it's a great life, if you don't weaken (matociquala) wrote,
it's a great life, if you don't weaken

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go to the north. the decisive battle will be fought there.

being a review of sorts of The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie (January 2011, Gollancz/Orbit US)

I have mixed emotions about this book.

On one level, it's a hell of an effort--a deeply ambitious book that attempts to do for fantasy novels what Platoon did for war movies. It's a crack at a dog's-eye view of war, and fairly successful on that front. However, I feel that it suffers a little from its own singlemindedness.

Abercrombie can write a hell of a sentence, and though in the first hundred pages or so he often seems to be chasing metaphors a little too enthusiastically, his style eventually settles down into something vivid and muscular.

I was at first moved to complain that the three female characters with point of view (one of whom gets essentially no screen time) were a bit stereotypical and two-dimensional, and then I realized that that was unfair to Abercrombie. It's not in fact a problem with the women. Rather, this is not a book in which anybody (except for maybe Craw and eventually, Finree) receives a particularly deep characterization--which is peculiar, for a book that is so very internal. But there's a definite sense of "don't get too attached"--and for a book whose premise is that the people who die in wars are individual and irreplaceable, and that the wars themselves are futile manifestations of the egos and insecurities of kings...

...I would have liked to feel more emotional impact as the narrative hews its way through the cast, and to have felt a little more seriously that people who I cared about were laying it on the line. I felt as if the story lacked the emotional impact I would have liked it to have because of that--as if, in other words, it told me its thesis over and over again, but failed to prove it on flesh the reader had been allowed to love.

I also felt that there was a certain lack of nuance--a unidirectionality--in the thematic statement itself. And that's it. It's a thematic statement, not a thematic argument. And I wanted a bit more All Quiet on the Western Front and a bit less Saving Private Ryan, I suppose. War is Hell is an easy statement to make: I was hoping for something a little more nuanced. I wanted Kurosawa and got Spielberg. 

I also kept being thrown out of the text by the very modern-day, allusive chapter titles and section header quotations. It's a pet peeve of mine, but there you are: either immerse me in your fantasy world, or don't expect me to really invest in it.

That said, however, the book does a hell of a lot right. I really enjoyed Abercrombie's depiction of the fog of war, of the petty treacheries and jealousies and rivalries and incompetencies that infects any organization--and especially any bureaucracy, and doubly especially any military bureaucracy. If there's an opposite to competence porn, this is it, and it's a welcome deconstruction of the sort of glory-of-mighty-armies-viewed-as-inseparable-units stuff that infests so much epic fantasy. There are people here who can only function in war, who live for it... and we see some of them as pathetic and some of them as heroic and some of them as doomed, and Abercrombie does a nice job of shifting the focus between these extremes.

I also loved his understanding of and acknowledgment of those rules of military engagement that basically boil down to Murphy's Law. Things are a mess when the combat starts, and they only get worse. Nobody ever knows what's going on, or even has a very good idea what the war is about. I did think the Big Reveal Plot Twist at the end maybe kind of undermined that particular thematic element for me--I'm not sure that Mission: Impossible style caper-competent villains really coexist very well in a Le Carre-ian clusterfuck universe--but I forgive that for the combat scenes, which are lovely and confused and explosive.

Additionally, I love the fact that this book manages to make everybody more or less unsympathetic, and yet I was still interested enough to keep reading anyway. Some of that is because it deals so nimbly with class issues--it's nice to read a fantasy novel where not everybody is a princess or a Chosen One--and some of it was because I found myself reading it for the same reasons one reads military history: the nuances of skirmishes won and lost, the bits of trickery and misadventures, the luck and ill luck that carry the day.

Overall, recommended. Beware of back strain while reading it on airplanes, however: unless you have an e-version, this thing is a sizable hunk of dead tree.
Tags: book reports

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