There are a great number of Big Fat Fantasy books out there, seeming to breed like lemmings, and many of them feature high causes, the clash of mighty armies for high causes, quests for the key to an astounding mystery, or a device that will save the world from evil. They are populated by characters whose nobility is often only exceeded by their stilted dialogue and ignorance of the events surrounding them. And then there's Joe Abercrombie.
Instead of an epic fantasy with a sweeping compass, covering decades of machinations, Abercrombie gives us the condensed version. The three days of a battle are portrayed with all the mistakes, jealousies, fear and desperation that make the account utterly human, rather than a set-piece of heroic cliches like so many others.
The Heroes of the title are a ring of stones in nowhere that matter, but they become the scene for the clash of Black Dow's Northmen against the Union. We learn, as the battle progresses, that most of the people there have plenty of other agendas; to regain lost honour, to promote their husband or themselves, to engage in politicking, to gain revenge. Skulduggery and dishonesty abound, and it eventually becomes obvious that this battle is a futile part of a much larger war between those who lurk behind the thrones of both the combatants.
The limited scope of the story allows Abercrombie to concentrate on the characters and their motivations. The disgraced Bremer Dan Gorst, with his hopeless love for the scheming, manipulative Fintree; Calder, who cannot estimate the depths of his own cowardice; Curnden Craw, the straight edge, the man who tries to stay honest; Shivers, the deadly presence, Black Dow's assassin. There is a wealth of characterization in the novel, which is yet another thing which serves to distinguish it from the common run of fantasy. The setting is yet another thing which is distilled to a fine point, so that the reader can visualize the mud, the rocks, the woods and all the other scenes of slaughter in the book.
Eventually, as the battle drags to its end, the reader realizes that nothing has changed, that people have died, a few bargains have been struck, but that this is part of an endless cycle of savagery that has no obvious resolution. It is a brilliant, beautiful portrayal of all the harshness and futile sacrifice of war. No other fantasy author of the current time can write so well.