Joe Abercrombie has taken a buzz saw to the normal heroic fantasy conventions. Abercrombie is a DEEPLY cynical writer who is quite interested in hypocrisy and evil. Few characters are good and those that try to be usually end up worse off. He maxed this out in his last book, Best Served Cold, and it was a bit too much. Too ugly.
He thankfully backs off slightly from his trademark cynicism in The Heroes, which is set in the same universe as his previous works. The Heroes is about a three day battle between the forces of the North (think 11th century Vikings, Scots and Celts) and the Union (think 16th century England/France/Holy Roman Empire) at a hill known as, what else, The Heroes.
Who started the war is not important. That both sides are being manipulated by shadowy callous wizards isn't important. What is important is Abercrombie's meditations on the nature of violence, the randomness of war, his examinations of what it means to be a good man, and his questions about whether people can really change. Some folks try to change while others think it's too late or are trapped by their personas. You can't exactly start preaching mercy and nonviolence if you're King of the North and known for burning enemies alive.
Abercombie keeps the reader enthralled from the accidental beginning of the battle in which Northmen on opposite sides use familial connections and professional courtesy to avoid bloodshed to the battle's end in which a few weary survivors wonder if all the carnage was worth anything. Some of this reads like a Vietnam or Korea war journal. In one particularly majestic passage Abercrombie splits the POV between 6 different soldiers as they fight and die in turn. Usually though the story is told from the multiple POV's of a disgraced Union leader who wants to reclaim his good name by killing as many Northmen as he can, the ambitious woman he loves (she's married to someone else), a low level veteran soldier who is more interested in surviving than fighting and on the Northern side: a callow recruit who can't wait to make a name for himself, the previous Northern King's cowardly son who wants his father's throne back and a few Named Men.
The Named Men are all warriors who have done battlefield deeds of particular valor, total stupidity or incredible wickedness. Thus they have won the right to a nickname that commemorates their deeds or their actual nature. Some are true to their word, others can't be trusted one bit but most share a dedication to violence that is noticeable even by the standards of the casually brutal North.
These men (and one woman) are the hardest of the hard and lead at least a dozen followers into battle. For example, the Named Woman is known as Wonderful, because as a young girl she led village resistance to marauders and personally killed four of them. The leader of the arriving relief force said it was wonderful strange that a woman would do such a thing. Others are known as Shivers (he was also in Best Served Cold), Straight Edge Craw (known as the last honest man in the North), Cracknut Whirrun (who fights without armor because as he proudly boasts "Armour is part of a state of mind in which you admit the possibility of being hit."), Stranger-Come-Knocking and several other ominous or seemingly farcical names.
After a particularly horrific day one person asks the wizard on their side why he doesn't use magic to bring the battle to a conclusion. The wizard contemptuously responds that magic is the art of making something act against its nature but that there is nothing more natural than men killing each other so why should he bother to lift a finger.
Keeping the POV to a minimum helped with pacing. The Heroes had the requisite amount of action and gore but a surprising bit of pathos and even humor. As always Abercormbie has a few surprises in store. He looks behind the tropes he uses so well to say some interesting things about human nature. It's almost All Quiet on the Western Front for the fantasy crowd.
Johannes Cabal The Necromancer
by Jonathan Howard
This book is a mashup of Faust, Wicked and Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Johannes Cabal has long ago sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for sorcerous power but discovers that the lack of a soul is interfering with his ghastly experiments. So he travels to Hell in order to retrieve his soul from Satan, who not unsurprisingly, takes the viewpoint that a deal is a deal.
"Now, as I've already said I can't start giving souls back willy-nilly or else I'll never hear the end of it. There'd be a queue from here to Tartarus of ne'er-do-wells whinging and whining and wringing their hands and I get enough of that at the best of times..."
Nevertheless, since the Devil is nothing else if not a gambler, He agrees to return Cabal's soul to him if Cabal can, within one year entice another hundred people to sell their souls to the Devil. In order to assist with this the Devil gives him an enchanted carnival with which to entrap foolish people.
Of course both the Devil and Cabal have some secret interests and things hidden up their sleeve which they "forgot" to tell each other about. Cabal is assisted by his older brother, Horst, whom Johannes accidentally turned into a vampire in another experiment gone wrong. To say the least, Horst is not exactly happy with this turn of events. He is even less pleased to have been locked in a cemetery by Johannes, who claims to have been looking for a cure. Sibling resentments between a vampire and necromancer can be dangerous, if not for the brothers then for those around them. The book has a sort of steampunk feel to it. Based on their names, Horst and Johannes seem to be German but it's difficult to say exactly when or where the action takes place. It doesn't matter a whole lot once you get into it. The book is written in a very sardonic tone, not unlike that of Terry Pratchett or Simon Green but a little darker. It's occasionally humorous but rarely hilarious. Cabal is a self-centered, egotistical, immensely practical man who doesn't suffer fools lightly. Cabal doesn't seemingly have a conscience. It was probably long gone before he lost his soul. Cabal's choices may rub the reader the wrong way. They certainly offend his brother.
Running on Race
by Jeremy Mayer
As we approach another Presidential election we see the requisite dog whistles by both the incumbent and his would be challengers to bring out their base voters. This book looks back at the racial rhetoric and winks employed in presidential elections from 1960 to 2000. You could argue that not much has changed besides the names. Bottom line is that politicians need to go where the votes are. The much ballyhooed browning of the electorate is not happening as fast as some people would like or as others fear but it does reveal that the Republican national party doesn't feel it needs to or can appeal to black voters. This means that often Republican candidates must appeal to the fears of the party's Caucasian base-whether it's Gingrich talking about food stamps and entitlements, Santorum claiming he doesn't want to give black
Mayer puts the tipping point of explicit unabashed Republican appeals to white racial fears roughly around the 1976 election. After that point in time Mayer argues that the black vote generally stopped mattering to Republicans. As a result of being freed from such moderation, Republicans were free to ignore the black voter. This enabled some Republican candidates to make a more or less direct plea to whites through such seemingly neutral but racially charged words as "states rights", "neighborhood schools", "welfare queens/bucks", "food stamps", "law and order", "affirmative action", and other descriptions which fed into the idea that "the blacks" as Donald Trump might say, are an undifferentiated mass of lazy, hypersexed, violent, low income and low iq people who extort things that they don't deserve from good, decent, (white) folk. It's doubtful that most national Republicans really believed all of this but they DID want to win. And on the other hand when Republicans did attempt to make outreach to black voters their attempts were (unfairly?) dismissed as inauthentic or grandstanding, such as Reagan's visit to the South Bronx.
Of course this strategy worked pretty well all things considered for Republicans nationally even though the Northeast Republican declined and fell as a viable force within the party after the seventies (could Mitt Romney be leading a comeback?).
This strategy also had negative effects on the Democratic Party. Democrats sought to appeal to the new Black voters but had to walk a tightrope of declining support and outright derision from working class, blue collar whites who rightly or wrongly often saw the Democrats as being too close to black people. This need to regain a competitive footing among whites, especially blue collar whites who had often voted Democratic in alignment with their economic interest, led to the formation of the Democratic Leadership Council as well as a few calculated decisions by white Democratic politicians (Clinton) to distance themselves in the public eye from Black people or "Black" interests.
Mayer discusses all of this and more. He brings out how Presidential politics may make even a relatively honest man say things he may not believe or refuse to hear things he does believe in order to win an election. I think 1976 is too late as a tipping point but Mayer marshals an impressive amount of evidence to support his arguments.
by Terrill Lankford
This is a short book that combines noir, a love story and the supernatural in a melange that shouldn't really work. Surprisingly though it does. Imagine The Godfather meets Apocalypse Now with just a dash of Wuthering Heights, The Big Sleep and some Hammer horror films thrown in. Although this sort of thing has become old hat now, back in the late nineties when this book was written it wasn't cliched yet. Anyway the story concerns a truly professional and deadly hitman known as Ry Caulder. Ry has a soft spot for women and children. He does not torture. He does not kill innocents. He does not mutilate or send messages. He just removes bad people from this world-quickly, painlessly and permanently. Caulder knows he's an evil man but in his environment he's (pun intended) a straight shooter. He has an unblemished reputation for reliability and honesty. You get what you pay for with Caulder. He's on time and thorough. Always. He is the best. He does not miss.
His primary client is the LA Mafia family-which has mostly gone legitimate and underground. It seems however that there are a few loose ends which the Family needs Caulder to tie up. One of these "loose ends" is a man Caulder trained in the line of wetwork. Caulder doesn't like it but business is business and he does the job. Deciding that he's had enough, Caulder talks about retiring but the Family insists Caulder do one last job-that of his mentor, a legendary hitman known as Fredrickson, who was about the closest thing to a father that Caulder had. Fredrickson, always more brutal and savage than Caulder, has killed some people-including innocents-that the Family didn't want killed. It looks like Fredrickson has hooked up with the Colombian cartels to make a move on Family interests. Now the Family wants Caulder to punch Fredrickson's ticket.
Caulder doesn't want to do this but the Family makes him an offer he can't refuse. He does the job but is shocked to find Frederickson still alive the next day. He repeats this but gets the same results. And now Frederickson is coming after Caulder, the Family, and Caulder's sexy but naive next door neighbor, Stephanie, a single mother and would be actress, on whom the cold, ascetic and lonely Caulder has a serious crush.
Although the supernatural elements are hinted at in the prologue they are very slowly revealed throughout the story in a most plausible manner. And if you've ever wondered what happened to Jimmy Hoffa, this book's theory is as good as any. Caulder can't understand why Frederickson won't stay dead and when he puts it together he doesn't want to believe it. I liked this book. You might as well. It deftly balances the different aspects which I mentioned above.