Red Country by Joe Abercrombie
Fantasy Book Review Book of the Month, November 2012
“You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”
– Obi Wan Kanobi, Star Wars
There is a growing focus on gritty, dirty, realistic tales. Les Miserables was an almost too realistic view of revolutionary France, with all of the dirt, grime, sores, blood, and sweat associated with a poor underclass society fighting for the right to take a bath once a week. Previews for the new Tom Cruise movie, Oblivion, and recent films like The Hunger Games bear out the wide chasm between the have’s and the have not’s by focusing on the squalor of the common man. But before all of these, Joe Abercrombie slunk in the mud with his pack of despicable characters showing off the very worst in humanity. Gratefully, he has returned once again to the World of The First Law Trilogy with Red Country and one has to wonder if he has reached the bottom of the barrel – and hope he has not as this book is the best of the bunch since that original series ended.
This is a fantasy spaghetti Western. And if that sounds awesome to you, it is even better than you think. If that sounds like the kind of thing that churns your stomach, well, you’re missing out on a roaring tale and complex, intriguing characters. This, like all of Abercrombie’s work, is not a comfortable book. There is blood and gore – lots of it, swearing, moral grey lines, and most of all horrible choices made by awful people.
Abercrombie has introduced us to a world through the back door, if you will. This is a world at war, rife with poverty, full of unscrupulous individuals with questionable motives and morals. In this world, the barbarian, warrior, killer, prostitute with a sliver of light in their heart is king/queen. It’s all degrees of relativity. And he sets up the story and characters beautifully. We start with a bunch of retired, tired killers who have tried to leave their past behind them. Shy South has done terrible things and she wants only to do well by her brother and sister – Ro and Pit. She raises them with her step father, Lamb, a man with an even bloodier past who tried to leave it all behind. But then they return home one night to find their farmstead burned down, their friend hanged, and Shy’s siblings stolen away. Vengeance was never really far from the surface for both of them and they set out to find the children, get justice, and return home. Along the way they run into another person who has had his sibling stolen, Leef, a reformed lawyer, Temple, who used to run with the infamous mercenary Nicomo Costa until he ran away, and a band of settlers moving North to prospect for the alleged gold in the hills. Some of the names and characters we have run into before, as Abercrombie likes to do, and these new glimpses allow development and growth for characters (particularly Cosca). They end up in Crease, a border town that is both prospering from the gold rush and fleecing anyone who steps into it. It is under an uneasy truce between the Mayor and her rival, Papa Ring. Gambling, drinking, whoring, and murder are the norm here, so our group fits in perfectly. And, as with all of Abercrombie’s books, there is the presence of an Inquisitor. Think the Spanish Inquisition as police force that rules the land and uses the same abhorrent tactics. They are the law, judge, and jury. They are merciless and single-minded in their purpose. They are bloody and ruthless and without mercy. In a world where they are the law, is it any wonder that this world tilts towards the violent?
Of course, our “heroes” fit in perfectly. They have all done horrible, despicable, awful things in their past. Their crimes are unforgivable – most especially to them – and they live with one eye looking back over their shoulder. The past is always just around the corner and waiting to exact its revenge. These characters – all of the characters in the book – make horrible, awful choices for the worst of reasons. Their motivations are not only questionable, they are cringe-inducing. Any choice you or I would make, they make the opposite and create more misery and pain for themselves and those around them. They have coal-black hearts that have been hardened by years of awful deeds and terrible situations. And yet inside those coal-black hearts are diamonds of good. They act from a good place – saving children, wanting to be loved. It’s just that their methods and ways of getting there are not only circuitous, they take them through the hardest path possible where nothing but bloodshed and pain can follow. The end befits the tone and the characters well – it is happy in some respects, but not an easy kind of happy. A resigned happy, an inevitable happy, given the choices made and the souls of those involved. It is perfect in the way of an imperfect world.
To me, this was Abercrombie’s best standalone novel since The First Law Trilogy. 2009′s Best Served Cold didn’t have as memorable of characters and 2011′s The Heroes was a little too dark and bloody. Red Country balanced the blood and gore with humor and characters who weren’t SO difficult to like. They are the darker shades of ourselves – the kind of people we might become if the world constantly stepped on us and every choice came out wrong. Their intentions are (mostly) good, but their ability to imagine a good way out is compromised by years of… life. Aside from one small plot towards the end of the book, the action moved along, the characters stayed true to themselves and their motivations, and the plot was coherent and wrapped up well. It was more than an enjoyable book – it was wildly entertaining and a wonderful change of pace. Despite the dark characters, I found myself wanting to spend more time with them.
Brian Herstig, 9.2/10
Joe Abercrombie has written the ‘The First Law’ trilogy, ‘Best Served Cold’ and ‘The Heroes’.
His first trilogy is actually a real trilogy, so you should read them in the actual order. The following two stories are a bit more independent, but in the same realm, dark and gritty fantasy-style and with some recurring characters. If you can’t stand – or don’t like your kids – to read a story in which there is plenty of, gritty violent scenes, swearing, questionable characters and sexual relationships then this isn’t your book. Abercrombie’s style is to write a fantasy story in which the characters react like realistic people. You’ll never see a ‘teenage-prodigy’, heroes are non-existent or in for the cash, and there are plenty of crooked and corrupt characters, just like the real world.
‘Red Country’ is something novel in the fantasy genre, because of its Western, old-school Clint Eastwood style. Abercrombie even dedicates the story to Eastwood, although acknowledging Eastwood probably even wouldn’t care.
Honestly, I’ve seen my classics but I am not a big Western style-fan. If you’ve seen ‘Once upon a time in the West’ and perhaps a couple of Eastwood movies, it is my opinion you’ve pretty much seen it all. Yes, Western can be amusing or even entertaining. But I am not running wildly enthusiastic for the genre.
This book however is bloody great and this is why:
The characters are well defined, realistic individuals. Some so brilliantly done that they aren’t hard to imagine in real life. Abercrombie manages to create characters well suited for a harsh world. His main characters are not your everyday fantasy heroes, the usual black-white stuff. Almost every main character in this story has murdered, stolen, robbed or done other horrible stuff. Heroes and famous people seem to be what other people want them to look like, but they are thieves and cowards nonetheless. Some care about their sins, some are a bit upset because they don’t care and some don’t give a…. actually the usual ‘morality’ issue about good and evil, without making it the ‘over-the-top’ melodrama you often get in fantasy.
Another awesome thing is the amount of times you switch between those different characters, altering your view on the story. But where Abercrombie did have a few jumpy moves in his earlier books, his obviously increased technique smoothed this story out. Resulting in a rocking pace and a smooth read. Adding to that, there is a lot of action. Good, heroic fantasy-type of action. It is no surprise ‘The Heroes’ won the Gemmell award last year, because if Gemmell would have a ‘literature-child’ it would be Abercrombie.
The Western aspect surprisingly didn’t come over ‘unnatural’. One of the main plots is a long wagon-travelling through a ‘Midwest’ kind of environment. Hostile native tribes and dusty valley’s included. You’ve got the typical farms, little settler towns and religious fanatics. So the usual scenery has its place, but it didn’t strike me as forced.
Another brilliant part is the unpredictability, just like in the real world there are surprises. Anything can happen at any time, which spins the story any which way.
The best thing however is one for those that have read the prequels. A couple of our favourite characters return! I’ll not spoil, but I bet you’re going to like it.
So in all. Abercrombie has guts. He dares and succeeds to make a non-western-enthusiastic like me pretty hyped up. In my opinion Abercrombie even succeeded to meet up with his amazingly high expectations after ‘The Heroes’.
I honestly missed a night’s sleep reading this story and I don’t regret a second of it.
David Stoit, 9.2/10
‘Red Country’ by Joe Abercrombie represents the third stand-alone novel following his highly praised ‘The First Law trilogy’. Having not finished the original trilogy (I only read the first book, ‘The Blade Itself’), the only other book I’d read of Abercrombie’s was ‘Best Served Cold’ and the short story ‘The Fool Jobs’.
I was, subsequently, pleasantly surprised with this book.
Those who read my review for Best Served Cold will note that I was not overly fond of the dark and grim nature of the book. And while Red Country has its fair share of grim and gritty characters, there is more light amidst the darkness.
There are several characters that appear in this book that have appeared previously, but not having read much of that I have no idea just how many or who they are. I’m aware of a few, but I think that speaks volumes about the readability of this book. You don’t need to have read what’s come before to enjoy what is here now.
Red Country introduces (I assume) one of the better characters I’ve read in Abercrombie’s work: Shy South. She is independent, she has blood on her hands, but she is fiercely loyal and loving of those she cares about.
The undercurrents of this book are cowardice and loyalty, and the conclusion left me saddened, if unsurprised (which is not to say I saw the ending coming, but rather, it makes sense given the character we were given).
Abercrombie, I think, is not a writer I should grow too attached to. My (diagnosed) depression would not benefit from reading too much Abercrombie too quickly. He is a once a year guy, I think; maybe more. Nevertheless, his writing is beautiful; descriptive, emotive, and violent.
Red Country is definitely a book that Abercrombie fans will love, whether they loved or hated Best Served Cold, and is definitely worth a try if you have yet to step into the world of the First Law.
Joshua S Hill 7.5/10
I’m writing this review a few hours after having interviewed the author of this wonderful book for our podcast, so I hope that you’ll all go tune in to that when it’s live (should be up by the 16th of November).
What did you think about Red Country?
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