Yearly Archives: 2014


Of Swords and Plumes 003: Joe Abercrombie’s “The Heroes”

abercrombie heroes

The Heroes, by Joe Abercrombie. Orbit, 2011; reviewed in the trade paperback edition.

Here’s a good one: a big, sprawling account of an epic three-day battle between two quasi-late-medieval armies, detailing the messy and horrific business of killing people using edged weapons and arrows, and the human costs to the soldiers involved who do it.

The novel is set in an original fantasy world, not, it seems, so the author can sprinkle in magic and monsters, so much as to set him free to conjure up his own history, and indulge his facility for evocative character names. These latter are quite memorable, including such monikers as Black Dow, Curnden Craw, Lord Marshal Kroy, Hardbread, The Bloody-Nine, Whirrun of Bligh, and Brodd Tenways, to name just a few. I admire a writer with a gift for names, and Abercrombie definitely has it.

As the above list indicates, The Heroes features a large ensemble cast of protagonists, drawn from every faction on both sides of the conflict. The novel starts with a small clash between scouting parties on what will become the field of battle, irises out to introduce the two sides, the leading figures, and their backstories, then ramifies to bring in lesser characters all over the map as the great armies lurch into collision. This is one of those novels with about a dozen main characters whose stories connect and cross-connect, illuminated by about two dozen others, each of whom gets a brief moment in the sun. Since this is a kinda-sorta-historical tale of medieval(ish) soldiers, only two of the main characters are women, which is a shame because Abercrombie is as good with women as he is with men. The most memorable of these is the daughter of a general who gets accidentally caught up in the mayhem, but nonetheless finds a means to change the course of the battle, despite lacking the skills or inclination to participate in the butchery.

And butchery there is, in spades. Abercrombie’s clash of armies is inspired by the American Civil War battle of Gettysburg, and he doesn’t bother to try to hide it – rather the opposite, as he includes playful references to his source. The forces involved are called the North and the Union (opposing sides in this case, rather than the same), and one of the Union’s leaders is named General Meed – a clear nod to General Meade of the Army of the Potomac. The way the scattered divisions of the two armies collide in a town at a radial crossroads, and the surge and counter-surge of battle over the subsequent three days, are all reminiscent of Gettysburg.

But the details and the characters are all Abercrombie’s, and this is where the novel shines. His Union side recalls the organization and administration of the Federal army in the Civil War, and, indeed, just about every nineteenth-century army, which gives Abercrombie the opportunity to portray – and skewer – the classic types we know from historical and fictional accounts. Here are the familiar staff and soldier characters from the Napoleonic wars through the Spanish-American: the earnest young officer with his first command, the doomed and clueless conscripts, the venal and hustling veteran shaking down his fellows with loaded dice an stolen gear, the pompous general who thinks of nothing but advancing his career, and the political appointee who is more dangerous to his subordinates than to the enemy. But these archetypes are drawn with a deft touch, and their failings are depicted with a humor dark and wry. (Did I forget to mention that this book is not only engaging and exciting, but funny as well?) Abercrombie uses the archetypes as touchstones, but then fleshes them out into real people over the course of the battle.

Unexpectedly, Abercrombie’s opposing side, the North, is a very different kettle of fish, far from a mirror-image of the Union. Where the Union resembles a European culture after the Enlightenment (albeit without the invention of gunpowder), the North is a feudal realm of warlords and bloody-handed kings. The warriors of the North fight for personal loyalties, and their virtues, such as they are, are those of Robert E. Howard’s barbarians. They don’t fight in disciplined formations, like the uniformed troops of the Union, and their greatest fighters are the Named Men, who earned their names in notable exploits of killing.

In Abercrombie’s hands, the differences between these two very different cultures are less interesting than the similarities. Individual soldiers on both sides fight for the same reasons – for advancement, for loot, for loyalty, for glory, or just because they’re paid to – and they suffer the same wounds, to body and soul.

The setting of The Heroes is what we who work in the Fantasy-Industrial Complex call a “low-magic world.” There are no dragons or other monsters, and while both sides have magicians among their allies, they’re not particularly effective or influential. The power in this world is in steel, point and edge, and the minds and muscles of those who wield it.

The style of the writing is post-modern grim-‘n’-gritty and owes a substantial debt to George R.R. Martin, whom Abercrombie describes as a primary influence. Given a choice between the two, I’ll take Abercrombie, as his storytelling is tighter and his sentences are lean and to the point. And I like his dialogue, it’s sharp and evocative. Here’s an exchange between two Named Men drawn absolutely at random just by opening up the book:

“Terrible strain on a man, hearing his shelf sung about. Enough to make anyone a shit.”
“Even if they weren’t one in the first place.”
“Which isn’t likely. I guess hearing songs about warriors makes men feel brave their own selves, but a great warrior has to be at least half way mad.”
“Oh, I’ve known a few great warriors weren’t mad at all. Just heartless, careless, selfish bastards.”
Whirrun bit off the thread with his teeth. “That is the other common opinion.”
“Which are you, then, Whirrun? Mad or a heartless prick?”
“I try to bridge the gap between the two.”

The warriors clash, desperately, courageously, cowardly, or sometimes all three, and after a series of suspenseful reversals, the great battle grinds to an inevitable close. Not all the main characters survive, but the ones who do all learn something about themselves – though not everyone likes what they learn. I see now why Joe Abercrombie is a rising star in the historical fantasy market – this is the first novel of his that I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. Recommended highly and without hesitation.

“The Heroes” is available from Amazon in trade paperback, Kindle download, Audio CD, and unabridged Audible download formats.

By |2017-02-22T19:50:40-05:00May 4, 2014|Uncategorized|Comments Off on Of Swords and Plumes 003: Joe Abercrombie’s “The Heroes”

Swords and Plumes 002: Revisionist Robin Hoods #1

outlawOutlaw: A Novel of Robin Hood, by Angus Donald. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011; reviewed in the trade paperback edition.

The Robin Hood ballads date back to at least the early Renaissance, and probably existed in oral tradition much earlier than that. The stories were revived during the Romantic movement of the early 19th century by Sir Walter Scott and Pierce Egan the Younger (one of Egan’s tales will be included in The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure), then perpetuated by Howard Pyle, Henry Gilbert, and other writers into the early 20th century. By the dawn of the silent movie era the image of Robin Hood the daring rogue was well established in the public mind, and he made a seamless transition to cinema, most successfully in the 1922 feature starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr. The climax of this swashbuckler phase was 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, in which Errol Flynn defined the character for the next two generations of books, comics, movies, and television series.

By the 1970s the legend was ripe for reimagining, and the ball really got rolling with the 1976 movie Robin and Marian, the first important entry in what I call “Revisionist Robin Hoods.” James Goldman’s story, directed by Richard Lester (The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers), placed Robin squarely in the brutal historical reality of the Third Crusade. An aging Robin Hood (played pitch-perfectly by Sean Connery) returns from the Holy Land to find himself caught up in his own legend. He resumes his bittersweet romance with Marian, as well as  his deadly rivalry with the Sheriff of Nottingham, and the inevitable result is mayhem, death, and tears.

Since then there has been a steady flow of Revisionist Robin Hoods, in both books and movies, with no sign of it stopping anytime soon. We’re no longer able to accept Robin and his Merrie Men as a jolly gang of innocent do-gooders on a happy campout in Sherwood Forest, so “gritty realism” is the order of the day. This, on the whole, is No Bad Thing, and Angus Donald’s novel Outlaw clearly shows that the genre is not yet worked out.

The protagonist of Outlaw is a young peasant thief named Alan Dale, caught for robbery and sentenced to lose a hand, who flees into the greenwood to join Robin and his band. Donald’s portrayal of Sir Robert Odo aka Robin Hood as a charismatic but ruthless renegade knight is convincing, and the author’s portrayal of the hard life of a band of medieval outlaws rings true. Robin’s band is leavened with a cadre of ex-soldiers who train the outlaws in the use of pole-arms and the Welsh longbow, and they become a force that can credibly stand against the footmen and mounted knights the Sheriff sends after them. The author has done his homework, and his depiction of the bloody work of combat in the 12th century is in equal parts thrilling and horrific.

Alan Dale’s father was an itinerant troubadour, and Alan has inherited his musical talents, so he becomes the outlaw band’s bard. Also on hands are Donald’s versions of Robin’s right-hand-man John, Tuck the Friar, Much Millerson, Robin’s love Marian – Marie-Anne of Locksley in this retelling, a high-born maiden who takes the story out of the woods and into the Royal Court for some political intrigue.

The basic conflict is between downtrodden Saxons and oppressive Normans, a trope that became common to the Robin Hood legend starting with Walter Scott’s 1819 novel Ivanhoe. Of course, in Outlaw not all the Normans are bad and not all the Saxons are good, but Donald’s Sir Ralph Murdac, the Sheriff of Nottingham, is as arrogant and epicene as any nasty Norman noble out of Egan, Scott, or Pyle. He’s a villain who needs killin’.

Donald also avails himself of another, more recent addition to the legend: his Robin Hood is so bitterly opposed to the aristocratic establishment that he renounced Christianity and revives the Druidic worship of Cernunnos, and deep in the woods he leads his followers in ancient pagan rituals. Friar Tuck, as you might imagine, has some issues with this.

The book is fast-paced, the characters are memorable and well-drawn, and the dialogue is crisp and modern. The novel’s climax is an exciting set-piece battle between Robin’s eclectic forces and the Sheriff’s knights and mercenary men-at-arms, with sudden but believable reversals of fortune leading up to a satisfying ending. It has a sequel, Holy Warrior, in which Robin and his men follow King Richard to the Crusades. Watch this space for a review in a future posting.

“Outlaw” is available from Amazon in trade paperback, Kindle download, and unabridged Audible download formats.

By |2014-04-20T11:49:56-04:00April 20, 2014|Of Swords and Plumes|Comments Off on Swords and Plumes 002: Revisionist Robin Hoods #1

Of Swords and Plumes 001: Katabasis

Katabasis: A Novel of the Foreworld,by Joseph Brassey, Cooper Moo, Mark Teppo, and Angus Trim. 47North, 2013; reviewed in the trade paperback edition.


“Katabasis” is a sequel to “The Mongoliad” trilogy, a series of historical adventures set in the 13th century in Europe and Asia. Like the books that preceded it, this novel was written by a group of collaborators, though unlike “The Mongoliad” this book lacks the marquee names of Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear. It’s part of the ongoing “Foreworld Saga,” and you have to give them credit for the clever name, as Foreworldsays “history,” but with a tone familiar to Fantasy and Sci-Fi readers, the better to market it to them. And this makes sense, as 47North is Amazon’s F&SF imprint.


The common thread binding together the authors of the “Mongoliad” trilogy was an interest in a realistic portrayal of medieval martial arts. We’ve all heard the discussion: “Assuming equal skill, what would happen if an armored knight fought a samurai?” Well, these folks decided to answer that question, in spades, adding in Viking warriors, Welsh longbowmen, Mongolian horse archers, and a Korean with a polearm for the sake of completeness. There was a sizeable cast of characters, from Rome to the Russian steppes, to Mongolia and western China, all involved in a great deal of very credible medieval mayhem. The protagonists were thin but likeable, the settings were interesting and believable, and the story moved right along, but when it ended, it left a number of questions open and hanging.


“Katabasis” picks up right where “The Mongoliad” left off, continuing the story of the band of western knights who went to the far east to attempt to assassinate the Khan of the Mongols, now returning, pursued, to the west. And it introduces new characters in the Rus of Kiev and Novgorod, a land just recovering from being ravaged by the Mongol Horde, and now facing a new threat from west in the form of the Teutonic Knights. The story culminates in the celebrated clash between the German knights and the Russians led by Alexander Nevsky.


Like its predecessors, “Katabasis” strings together a number of set-piece battles between disparate opponents, this time highlighting the efforts of Yasper, the Dutch alchemist. Those of you who are players of fantasy role-playing games who have ever wondered, “What actual good would a combat alchemist be to a party of warriors?” will find an answer here.


Though the authors are all newcomers the novel is well-written enough – I noticed a few rough spots in the early chapters, but then the writers seem to have hit their stride and the rest was pretty polished. In a novel written by four authors one expects to see slight stylistic differences from chapter to chapter, but the handoffs here are relatively smooth and any noticeable seams are easily forgiven.


The style is standard post-modern gritty and terse:


“Who is chasing you?” Bruno asked, breaking the silence.

“Mongols,” Vera said.

“How many?”

“All of them, probably,” Vera replied casually as if she were commenting on the mild weather they were having.


It gets the job done, with just a touch of swashbuckling swagger.


“The Mongoliad” was 95% historical adventure, but it had elements of mysticism woven into its story, so technically it qualifies as fantasy, albeit of the mild “What if there was some truth behind old superstitions?” category. “Katabasis” leans more heavily on these mystical elements. It’s most successful at this when it stays rather vague, merely linking together mythic undercurrents common to several cultures. Once they bring the Russian witch Baba Yaga onstage the story veers into the fantastic, and the authors have trouble keeping it credible.


But it all works out in the end, and there’s a satisfactory bang-up conclusion that ties things together pretty well, at least for this set of characters. (Another “Foreworld” novel is promised that will address the fates of those “Mongoliad” protagonists who stayed in the west.) Recommended, especially if you enjoyed the previous “Foreworld” books.


“Katabasis” is available from Amazon in trade paperback, Kindle download, unabridged audio CD, and unabridged Audible download formats. Additional digital-only stories are available at www.

By |2014-01-30T13:37:18-05:00January 16, 2014|Of Swords and Plumes|Comments Off on Of Swords and Plumes 001: Katabasis
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