Say one thing for Joe Abercrombie, say he’s not the type of writer that spins his wheels. Abercrombie’s fantasy books are all unmistakably his, each with a certain tone and terseness and an immaculately set stage with wonderfully flawed, imaginatively conceived denizens. However, the writer has followed up his well-received First Law Trilogy (The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and Last Argument of Kings) with three stand-alone novels that, while set in the same world, each have a character all their own.
The latest of those is Red Country, Abercrombie’s incorporation of some movie-Western themes and tropes into his gritty, bleak, low-fantasy world. Perhaps what’s most noteworthy about the book is that it meets admittedly high expectations. Joe Abercrombie is the man who saved fantasy for me, and I suspect many. With spiritual forefather series Glen Cook’s The Black Company far in the rear view mirror, and peer contemporary series George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire having a very sporadic publishing schedule, there wasn’t much noteworthy out there to fill the desire for a grimmer, pulse-pounding, boots-on-the-ground kind of fantasy story. Scott Lynch’s series starting with The Lies of Locke Lamora, while more flashy and romanticized, may well have helped fill the gap as well, but Abercrombie’s productivity, understated sensibilities, and teeth-clenching action sequences made me more optimistic about the future of the genre than any other author.
It’s not that I didn’t find some flaws in his First Law trilogy — of course there are. But it’s damned good, and set a high bar that the first two standalone books in the same world, Best Served Cold and The Heroes perhaps didn’t quite reach. Best Served came closer, and The Heroes is nothing to sneeze at — still very good. Accordingly, while I had every confidence that Red Country would scratch my fantasy itch, the question remained of how close it would come to matching the highs experienced in the initial trilogy.
Off the bat, I’ll take issues with some of the reviews I’ve read stating that Red Country is a great book to introduce you to Abercrombie. While I will agree that genre fans should enjoy it even having no experience with the rest of the series, the fact that many of the characters are those we’ve seen in other books makes it all the more enjoyable to folks familiar with what’s gone before. Specifically, at the risk of spoiling, I’ll hint that the long-awaited return of a mysteriously vanished character is crucial to this book — and that’s all I will say regarding that elephant in the room.
Among the characters returning I think are safe to mention is Nicomo Cosca, a mercenary captain who in this book serves as something of a foil for one of the two “point of view” protagonists. There’s also “The Mayor,” a distinguished lady in a mining town who should be familiar to a careful reader. There’s a little bit of Caul Shivers, the Northman who’s appeared in every book in the series (and a little goes a long way; what a menacing man). And there’s some pretty fine new characters, notably the two main protagonists, whose POVs we switch between: Shy South, whose family farm being burned and her siblings stolen is the impetus for the adventure, and Temple, initially a lawyer for Cosca’s mercenary company.
The Western Movie template overlaid onto Abercrombie’s gritty fantasy world works well, taking themes of outsiders, corrupt business, and even mining and manifest destiny into account. Fans of movie westerns seeing a lawyer as a main character might be a little extra jazzed; while Temple is no way an analog to Jimmy Stewart’s frontier lawyer in all-time classic “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,” maybe it’s a nod. Temple may hold similar lofty values to Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard, but is far too much of a coward to stand up for them. He takes the easy way out in most situations — at least until the he’s put face to face with Shy. She’s rarely taken the easy way out and, before things kick off, is attempting to live a quiet life despite her bandit past. Shy and Temple make for a complex pairing. But it’s a good one, as they both end up in a caravan heading toward mining country in pursuit of Shy’s stolen siblings. The caravan is rife with characters, some nuanced, others as one-note as they need to be for a very interesting group dynamic. The group is tested time and again on its journey, which makes for both group drama and opportunities for Abercrombie to wield his greatest gift: the man does fantasy violence — like no other. Singularly gifted.
My primary criticism is in the denouement, regarding the final villain (and there are a delicious number of villains in Red Country, but this is the last encounter). While a bastard throughout, he’s a little too cartoonish at the end, or at least hasn’t seemed to earn the unraveling precisely as it happens. A decidedly non-Abercrombie element that’s a touch of a sour note on an otherwise fine book.
In sum: everything I wanted in a slightly different flavor. A couple of the returning characters cash in the capital earned from previous Abercrombie books, so my advice would be to read, well, everything else first. In order. You won’t regret it.