A lot of people feel that Joe Abercrombie is the heir apparent, if not the king, of the fantasy genre. I suppose that depends on your world view, reading habits, personal tastes, and the phase of the moon. While I’ve enjoyed Abercrombie’s work, finding the genre subversion, over the top violence, and gallows humor to be an engaging change of pace from the staples of the genre, I don’t know that I could place his work at the top of the genre pyramid. In fact, I put off Red Country for a long time, not in the mood for the bleakness and the grit that I knew it would contain. I feel foolish for that decision now. Red Country showcases all of the things I love about Abercrombie’s work, his deft hand with character and dialogue and a blending of unexpected genre tropes that kept my knuckles tight on the pages for the considerable duration of his exploration of the Western viewed through the grime encrusted lens of his oeuvre.
It’s important to note that I cut my reading teeth on westerns. Though I abandoned the Wild West for Middle Earth and similar environs, I never lost my appreciation for stories of hard men and women prying a life out of a hostile world. Abercrombie shows an masterful understanding of the genre whose trappings he borrows and as expected promptly uses the best of those to turn in a rousing tale, that while not blazing new ground never disappoints.
Red Country is on its face the story of Shy South, a woman with a dark past who finds herself thrust into even more darkness when her younger siblings are kidnapped and the family farm burned by a band of criminals. Desperate to reclaim her family, Shy and her cowardly adopted father, Lamb, who has a bloody past of his own, set out on a cross country trek in pursuit of the kidnapper’s who it is quickly revealed plan on selling them to the mysterious Dragon People, whose motives remain a mystery.
Along the way, they assemble a colorful collection of companions, a fellowship, if you will. Most important of these companions is Temple, the notary for the Company of the Gracious Hand, second to Nicomo Cosca. Temple is a man of many talents but a penchant for taking the easy way out of every problem. He’s a man adrift on the current of his own poor choices, and his accidental encounter with Shy starts him down a path that will define whether or not he will be the man he’s always been, or something better. Temple may be the single most compelling character in the story despite the fact that when it comes to the stereotypical traits of the fantasy hero, he weighs in with none of the usual suspects to his name.
Shy is another excellent choice. She is as well drawn as any of the characters in the novel, a shrewd but hard woman, who wants a better life for herself and her family but unable to escape the ghosts of her past. She defies stereotypes, never uses sex as a weapon and is in fact the toughest of the point of view characters in the novel. Her pairing with Temple is particularly engaging, with Shy taking on the more traditionally male role of protector, while Temple serves to nurture her in his own self-depreciating way.
As always, Abercrombie’s skill with character and dialogue is the main draw. While the plot meanders a bit, due to the amount of miles between the start of Shy and Lamb’s journey and the eventual destination, the sharp characters and the pitch perfect dialogue make the miles pass quickly. With the wide variety of intriguing supporting characters and Abercrombie’s penchant for seeding every book with characters from previous novels, there is rarely a dull moment. Even lengthy stretches of travel that normally would bog down the narrative are sprinkled with enough quieter character moments and occasionally shocking burst of violence, keeping the narrative tension just taut enough to keep readers interested. And the last third of the novel charges from chapter to chapter filled with smoke, screams, and blood.
All the common Western themes are present; the inevitable march of progress, man versus the elements, frontier justice and the ever present conflict with the indigenous people of the frontier. Although I would have liked a more thorough look at the culture of both the Ghosts and Dragon People, I realize that Red Country isn’t their story as much as it is the story of Lamb, Shy, and Temple.
This brings me to Lamb, whose identity is the worst kept secret in fantasy literature. Abercrombie doesn’t exactly hide Lamb’s identity but it’s not firmly stated until near the end of the book. Some have complained that Lamb doesn’t have point of view chapters, but I don’t feel that choice weakened the book in the least. Lamb is the voice of reason, the face of death, and the real point, I think of Abercrombie’s narrative. That there is no escape from the past, and that only by accepting who we are can we find even the smallest measure of peace.
Joe Abercrombie might not be the heavyweight champ of the genre in this reviewer’s opinion, but Red Country is a definite stand-out, that I’ll recommend highly. The heady mix of compelling characters, pitch perfect dialogue and over-the-top violence is a brew that few authors can provide. I’ll definitely be back to the bar, the next time Joe cracks open a cask.