Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country has been one of my most anticipated reads since it was announced. While I definitely loved the First Law Trilogy it was Abercrombie’s previous novel The Heroes that really blew me away. Where as that first series was a riff on a conventional quest fantasy turned on its head The Heroes was an epic tale of war that was at in many ways both sprawling and constrained. The Heroes laser tight focus on a single battle (the preparations, the battle itself, and the aftermath) allowed for Abercrombie’s talents to shine and I grew quite attached to the multitude of characters offered in that tale. The jacket text and initial descriptions of Red Country set in the distant frontier of the same world as Abercrombie’s previous novels and hinted at, quite strongly, the return of one particular character. Red Country, despite its fantasy trappings, is heavily influenced by westerns and leans quite heavily on the notion of revenge.
As the novel opens readers are introduced to fast talking, no-nonsense Shy South and her soft-spoken, if physically imposing, companion Lamb. Their easy teasing camaraderie and Shy’s strength of character carry the first chapter along at a brisk pace just before it all ripped away by the horrible discovery that their farm has burned to the ground,and Shy’s two younger siblings carried off into the wilds by a roving band of cuthroats with a hidden agenda. It isn’t long before readers are reintroduced to Nicoma Cosca (first seen in Before They Are Hanged, followed by Last Argument of Kings, and Best Served Cold) and more importantly the notary for Cosca’s mercenary company Temple. Temple has grown quite disillusioned with the mercenary life as Cosca’s band is now engaged in battling the rebels against the Union.
Of course it is inevitable that the disgruntled notary Temple and the seemingly consistently grumpy Shy meet. The intersection of these narratives is interesting the continuing interaction between Shy and Temple remains one of the best parts of the novel, particularly in the middle section of the novel. However, it is also this middle section of the novel as Temple, Shy, and Lamb head west into Far Country with a fellowship (sort of like and old west wagon train) that drags. Where Temple’s early desire to escape his habit of always taking the easy and Shy’s drive to rescue her siblings really pushes the narrative forward in the first quarter of the novel it is the middle third that gives way to more of a travel narrative that causes the story to stumble a bit. It’s in this section where the drive of Shy’s quest is put on hold due to the dangers of the road and distance that must be traveled.
About halfway through the novel returns more to form starting with Ambercrombie’s three sentence introduction to the frontier town of Crease: “Crease at night? Picture hell on the cheap. Then add more whores.” In this chapter, conveniently titled “Hell on the Cheap.” Abercrombie’s talent sparkles with the grit and grist of humanity at its worst. In observing Crease readers get this wonderful big of dialogue:
“It’s like a battle,” grunted Savian.
“But without any sides,” said Corlin.
“Or any victory,” said Lamb.
“Just a million defeats,” muttered Temple.
It is during these later sections of the novel, particularly in Crease itself and the chapters just preceding the groups arrival their, that the Abercrombie’s seemingly contradictory examination of choice and change really comes to the fore. This sort of strange opposing dual message is particularly embodied in both Temple and Lamb. Temple who wants to be more than what he is but always never quite managing to be the person he hopes to be and Lamb who desperately tries to hold on to the peace of his new life but who must increasingly return to the violence of his past in order to honor the man he thought he had become. In a way that only Joe Abercrombie can this examination of character. Similarly Crease, the novel’s stand-in for progress and change in all its dirt and grime, is the catalyst for both Lamb and Temple to regress back to the person they were. Lamb’s realization comes as he talks with a barber ending by saying “Treat folks the way you’d want to be treated and you can’t go far wrong, my father used to tell me. Seems our jobs are different after all. Aim ‘o mine is to do to the other man exactly what I’d least enjoy.”
In many ways, while he only plays something a secondary role, Red Country is Lamb’s story. While Shy’s quest to rescue her siblings forms the bulk of the narrative’s drive, it is Lamb’s desperate attempt to cling onto the man he wants to be and his utter failure to do so, that provides the majority of the novel’s turning points. Without the violence inherent to who Lamb used to be Shy could never have gotten to where she needed to be and it Lamb’s seeming inability to change that prompts transformation in the people around him.
While I feel like I enjoyed The Heroes a bit a more Red Country once again proves the Joe Abercrombie is the unopposed master of grim and gritty fantasy. Red Country, like its predecessors, manages to subvert the trappings of its genre, in this case western, while seemingly managing to also bay homage to those same conventions. It isn’t until the last line of the novel where Abercrombie gives in and whole-heartedly bows to the tradition of the western. If you like your fantasy gritty and violent with memorable characters and an ear for dialogue more akin to Elmore Leonard than J. R. R. Tolkien then you should definitely give Red Country a shot.