Fantasy author Joe Abercrombie's new novel, The Heroes, is set in the same world as the author's First Law Trilogy. The story takes place during three days of battle. RT Senior Reviewer Natalie A. Luhrs calls the tale "Well-written and stocked with fully realized characters ..." noting that the author captures the fury of war with graphic violence and multiple points of view. Now the author transports readers to the front lines to answer our questions about this compelling new read.
RT BOOK REVIEWS: Your new release The Heroes releases this week. However, despite the title, there doesn’t appear to be any actual heroes in the story. How would you define “hero?”
Joe Abercrombie: Classic epic fantasy tends to have some really heroic heroes and some truly villainous villains, and we’re not often in doubt which is which. I suppose my observation has been that in real life things are a little more complicated, and that heroism and villainy tend to be a matter of perspective, and that most people are capable of doing some pretty awful things, or some pretty heroic things, depending on the circumstances. In particular I wondered whether people who were very well adapting to murdering others at close quarters with edged weapons would necessarily be contributing members of society in peacetime. So I guess how you define a hero is one of the questions I’m grappling with in the book...
RT: What inspired you to set your newest novel in the middle of a war?
JA: I’ve always been fascinated by military history, indeed most of what I read these days is history of one kind or another, and it was my observation that real warfare tends to be as much if not more about tedium, discomfort, cowardice, luck, stupidity and incompetence as it is about those aspects that epic fantasy depictions tend to focus on – great leadership, bravery, loyalty and good hair. I’ve long been interested in the discrepancy between those two pictures of warfare, and what you might be able to achieve by trying to combine the two. Lord of the Rings meets Generation Kill, if you will.
RT: The Heroes takes place during a three-day battle. In what ways was it easier (or harder) to pace a full novel with such a constricted time frame?
JA: It needed quite a lot of planning, for sure, but once I had the shape of the battlefield, the general pattern of the action during each of the three days, and the nature of the central characters all worked out, then what they’d be doing at an given time, and how they might run into each other and interact in a way flowed quite naturally.
RT: You don’t shy away from violence in your tales, and The Heroes is no exception. Do you find it difficult to write these scenes and are there any definite boundaries that you will never be willing to cross while constructing them?
JA: I find action some of the easier stuff to right, on the whole. No boundaries spring to mind that I’d be unwilling to cross if the story seemed to require it, but it’s not so much about pushing boundaries for me, or at least I don’t feel that it is, so much as it’s about trying to relate things in an honest and truthful way. Fantasy often covers some very dark ground – war, treachery, torture, evil – to skate over and sanitise that kind of thing feels dishonest, to me.
RT: Of the three main characters in The Heroes, Bremer dan Gorst, Prince Calder and Curnden Craw, which do you relate to the most? Is that the same character who you would want to spend time with outside of the story?
JA: I suppose in a sense all the characters are aspects of myself. Which is a rather worrying thought in some ways, since we have there a narcissistic psychopath, a treacherous schemer, and a used-up old veteran. I like to paint some pretty conflicted, extreme, mad, unpleasant people, so I’m not sure I’d be that keen on spending time with any of them.
RT: Your characters are usually flawed or morally ambiguous — how do you create their multi-layered personalities?
JA: It varies from character to character, really. Some of the simpler ones pretty much appear fully formed, often based around one relatively simple quirk or feature. The more central and therefore necessarily more complex ones often take some time to develop. Sometimes it’s not until the end of the writing process that I really feel I understand them entirely. As I’ve said I plan quite carefully, so I start off knowing roughly who they are, what they’re like, their history, their role in the story, and then as I write I start to get more of a sense of what works and what doesn’t, what features will serve the purpose of the plot and which ones won’t. The style in which I write from their point of view also tends to develop over time. So it’s a combination of planning and trial and error, on the whole.
RT: The Heroes takes place in the same world as your First Law Trilogy. Do you think you will ever leave it to create a new universe? Why or why not?
JA: A world is a pretty big place, so I’m not sure I’ll run out of stories in this world. Writing in the same one gives you the opportunity to re-use characters and settings and give readers who’ve read earlier stuff some sense of continuity. Especially since I’m not that interested in the fantastical aspects necessarily, I’m not sure there’d be that much purpose in tearing up the sets just to make new ones. I’ve got a couple of ideas for things set in our world, though, or an alternative version of it...
RT: Many fans have commented on how realistic your universe is for a fantasy novel. It has no elves and dragons, etc. What were some of your influences for creating this world? Did you draw inspiration from any classic fantasy novels/authors?
JA: In terms of world I think I’m much more influenced by history than I am by fantasy. So Styria, the setting for Best Served Cold, was very much inspired by Renaissance Italy – the feuding city states, the strange mixture of social upheaval and incredible creativity, the poisonous leaders and rampaging mercenaries. But certainly I played a lot of fantasy-based Role Playing Games when I was a kid, and read a lot of fantasy literature, and those things have very much stayed with me – Tolkien, of course, but also Moorcock, LeGuin, and more recently George R.R. Martin stand out for me.
RT: When working on a book do you use any rituals to help get you into the mindset of that world, or have any routines that you follow to help you write?
JA: Something I’ve started doing a little lately, particularly if I’m having trouble getting my head round a certain character, is finding a photo of someone, maybe an actor, who seems to get across some sense of what I’m aiming for. Often just looking at a face, at an expression, can give you a feel for a personality in a way that words can’t get across.
RT: In honor of your newest release, who are two of your heroes?
JA: Nice question. I’ll take Lee Marvin and Niccolo Machiavelli.
You can now pick up your own copy of Joe Abercrombie's fantasy war story, The Heroes, which hit stores earlier this week.