most of his characters end up dead or disillusioned, many of them having started out disillusioned anyhow. This means that a lot of the characters have narrative arcs as predictable as those of the cast of a horror movie.

Having said that, Abercrombie carries a lot of this off very well. Several times, as the battle proceeds, he shifts from one minor character to another, by having the focus shift from someone who'd just died to the person who killed him, who dies in turn, and so on. Having set this up as a way of telling the story, it was a real jolt the first time that the viewpoint shifted to a major character. Hang on, I thought, I don't want him to die yet. The work's been done when you start worrying that someone's going to get the chop.

The Heroes isn't as much fun, or as involving, as Best Served Cold, because it doesn't really have the space to draw the reader into a big complicated plot. But it's a very good read, nonetheless, and I like the way that, just as with Best Served Cold, characters from his earlier books sidle into view. The other interesting thing is the way each new book gives a sense of a major feud that's playing out a much higher level, with the present action just a minor skirmish to the half unseen players high above. The monstrous wizard Bayaz from the First Law makes a comeback, with his mortal enemies from the south hanging around the edges. Bayaz is perhaps the most unequivocally bad character Abercrombie has come up with. He has a genius for cooking up anti-heroes and sympathetic villains, and then there's Bayaz. What makes Bayaz stand out is that everyone else stumbles into good or bad, while Bayaz just strides along without any regard for either. Bayaz does what he wants, when he wants to, as part of some larger game which has yet to be explained. I'm kind of looking forward to the explanation, but I'll happy read the next book whether it explains things or not.




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