If Abercrombie’s brand of violent epic fantasy is to your liking, his next book, The Heroes, is available for pre-order now.
NOOK owners: go to shop, and search “Joe Abercrombie” to download this novel.
B&N: In Best Served Cold you’ve created a cast of characters that includes mercenaries, a master of poisons, a torturer, and a number of murderers. Are there any “good-guys” in your books?
I must admit I’m not a big believer in the concept of good guys and bad guys. I think anyone can be capable of being hero or villain under the right circumstances, and good and evil tend to be a matter of where you stand. Epic fantasy often centers on some pretty violent people – warriors, generals, kings, and often portrays them as being wise and considerate leaders, lovers and friends as well as unstoppable killing machines. It just seemed to me that a person very well adapted to killing other people at close quarters with an edged weapon is unlikely to necessarily be a well-adjusted, contributing member of society as soon as the weapons are sheathed.
B&N: Your new novel, The Heroes, is out in February. It’s the story of one bloody battle that talks place over three days. Were you inspired by any real-world battles when researching the book?
Yes, very much so. I’ve always read a lot of military history, and with The Heroes I was keen to try and reflect what I’ve observed about real-life warfare in a fantastical setting. In classic epic fantasy victory often tends to result from bravery, shiny armour, and the success of brilliant planning. Real warfare rarely features anything you could call a decisive victory, and when you see one it tends to be as much the result of luck, weather, personality clashes, mistakes and misapprehensions as from anything you could call heroic. Although the level of technology in The Heroes is somewhere around the late medieval, with gunpowder just starting to play a role, I didn’t want the book to feel too archaic – I’d hate to think that it can’t feel relevant, and many aspects of warfare – the boredom, fear, discomfort, pain, confusion, incompetence (and bravery) – haven’t changed much over time. So I wanted The Heroes to have an “everywar” quality, if you like, drawing inspiration from episodes through history, as well as from a few from epic fantasy.
Styria is a land of feuding city states riven by ambition, greed and treachery, plagued by unscrupulous leaders, avaricious banks, unreliable mercenary bands, and … plagues. It was very much inspired by the Renaissance Italy of the Borgias, the Medicis, and of course my own personal life-coach, Niccolo Machiavelli. At the time when Best Served Cold takes place, the Years of Blood – a period of shifting alliances and almost constant warfare – are coming to an end after nineteen years, with Orso, the Grand Duke of Talins, finally close to a victory over his enemies, the League of Eight, a combined group of eight city states. His leading general is the mercenary Monzcarro Mercatto, also known as the Snake of Talins. But mercenaries have ever been disloyal, and Orso has become concerned that she will make a bid for his crown before he even has it firmly on his head…
B&N: How did you plan the battle that is the heart of The Heroes? Did you have a clear idea of how the two armies were going to fare? Did the armies ever take over and do things you didn’t expect?
I’m pretty careful in the planning, on the whole, so I’m rarely surprised by something my own characters do. I might occasionally be surprised by a good idea for what they’re going to do, but on the whole they do what I tell them, which is one of the nice things about being a writer. Don’t you wish you had that power over your co-workers? Essentially I first designed the battlefield itself, putting in as much varied terrain as I could within the bounds of reality, and setting it up for some classic scenarios of combat – a fight over a bridge, over an orchard, over a ford, a charge up a hill against an entrenched enemy, the siege of a walled town, a flat area for a cavalry charge, and so on. Then I thought about what different styles of action could happen across the three days of the battle, as more and more forces arrived on the scene and the character of the fighting changed – a limited, escalating skirmish on the first day, a pincer movement making for a fight on both flanks on the second, and an all-out slugging match on the third. Then I thought about where each of the characters might need to be positioned within this wider action in order both to advance their own stories, and to give as complete a picture of the battle as possible, always baring in mind that in medieval warfare no one has more than a fragmentary impression of what’s going on in a battle anyway…
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