BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Shy South’s home has been burned to the ground, her brother and sister stolen. To get them back Shy will have to brave the lawless frontier and all the savages that inhabit it.
PROS: Great prose, Western themes mesh perfectly, return of beloved characters.
CONS: Slightly drawn out, less interesting protagonists.
BOTTOM LINE: There are few things I look forward to more than the release of a new Abercrombie novel and Red Country does not disappoint.
“The losers are always the villains, Sworbreck. Only winners can be heroes.”
The First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie is the very reason I got back into the fantasy genre after a five year hiatus of sticking strictly to science fiction. The First Law taught me that fantasy can be gritty and bloody and none too happily-ever-after. As a result I’ve spent the past several years sinking my teeth into any and all titles of the Sword & Sorcery sub-genre, and I still have not found an author quite so engaging as Abercrombie. Red Country is a minor departure from the series; it still occupies the same overall setting but is layered with Western themes. I’ve never been huge into Westerns but I was eager to see how this would translate.
Reading Red Country, the first thing that struck me was just how appropriate the influence of the Western genre was on this particular piece. I’m sure that there are other fantasy novels that draw similar inspiration but I doubt that any wear it with such pride. The archetypes are present – the conquest of nature, the conflict between “civilized” and savage, the greed and cowardice of man, and the reliance on private justice. Such issues were already prevalent in The First Law trilogy, not to mention Abercrombie’s standalone novels Best Served Cold and The Heroes, but Red Country gives them a different flavor altogether. Not only does Abercrombie demonstrate his knowledge of the Western genre but it is also evident that he genuinely respects it.
The story primarily follows the perspectives of Shy South and Temple. There are also chapters where the perspective shifts to the supporting cast for a short time, broadening the scope of events and providing insights that might otherwise have been overlooked. I consider writing characters to be Abercrombie’s strongest suit. I love all the vile, despicable, and ultimately human characters that inhabit his books. Abercrombie’s characters are painted in shades of blood spattered gray. As in life, no one considers themselves a villain. Fans of the series will be pleased at the return of several beloved characters (one in particular but no spoilers here, thanks).
The cast of is weaker than previous books but don’t mistake that for weak overall. Shy South and Temple may not be as interesting as Logen Ninefingers, Inquisitor Glokta, Jezal dan Luthar, Whirrun of Bligh, Bremer dan Gorst, or Prince Calder, but they are still good characters. Shy is probably the most decent human to ever star in an Abercrombie novel. She has her own demons but carries on living her life the best she can, providing for her family. Shy is neither a pedestrian sex-object nor an Amazonian whose sole motivation is revenge. She has strengths and displays moments of weakness and doubt. Temple is also a pretty decent fellow for a man who always takes the easy way out. Of all the characters he is by far the easiest to sympathize with as he struggles with cowardice and morality.
And if we’re going to talk cowardice and morality it would be criminal not to mention Shy’s step-father-of-sorts, Lamb. Lamb is a coward as Shy is none too slow to point out. You could spit in Lamb’s face and he would likely thank you for the privilege… that is, until the kidnapping of Shy’s siblings Pit and Ro. Say one thing for Lamb, say he’s a coward but braving the wild and rescuing Pit and Ro will require a different sort of man. As the story progresses it becomes painfully apparent that Lamb has a violent past of his own. As the blood begins to spill and the bodies pile up a reader may wonder what is the greater cowardice, avoiding conflict at the expense of one’s own pride or displaying one’s true bloody self. What can I say, a man has to be realistic about these things.
At times the plot does feel slightly drawn out. Red Country is a hefty novel that is concentrated around one plot thread. Our “heroes” embark on a looong journey and you can’t help but feel the weight of it. Fortunately the story is always interesting, thanks in no small part to Abercrombie’s wit and deft prose. Honestly, Abercrombie writes like no other. The language is contemporary (no thees or thous and plenty of eff this) but the grammar feels appropriately dated. The dialogue bears a distinctly Western swagger to it that I never tire of reading. Another aspect that really helps to round out the experience is the use of quotes before each new part. I don’t know how Abercrombie picks what quotes to include in his novels but they are always equal parts insightful and awesome, setting the tone for all the bloodshed and betrayal to come. Oh and what bloodshed there is! I would say this book has the lowest body count of any Abercrombie novel to date, but it’s not the quantity that counts, but the quality.
Red Country is not an epic quest like The First Law trilogy, a tale of revenge like Best Served Cold, or a war story like The Heroes. You have to admire an author that is willing to take a necessary risk – not just with new characters but with new subject matter as well. There is a quest though it is hardly epic. There is revenge, though it is a byproduct. There is combat, though it bears much more resemblance to massacre than war. Red Country is personal in the way that only the very best Sword & Sorcery fiction is. My favorite moment of the novel is a take on the iconic saloon scene. The weight of violence hangs overhead throughout the scene until the tension finally gives and explodes into visceral action. It is classic Western. Much of Red Country could be considered the same, a respectful homage to a genre that lacks the popularity it once enjoyed. Were you to replace the swords with six-shooters you would have a Clint Eastwood blockbuster.
Red Country may not be the novel that fans asked for (though I’m sure many will be pleased) but I get the feeling it was exactly the novel that Abercrombie wanted to write. I won’t remember this as my favorite of his novels, but that’s okay. This is still a fantastic read, and a unique one at that. This is the sort of book that makes you want to re-read the previous titles to see if there is anything you missed. The exploration of themes is Red Country’s highest accomplishment. The characters are believable in their cowardice and their courage, and those recurring characters are bound to incite no small amount of excitement. The action is intense and grisly. The writing is finely constructed. The ending is surprisingly cheery. With The First Law trilogy Abercrombie showed me that not all fantasy has to be a Lord of the Rings knock off. With Red Law Abercrombie has showed me that there is still deeper to delve into with the Sword & Sorcery genre. Say one thing for Joe Abercrombie, say he’s a master craftsman.