Sunday, November 11, 2012

Review: Red Country by Joe Abercrombie

Joe Abercrombie is one of the finest fantasy authors currently writing. He is at the forefront of a current trend in fantasy to write gritty, cynical novels that take place in a world of grays as opposed to the traditional black and white. In his novels you will not find a farm-boy meeting his destiny as world-savior. You will not find noble knights, or even much nobility at all. What you will find is conflicted characters, highly flawed but well meaning individuals, and outright scum. As opposed to the typical black/white morality of typical epic fantasy, Abercrombie's world is grey leaning towards black.

With that being said, Abercrombie has managed to find success, and has so far provided readers with his First Law trilogy (The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and The Last Argument of Kings), followed by three stand-alone novels (Best Served Cold, The Heroes, and Red Country) all set in the same world and even featuring some of the same characters. I discovered him in late 2010, when I read his short story “The Fool Jobs” featured in Swords & Dark Magic, a sword and sorcery anthology released that summer. It was short, featured an interesting motley of characters, and had some of the best written action I've ever read. It left me hungering for more, and right before The Heroes was published in February 2011, I sat down and read straight through all of his books, unable to put them down.

Red Country is his latest novel, following the revenge themed Best Served Cold, and the war themed The Heroes. Red Country follows the similar pattern of mashing together fantasy and another genre, in this case a favorite of mine; the Western. Here's the official blurb:

"They burned her home. They stole her brother and sister. But vengeance is following. 

Shy South hoped to bury her bloody past and ride away smiling, but she’ll have to sharpen up some bad old ways to get her family back, and she’s not a woman to flinch from what needs doing. She sets off in pursuit with only a pair of oxen and her cowardly old stepfather Lamb for company. But it turns out Lamb’s buried a bloody past of his own, and out in the lawless Far Country, the past never stays buried. 

Their journey will take them across the barren plains to a frontier town gripped by gold fever, through feud, duel and massacre, high into the unmapped mountains to a reckoning with the Ghosts. Even worse, it will force them into alliance with Nicomo Cosca, infamous soldier of fortune, and his feckless lawyer Temple, two men no one should ever have to trust…"

Fans of Joe Abercrombie will find much to like here. The title perfectly describes the setting, a lawless frontier where violence is commonplace. Violence means that Abercrombie's smoothly written action scenes will abound. The sharp and witty dialogue he is known for writing is also pasted on every page, this time delivered with a Western twang.

The characters are all quite interesting as well. Several characters from previous novels appear, some better and some worse off than before. Nicomo Cosca manages to be the scene-stealer he always was, although his character is definitely at a low point, and at times not nearly as likeable as before. It is apparent that with age he has only sunken lower towards the selfish, mercenary scum he can be. Logen makes his long-awaited return and seems very much like an older version of the Logen readers fell in love with: a man trying to escape from his violent past. The theft of the kids forces Logen to abandon the life he has previously been living, and revert back to the Logen of the past. Although not a POV character, Logen remains as interesting a character as before, and is a perfect picture of a man at conflict with himself. His return is everything it should be. Eyes should be kept open for several other cameos throughout the novel.

The new characters are also wonderfully written. Shy South is a leather-tough younger woman with a past she is ashamed of. She is willing to do whatever it takes to recover her siblings, although she takes no joy in any of the violence, revenge not being as important as the recovery of the children. She is very likeable, and despite the shady past she seems to mostly be cut from good cloth. Temple starts as Cosca's lawyer, and is perhaps the most interesting of the new characters. He is yet another character with a shameful past, but his past is mostly regrets as opposed to the violent past of many of the other characters. He has a low opinion of himself, a quick wit, and seems to always take the easy way, although as of late his conscience seems to bother him. He wants to do right, but is not confident in himself enough. He is the one who truly finds himself on the journey across the Far Country. Also of note is a mysterious man they travel with, named Savian. His description as a grizzled, wiry-older man with squinty eyes, a calm and quiet demeanor, and a rough voice all point towards this character being Clint Eastwood himself making a cameo.

As for the mash-up, a lot of fans were wondering what to expect from a fantasy-western. Red Country definitely is more akin to a Western, in it's tone, language, and themes. Instead of six-shooter's however, we get knives and swords. When it comes to the sources that Joe drew inspiration from, I think it's rather apparent. Deadwood, Unforgiven, The Wild Bunch, and every spaghetti Western by Leone can all be seen as influences, as it was definitely these gritty, violent outings that gave the most inspiration. There are carriage chases, battles with savages, crime-ridden frontier towns, an abundance of outlaw scum, double-crosses, a duel with a description that would make it feel at home in any Leone film, and characters that ride off into the sunset. All together, that makes this book about as Western as Western gets. 

The book's plot is pretty straightforward: Shy and Lamb have their family stolen, so set across the country to retrieve them, gaining allies and enemies along the way. Cosca and his mercenary company are also traipsing across the land, employed by the Inquisition to hunt down rebels. Mix this dubious job with a mercenary's lust for treasure, and it's not hard to imagine the trouble that follows these men. This is a book where even the "good folk" are scoundrels, so a reader who desires an innocent and righteous protagonist is sure to be disappointed. 

Fans of Abercrombie's previous works should scoop this up immediately. Fans of both fantasy and Westerns might find a lot to love here, although it's vastly more rewarding to read all of his books in sequence as opposed to jumping in this late in the game. Overall, this book is highly recommended, and any fan of fantasy who has not already done so, should put down the book they're reading now, go to the bookstore, and scoop up every Abercrombie title. You can thank me later.  


  1. Another nice review. I've ordered The First Blade, from the library. So many books, so little time.

  2. I know how you feel. I have a bad habit of buying books faster than I can read them. It's cool though, when I finish one I have something for handy for any kind of mood I'm in. I hope you like The Blade Itself. It's a very fun series, although one of the major three POV characters (there's six total in the trilogy - three major and three minor) takes quite awhile to warm up, as he is hard to find any likable qualities. The other two (Glokta, and Logen) are absolutely amazing though, and two of my favorite fantasy characters ever. If you like your fantasy gritty (without over using the word - it just seems the best word to ascribe to his books) and cinematic, with enough complexity to make for an interesting world (but not nearly complex enough to make remembering people and places a burden) then you will have a blast!!!! I have so much I need to read so I can review, but after Red Country I'm itching to go back and re-read the rest of his books!!!!

  3. Hard to fathom Joe getting so much better with every book but each one i read leaves me wanting more and more!