Red Country by Joe Abercrombie

Orbit, October 2012       
Hardcover 453 pages     
ISBN 978-0-316-18721-3                     
Review copy courtesy of the publisher   

A man’s past can’t always stay in the past, it affects his decisions and how he lives his life. Sometimes, that past comes knocking and despite how a man may hide from that past, it may or may not go away.  When that past helps the man reach an important goal – such as saving his adopted children from kidnappers – then that past is even more difficult to keep buried.  The past…just one of the themes that proves very informative for Joe Abercrombie’s sixth novel, Red Country.

Shy and her cowardly step-father Lamb return to their fringe-frontier home to find the children have been abducted and her grandfather murdered. The two embark on a cross-country trek seeking the kidnapped children and a piece of vengeance. Along the way, the cowardly lawyer Temple joins as well as some faces familiar to Abercrombie’s previous work become part of the plot – Nicomo Cosca, searching for money; Caul Shivers, searching for revenge on a certain nine-fingered individual; plus mention of other characters familiar to readers and the characters in the book itself.

Many have likened the feel and plot to a western novel, and indeed, it is easy to see why.  The sparse land, the grey-and-black morality of the characters and the revenge theme all share much in common with some of the classic Western films like The Unforgiven and True Grit.  That having been written, the story/film that continued to resonate with the most me as I addictively kept turning the pages was A History of Violence, coincidentally enough, two stars of that film (Viggo Mortsensen and Ed Harris) were in a recent western film Appaloosa.

Familiar themes are powerful, but for me what’s often worked best with Joe’s novels is the dialogue.  Each character has a distinct voice, even without the qualifying …Lamb said or Shy asked, it would be pretty easy to determine which character is speaking.  It is this quality that separates, among others qualities, Joe from his peers in the genre.

The cover of Red Country all but announces who one of the characters of the novel will be, but Joe’s writing is clever enough to never flat out say the name of this person.  He’s one of the more enigmatic characters in Joe’s pantheon.  His past is hinted at in his own words (page 171, US edition):

[Shy speaking to her step-father, Lamb] “I know a big, soft Northman scared to whip a mule. I know a beggar turned up to our farm in the night to work for crusts. I know a man used to hold my brother and sing when he had the fever. You ain’t that man.

“I am.” He [Lamb] stepped across the gap between the wagons, and he put his arms around her crushing tight, and she heard him whisper in her ear. “But that’s not all I am. Stay out of my way, Shy.” Then he hoped down from the wagon. “You’d better keep her safe!” he called to Sweet.

Later, page 220:

She stared at him for a moment. ‘Who the fuck are you? There was a time men could rub your face in the dung and you’d just thank ‘em and ask for more.”

“And you know what?” He peeled her fingers from his arms with a grip that was almost painful. “I’ve remembered I didn’t like it much.”

Those two passages, in my estimation, sum up the narrowing line of identity the man known as Lamb walks through much of the novel. He crosses over the identity line to the man he once was with greater frequency as the novel progresses, and through the characters he encounters do see hints of the man he once was, during an impressively told fight scene between ‘Lamb’ and the fighter Golden:

“Who are you?” he [Golden] roared, fists aching like he’d been beating a tree.

Lamb gave a smile like an open grave, and stuck out his red tongue, and smeared blood from it across his cheek in long streaks. He held up his left fist and gently uncurled it so he looked at Golden, eyes wide and weeping like two black tar-pits, through the gap where is finger used to be.

The crowd had fallen eerily quiet, and Golden’s doubt turned to a sucking dread because he finally knew the old man’s name.

“By the dead,” he whispered, “it can’t be.”

Towards the end of the novel, Joe reminds us of some of the fantastical sorcery that served as a foundation of The First Law trilogy.  The children, abducted from Shy and Lamb, were taken by the Dragon People, a cult who worships a type of Dragon. I’ll not reveal more than that for even making a comparison to other writers could rob the reader of getting a true feel and thought on the dragon’s nature.

Red Country is an exciting, entertaining novel; simply one of those books I could NOT put down. It helped me weather the blackout and power outage I experienced as a result of Hurricane Sandy.  As much as I enjoyed the novel when I was reading it, the story sticks with me very strongly days later. 

It isn’t clear what Joe will be writing next, but whatever it is, more stories in this world, a tale of Bayaz or frankly anything, I’ll be there. Red Country is easily a top book 2012 book for me.

© 2012 Rob H. Bedford

Confession time, I skipped The Heroes for reasons I can’t explain when it first published though I still have a copy, a situation I will remedy in the very near future.

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