Red Country by Joe Abercrombie
Published by Gollancz, October 2012 (Review copy received)
Review by Mark Yon
Joe’s latest novel is being widely touted as his take on the Western genre: a Fantasy version of True Grit, if you like. It is certainly well-anticipated. He’s clearly on a roll here, and, with six books in six years, each book has gained more readers and greater notice as it is published.
Like The Heroes and Best Served Cold, this is a stand-alone, although there are characters here that readers of previous novels such as The First Law Trilogy, will recognise. Whereas before we have had fighting between ‘The North’ and ‘The South’, this time we have our conflict as we travel West.
Shy South is a young girl from the Near Country (as opposed to The Far Country) whose grandfather is murdered and her brother and sister abducted whilst she is away getting supplies. With her fellow survivor, stepfather Lamb, she follows the murderer’s trail in search of her siblings and for retribution and vengeance. This involves the seemingly ‘cowardly’ (Shy’s own word) Lamb having to deal with his own past.
At the same time Nicomo Cosca, mercenary leader (previously encountered in Best Served Cold) has taken on a contract which involves his immoral band clearing out settlers allegedly hiding rebels in The Far Country, on behalf of His Majesty’s Inquisition. He is his usual self: a soldier with a flair for the melodramatic, and full of his own self-importance, trying to earn as much money as possible with the least effort.
If you’ve read Joe before, there’s a lot here you’ll like. Red Country is as dark, as cynical, as violent and as grimly-humorous as we have come to expect. The characters are as un-stereotypical as ever. The ‘heroes’ are not your clean-cut type, your ‘villains’ are at times worthy of your sympathy, even when they are quite horrendous elsewhere. For example, Shy is that Abercrombean archetype of ‘feisty female’, a damaged person with a troubled past, a murderer and a thief, but perhaps younger and without the total cynicism of Monzcarro Murcatto (of Best Served Cold). If nothing else, Red Country is the tale of her rite of passage.
For ‘heroes’ we have Temple, a notary employed by Cosca, to deal with ‘all the legal stuff’. Temple is a mass of contradictions, a man with a variety of skills but variable degrees of morality and commitment. This is first shown when, despite Temple’s warnings, Cosca signs a contract which is morally bankrupt and, rather like the eradication of the North American Indian, seems to involve the physical and violent displacement of many who seem to be doing nothing but trying to eke out a difficult frontier life.
The result of this is that Temple then runs away and by accident meets Shy and Lamb, now travelling with another waif, Leef. They join up with a Fellowship – a wagon train, on its way across the Far Country to the mining town of Crease, still following the trail of the murderers, apparently led by Grega Cantliss. When the train gets there we find that the town is heaving with an influx of migrants searching for gold and in the middle of a territorial dispute between the female Mayor (on the side of the Union) and gangster Papa Ring, trying to make arrangements with the rebels.
Cantliss has sold the children to a local Ghost (Indian) tribe, the Dragon People. Cosca, in his usual search for gold (but officially routing out rebels) and Shy/Lamb head off as a party into the mountains to find them.
Clearly things will come to a messy end. It’s pretty much a given from the start, and Joe doesn’t disappoint.
You don’t have to have read previous novels to enjoy this one, though there are lots of links if you want them. As a reader I found that I enjoyed meeting characters from previous novels, though I dare say others will claim that Joe here plays to the loyal readership by using them (and one in particular that I won’t mention because of spoilers.) Nevertheless, whether crowd-pleasing or not, there are some nice scenes between them and a sense of closure for some too.
It is another revenge tale, as was Best Served Cold. As normal, there’s lots of swearing, violence and nastiness throughout, with characters bemoaning their lot and dealing with those tough deals as best they can, as was The Heroes. The dialogue is as Sergio Leone as ever, although perhaps more appropriate here than in any other book to date. Some will revel in the over-the-top violence, whilst others will find that it is so full-on that its overall effect is diminished. Such unremitting bleakness can be quite wearying.
The Western theme is new to Joe’s world and is an interesting addition. Less traditional Fantasy and more a Fantasy with Western trappings, Joe doesn’t stint on the Deadwood-style details: wagon trains, fierce Indian tribes, cheap whorehouses, isolated frontier towns and a nihilistic community in the middle of a gold rush. Whilst in places this can seem a little too cowboy-like, it does come together nicely at the end.
Interestingly, this is a shorter novel than most of the Abercrombie canon. (The Heroes is about 50 pages longer, at a quick glance.) This is to the book’s benefit. Red Country reads quickly and well, and, although it dips a little in the middle, is tighter and more focused than many of the previous novels. Here, rather like The Heroes, the events written are relatively small scale – important to those involved, but unlike The First Law books, not exactly world-changing. Which is perhaps Joe’s point, in the same way that The Heroes was one small battle in a bigger picture. Violence is violence, regardless of scale. Red Country should quell those complaints about ‘bloated fantasy novels’ often levelled at genre writers.
In summary, there are many who will welcome this latest novel. It shows all of Joe’s strengths and is easily on par with previous books, which is all the recommendation some will need.
However, as enjoyable as this is, my overall feeling at the end is that we’ve been here before more than once. Whilst Red Country is great, but there’s only so many times you can use the same themes before it begins to feel recycled. In terms of bleak tone and relentless austerity, I can’t help but feel it’s time to try something a little different. I would be interested in Joe writing away from this world.
Despite my quibbles, I suspect most readers will not be so picky, and that this will more than satisfy many a fan/reader. Recommended.
Mark Yon, October 2012.