Abercrombie, Joe. The Heroes.

NY: Orbit, 2011.

The title of this fifth book in the author’s increasingly masterful opus is deliciously ironic. As his fans have long since figured out, Abercrombie doesn’t do heroes. However, he has learned to do characters of great depth and color and a number of the players from his previous works come together here to sort of thrash things out.

The Union has been fighting an on-again-off-again war against the Northmen since the beginning of the author’s first book. Now it’s about eight years since the events that closed the trilogy (and maybe five years since Best Served Cold). Black Dow (once part of Logen Ninefingers’ crew) has replaced Bethod as the bloody-minded King of the North and the Southerners have decided he’s too dangerous to ignore. They’ll have to try to conquer the Northmen once and for all, so where the author’s previous works tended to sprawl all over the place and stretch over a good bit of time, this one focuses on the three-day Battle of Osrung.

Among those on the Union side is Bremer dan Gorst, who fenced with the King when the latter was still only just another lieutenant and later became his First Guard. Lord Marshal Kroy, the Union commander in the North, has changed a lot in the seven or eight years since he appeared in the trilogy’s third volume, and mostly for the good. General Jalenhorm is another of His Majesty’s old drinking buddies, now promoted far beyond his level of competence. Really, it’s a toss-up (as most of their various subordinates recognize) which of the three Union generals is more dangerous to his own side than to the enemy. The Dogman also is back, managing a gang of anti-Black Dow Northmen, though he has a relatively small role this time. New faces include Finree, Kroy’s daughter and husband of Col. Brock (who is the son of the most powerful nobleman who revolted in an attempt to replace the king, who . . . well, it’s complicated). Anyway, Finree is far more competent than most of her father’s officers but she’s also too ambitious on her husband’s behalf for her own good. Then there’s Corporal Tunny, a vastly experienced profiteer who has risen to sergeant several times (and been demoted several times), and who is now the Standard-Bearer of the King’s Own First Regiment, who is a character any reader with military experience will recognize — and he’s not really a bad guy for all that. And, of course, Bayaz, the arrogant and completely untrustworthy First of the Magi, is lurking in the background with his own agenda.

On the Northern side there’s Calder, Bethod’s younger son and a confirmed coward (really, he just doesn’t see the point of war when you can generally get what you want by talking), and Shivers, a truly scary Named Man whom we followed in Best Served Cold when he was still wet behind the ears (and had both his eyes). And we meet young Beck, son of the late Shama the Heartless, who is one of Abercrombie’s best characters yet — and a good deal more sympathetic than most. And there’s Curnden Craw, an old-fashioned “straight edge” and leader of a dozen, through whose eyes we see much of the action, and a number of other fascinating individuals — and the way Abercrombie portrays them, they really are individuals.

This is, technically, a stand-alone novel, but you’ll enjoy it a great deal more if you read the first four books first. You have to understand the history and milieu of both the Union and the North and the sort of culture and people produced by both to really appreciate what a stunning accomplishment this one is. With the situation maps and all, you can almost read it as a textbook on what war is really like — blood, mud, hopeless confusion, and all. Abercrombie has become one of my “automatic” authors.

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