Joe Abercrombie (www.joeabercrombie.com)
When Shy South returns home from town to find her farm burned, her friend hanging from a tree and her young brother and sister missing, she sets out to find the man responsible, her cowardly old stepfather Lamb in tow. It doesn’t take long to find that the man she is looking for is called Grega Cantliss, and that he is heading to Crease, a town nestled deep in the mountains at the far end of the Far Country. Throwing in their lot with a Fellowship heading west towards their fortune, Shy and Lamb set out to find the man and the children, little knowing that the Company of the Gracious Hand, under the command of Nicomo Cosca, is trailing along behind, hunting rebels. As they move further into the wildness of the Far Country, Shy quickly learns that there is more to Lamb – a most unsuitable name – than meets the eye and that there may be more than they bargained for awaiting them in Crease.
Red Country is Joe Abercrombie’s third standalone novel and is, once again, set in the world of his First Law Trilogy. It’s the first of Abercrombie’s books that I have read, but I’m assured that at least one of the characters played a key role in that original trilogy. While it’s billed as fantasy, it reads more like an old-fashioned, if somewhat blood-soaked, western, bearing all the trademarks of that genre: the discovery of gold in the far West, and the ensuing westward trek towards a supposedly easy fortune through hostile country populated by restless and savage natives. Crease is, to all intents and purposes, this world’s version of Deadwood while Nicomo Cosca’s band of misfits might well have deserted Fort Apache in search of richer pickings. In fact, for the vast majority of the novel, the “fantasy” elements do little more than distract from the key storyline: that moment when a character puts an arrow in their bow, or draws their sword, rather than drawing their pistol is the only thing separating Red Country from Lonesome Dove, and it’s such a shame.
Which is not to say that Red Country is a bad book. Far from it, in fact. Abercrombie has constructed a solid story, and filled it with characters that, despite their natures, it’s difficult not to like. Shy is a headstrong young woman with a past she’d rather forget while Lamb, once he gets started, seems all-too-keen to reawaken the demons of his own. Temple – lawyer, priest, carpenter – has a chequered past of his own that he, rather grudgingly, tries to put behind him when he becomes indebted to Shy. As the relationships between these three central characters shift and re-form, we see different facets of the people, each new aspect bringing new surprises and evoking new emotions in the reader.
Abercrombie’s world is well-established – this is now the sixth novel he has set in it – and it’s likely that there are details that a long-time reader will notice that I, first-timer that I am, most likely missed. But it’s not a bad starting place, because it requires no knowledge of what has gone before. There’s something familiar about the place, and perhaps it’s the similarity to the American West of countless films and television shows. This is not fantasy of the Lord of the Rings variety, and probably not even of the Song of Ice and Fire variety. Like Daniel Polansky’s Low Town novels, it obliterates genre boundaries, in this instance between western and fantasy.
There are times when the novel feels a little over-crowded, when too many things are happening at once and a feeling at the end that Abercrombie just couldn’t decide at what point to finish – there are a handful of what feel like logical conclusions before the final word is reached – but these are minor niggles in the grand scheme of things. Humour abounds, with each character more than able to hold their own in a battle of wits. There are times when it feels like you might be reading an Asterix comic, but in a good way – this is observational comedy at its best, with an ear for natural dialogue that equals the likes of Elmore Leonard or Cormac McCarthy.
He realised Friendly was standing next to him…. “What do I do now?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” said Temple. “What does anyone do?”
“I plan an authentic portrait of the taming and settlement of the Far Country,” Sworbreck was blathering. “A tale for the ages! One in which you have played a pivotal role.”
“I’m pivotal, all right,” said Sweet. “What’s pivotal?”
“My hand,” shrieked Hedges.
“You’re lucky it’s not through your face,” said Lamb.
A number of motifs thread through the story and define the characters: long-buried pasts that refuse to stay buried and the concept of “the easy way” – as opposed to “the right way” – are two of the more important themes that show up time and time again. The former will, of course, bring Easter Eggs galore for the long-time reader, and their ordinariness serves to ground this fantasy tale in something approaching a recognisable setting.
If Red Country is representative of the rest of his work, Joe Abercrombie deserves the buzz he has generated so far in his short writing career. It’s an entertaining novel that has more in common with Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove than with anything else and, as a result, should appeal to fans of the western genre (assuming they can get past the front cover, which has very much a fantasy feel). There’s plenty here for everyone, though – a dry humour wrapped around a dark and violent heart that will definitely satisfy fans of great writing, regardless of any other preferences they may have. It’s the characters that bring the story to life, because they are ordinary, flawed people in extraordinary situations. Red Country has given me a taste of Abercrombie’s fiction; it certainly won’t be the last time I sample his wares. Whether you’ve read his work before or not, this is an essential read.