Red Country by Joe Abercrombie
|Book Name:||Red Country|
|Formatt:||Paperback / eBook|
|Genre(s):||Fantasy / Western|
|Release Date:||October 2012|
Because this is the first review of Red Country (that I’m aware of) and we’ve been given the exclusive trailer, which you can see above – this review is a cross between an advanced preview and a review. VERY little has been said about Abercrombie’s latest book so I wanted to lift the veil (not too much), whilst reviewing the book at the same time. I’ll do a pure review closer to release – I hope you enjoy it!
If you’re a fan of the current trend towards darker fantasy, you should have already sent your thank you card off to Joe Abercrombie. Often hailed as the father of gritty fantasy – that is fantasy with dark characters, questionable heroes, bloody battles, realistic sexual relationships and plenty of swearing – Abercrombie has not only attracted the attention of the vast majority of genre-fiction readers, but also managed to reach beyond this group and earn himself a place on the general fiction bestseller lists. Abercrombie was the first person to do this in the UK since David Gemmell; an author I’m sure must have been a bit of an influence on him, and probably for the same reason: the level of realism woven into his books.
It seems strange to say it, but I believe Abercrombie’s success is due to his ability to make a fantastical world into a realistic one. Not in the sense of vividness like Lord of the Rings or any of Sanderson’s novels (although they are that too), but in the sense that you don’t find yourself rolling your eyes as another young ‘chosen one’ defeats ten-thousand unbeatable demons. In Abercrombie’s world you experience what feels like real people and stories, where anything can happen, which is fitting because in life anything can happen. Evidence confirms this: in wars people die, horribly. Heroes are almost non-existent and those that do wear the title tend to wear it temporarily for financial reward. Children don’t rise up and lead burly men into battles. Relationships are not easy and sex is seldom in the vein of Mills and Boon novels. Oh yeah, and, during aforementioned battles, people swear – a lot.
Anyway, this latest book, Red Country, is Abercrombie’s sixth and to say that it has been highly anticipated is an understatement. To the extent that once I’d torn open the package from Gollancz (Joe’s UK Publishers) and got over the shock that it had finally arrived, I was pretty damned nervous about how this was going to go. The Heroes was one of the best books ever unleashed on the genre. Having set the bar so high, to hit those same 10/10 scores that we (and many other blogs) gave The Heroes, it would need to be f*cking incredible. More than that though, the world is watching Abercrombie this time round; his following has never been so great and expectations have never been so high. If this book is anything less than The Heroes, Joe Abercrombie will be slated as having lost his touch and fantasy’s first mass-appeal author since Gemmell, and one of the few standing up there with George R. R. Martin could quite easily lose his spot. With this in mind, I sheepishly began the book.
The opening chapter shows us, as we expected, that Joe has decided to change up his setting and sub-genre. This isn’t something new to Joe; The First Law Trilogy was a twist on Tolkien style fantasy, but Best Served Cold was a revenge thriller, and The Heroes was a depiction of the military experience. Red Country adopts the setting and tropes of the Western. Yes, the hardcore Clint Eastwood style Western – ten-gallon hats and all. Joe even dedicates the book to the Western film legend – although acknowledges the fact that Clint will probably never know or care.
In chapter one, we meet a young lady named Shy South. Shy is discussing the fools who are dashing west to take part in the gold rush, a pursuit she has no interest in following. Maybe 1 in 100 men find their fortunes out west, but from the fighting with the savages who lay in-between and the small quantities of gold, the fact the majority of folk end up not finding a bean and freezing half to death in the river has understandably put her off.
Shy’s happy where she is: running the farm with her step-father, Lamb, who we meet him very early on. He arrives to tell Shy that he has bartered a price with a merchant in the town for their bags of corn. Upon asking the price, Shy is horrified to find that, yet again, Lamb took the first price he was offered. After flipping at the coward old man, she dashes off to rescue the deal. After a hard-fought exchange with the merchant that reveals her toughness and willingness to stand up to even the most threatening of characters, Shy secures a decent price. Once she’s done yelling and swearing at Lamb for being such a chicken shit, all is forgiven and they are ready to head home to the farm and harvest more crops and such. The thing is; Lamb may be a coward, but he tries. Since her mother died, they’ve found they need each other to get by – her for her fierceness and ability to run the farm; him for his bulky Northern frame that, despite being old and tired, is at least useful to lug heavy things about.
After a long journey, the cart approaches what was once the farm her mother had left her. All that remains is devastation; a pile of smouldering ash. Their home and their farm is gone – burnt to the ground. Gully, their hired hand is hanging from a big tree over her mother’s grave, the headstone of which has been kicked over. Shy immediately searches the wreckage, desperately seeking her brother and sister who could never have survived this. Realisation kicks in when she doesn’t find the bodies– they haven’t been killed, they’ve been kidnapped.
And so our good old fashioned Western adventure begins. Evidently, if those who have stolen the siblings hoped the owners of the farm would be too scared to do anything about it, they’ve made a mistake. Shy, with no other family, has nothing to lose and Lamb made a promise to his dead wife to look after these kids. The two make a deal not to stop until they get them back and in doing so, the lack of fear and hesitation in Lamb opens up questions. This man, who acts like such a coward, couldn’t have been this way all his life. The scars on his face seem to suggest he has a bloody past – he’s always been secretive about it, though. Also evident to the reader is that Shy is no angel. She has a dark past of her own and this could well be a sign that it has caught up with her.
The two characters will be forced to embrace their dark pasts if they are to track down those who have taken Shy’s brother and sister. The two will have to head west after all, where they will fight their way through a vast open plane full of savages wanting to cut off their ears, and fire arrows into their chests (think Indians in a Western sense), warring towns where the two will need to choose a side, duels (no guns sadly, but the circle is back!), and even a battle with a mysterious, blood thirsty race that hides up in the mountains and is said to be pretty much unbeatable.
This is Abercrombie’s best-paced book yet. If I had to make a complaint about Abercrombie’s writing in the past, it would be that in The First Law Trilogy, once the characters joined up together, the wandering from place to place took the book from being full of suspense to a desire for the travelling to end so you could see what happens next. By the time I read The Heroes, Joe had fixed this by introducing random POVs – so you may for example have a spectator you’ve never seen before relaying events in another area – although he developed a new problem in doing so. Things were slowed slightly when POVs had to change between the warring sides and a bit of backtracking had to be done to justify what had just happened from the other point of view. If a charge had been made for example, you’d often head over to the other side to find out why and how they’d won.
In Red Country, Joe has mastered this quick-switching POV technique. If one set of characters is travelling or doing something boring, you will switch to a POV that is interesting – I’d say there are around ten characters we switch between. During the duel, there is an open jaw moment where we switch from our main character’s perspective to the perspective of the person facing him in the duel. If I had to point to my favourite scene in the novel – it would be that one right there. So look out for it.
In addition to the random POV changes, there are a number of regular POV characters, one of which rivals Shy as the main character. His name is Temple and he is a lawyer. Now, I don’t know what lawyer pissed off Joe Abercrombie during the writing of this book, but this young fellow certainly has a bad time throughout it. He has found himself under the command of the notorious Nicomo Cosca, who you may remember as a famed soldier of fortune in Best Served Cold. Now he is a low-life mercenary (same thing, right?). Cosca treats him like crap, always has done and Temple’s job is little more than to screw over anyone who enters into a deal with Cosca by laying contract law down upon them. After a difficult couple of days working for Cosca, Temple finds trouble and is knocked unconscious into a river.
Luckily (it seems at the time), a young woman drags him out and manages to argue him a place in her fellowship (which is a group of people joined together to travel West in safety by numbers). Obviously, Temple is thankful and looking forward to beginning his own adventure away from the overpowering Cosca. He is told, though, that he owes this woman Shy South 150 marks and to make up this fee, he will become her personal slave. Should anyone in the fellowship need anything, they can ask her and she’ll have Temple work on it for them. Temple soon finds that being errand-boy to this woman could end up being less fun than it was being a Lawyer to Cosca. Certainly, it’ll be harder work and probably more dangerous too. Readers will find great pleasure in Temple’s discomfort, though, as much of the humour in the first half of the book comes from the love/hate relationship Shy has with this slimy little lawyer.
That being said, evolution of the characters is something that Joe Abercrombie has always been praised for. The development of Jezal or Glokta in The First Law Trilogy, for example, is something that readers remark upon even today. Joe’s ability to show you a character and give you an opinion on them, before adding layer upon layer until you understand them – whatever their motivations – and change your opinion, has always fascinated me. The developing relationships and growth of character in Temple, Shy, and Lamb is nothing short of spectacular. All these characters change dramatically, but it is done so subtly, that by the end of the book you are left thinking “how the heck did we get here!?”.
For all those that read Abercrombie for the facts of life type one liners that he slips in; for example, “I have learned all kinds of things from my many mistakes. The one thing I never learn is to stop making them” or, “Truly, life is the misery we endure between disappointments” – you are in for a treat. Abercrombie’s writing has never been so full of laughter-earning material. It is difficult to find a chapter where I didn’t grin, smile or shake my head at his sheer genius.
People often ask: “If I like Abercrombie, what kind of thing should I read?” Well, the sad fact of the matter is no one matches Abercrombie when it comes to realistic portrayals of life in a fantasy universe. No one has his ability to depict a character as a real person and no one else has that ability to make you shake your head in sheer disbelief once you’ve closed that cover. Add to all that the extra laughs and better-paced story we find in Red Country and you get what may well be the best book I’ve ever read. With that in mind I can do nothing more than tip my hat (get it?) to Abercrombie and close this review with the words: “Holy shit he’s done it again!”.
The bottom-line: This is Abercrombie’s best book to date. His writing is sharper than the swords his characters wield and the new setting allows gritty fantasy’s father to ramp up the pace!