Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Book Review | Red Country by Joe Abercrombie

Shy South comes home to her farm to find a blackened shell, her brother and sister stolen, and knows she’ll have to go back to bad old ways if she’s ever to see them again. She sets off in pursuit with only her cowardly old step-father Lamb for company. But it turns out he’s hiding a bloody past of his own. None bloodier.

Their journey will take them across the lawless plains, to a frontier town gripped by gold fever, through feuds, duels, and massacres, high into unmapped mountains to a reckoning with ancient enemies, and force them into alliance with Nicomo Cosca, infamous soldier of fortune, a man no one should ever have to trust...


A river of blood runs through Red Country: a scarlet stream that slices like a scythe through the old West-esque wilderness of Joe Abercrombie's new novel. It begins an arterial stream on a smallholding outside Squaredeal; turns a tributary after the evils of Crease; and by the end it's become a terrible torrent, as unstoppable as anger, as awful as war. Pity the poor fool who stands in its path.

Red Country is vile at times, and plain ugly most all others, but mark my words: from source to termination, you won't be able to look away... because by the dead, this book is brilliant, certain to satisfy longstanding fans as well as welcome - warmly, I warrant - new readers from near and from far.

For those folks, and any old-timers who require a refresher, a tiny primer: the Bath-bound family man made his name less than a decade ago with the opening volume of The First Law. Before They Are Hanged demonstrated The Blade Itself's success had been no happy accident, and with Last Argument of Kings Abercrombie cemented his reputation as one of fantasy's finest.

Ever since the acclaimed author has been worrying away at the same wanton world that these three were set against by way of a series of self-contained tales. Following in the fearsome footsteps of Best Served Cold and The Heroes, Red Country is the third of these, and by all accounts the last such standalone for the foreseeable. Fitting, then, that it's the best of the bloody bunch.

It begins with a bargain. In Squaredeal, Shy South negotiates a nice price for several sacks of grain harvested from her family's farm. Doesn't hurt that she has a hulking Northman by her side during these dealings, but truth be told, it doesn't help hugely: though Lamb looks like trouble, he's named after his nature. This fella she has instead of a father is a career coward... or so Shy suspects.

She has cause to reconsider her opinion when they get back to the ranch and find naught but burned-out fields and a body swinging in the wind. Some band of bastards has destroyed all that's theirs — and to make matters worse, the children are missing. The pair don't spend forever plotting out a plan of action: they bury their dead quickly, then set out in search of poor Pit and Ro.

It takes time, but twisted bitter as Shy is, she's shocked six ways from Sunday by Lamb's eventual reaction:
"This big, gentle Northman who used to run laughing through the wheat with Pit on one shoulder and Ro on the other, used to sit out at sunset with Gully, passing a bottle between 'em in silence for hours at a time, who'd never once laid a hand on her growing up in spite of some sore provocations, talking about getting their hands red to the elbows like it was nothing." (p.51)
It's not nothing - not now, nor ever again - but in the end, what else is left? Thus they track a trail blazed by bandits into the Ghost-ridden plains and dangerous dales of the Far Country, where our determined duo encounter a caravan of fellow travelers led by the legendary adventurer Dab Sweet — though the man seems less of a legend in person. But Shy and Lamb figure there's more safety in numbers than in none, so they join forces for the moment, suffering the company of others on the road to Crease: a filthy frontier town (which takes its title from a mark on a map) where two opposing powers vie for control.

Meanwhile, returning drunk and indignant from his fall from grace in Best Served Cold, Nicomo Cosca leads an inquisition of miserable mercenaries out into the big empty — ostensibly to root out rebels, but one of the Old Man's many mistakes the mission for mass slaughter. Seeing that there's "no heroism apparent" (p.60) in the Company of the Gracious Hand, Temple - a jack of all trades type - resolves to escape Cosca's clutches quick as he can. In short order, he throws himself into the river, only to be fished out of it by... a familiar face.

After an encouraging start, then, but before gathering together for an awesome last act, Red Country's narrative rather meanders — and considering the stakes, this is an issue. With Pit and Ro's very lives on the line, that our heroes dawdle in the desert for a hundred-some pages - then in Crease for at least as long again - is some kind of strange; passing distracting if not entirely pace-breaking. To his credit, Abercrombie does contextualise the double-headed delay; even so, it's sure to sit with readers uneasily.

Given this, it's safe to say that Red Country is about the journey moreso than the inevitable destination. And with such dizzying highs and desperate lows, what a trip it is! The fellowship comes together and apart, goes from rocks to hard places via frying pans and fires. And in the quieter times - though these are few and far between - a collusion of character: of the angry, the greedy and the needy; the good, the bad and the Joe Abercrombie.

Not all of Red Country's perspectives are sympathetic - come to that, some are apt to turn even the steeliest stomachs - but each arc, in its way, proves as absorbing as the protracted pilgrimage the plot revolves around. Temple and Lamb are particularly fantastic in that regard: the loyalties of either character are ever uncertain, whilst in a telling inversion, one's deliberate development seems to mirror the other's.

Cosca, meanwhile, is a fascinating antagonist: brutal and unpredictable, but a damaged man, all booze and bluster. Through him - and the cowering writer he has hired to chronicle his last hurrah - Abercrombie digs down to the root of this book, which is what separates kings from cowards, and right from wrong — or does not:
"Sworbreck had come to see the face of heroism and instead he had seen evil. Seen it, spoken with it, been pressed up against it. Evil turned out not to be a grand thing. Not sneering Emperors with world-conquering designs. Not cackling demons plotting in the darkness beyond the world. It was small men with their small acts and their small reasons. It was selfishness and carelessness and waste. It was bad luck, incompetence and stupidity. It was violence divorced from conscience or consequence. It was high ideals, even, and low methods." (p.415)
This deflated depiction of the evils men wheedle grounds Red Country in a familiar mire of misery and cynicism, yet ever the canny craftsman, Abercrombie tempers the potential excesses of his text with characteristic warmth and wit. Indeed, paired as it is with an undeniably wicked yet quickly winning sense of humour, the cruel and unusual content of his new novel feels a fleeting thing after the fact, for there is barbed beauty to be discovered amongst the abject horror of it all, in moments of love and laughter; likewise in rare reflections on family and friendship.

Red Country rides a crimson tide, but I dare say the water here is clearer than it appears. Having mastered that balancing act at last, the work of Joe Abercrombie is as blackly fantastic as it's ever been, and markedly more approachable than before. It's a testament to how far the author has come since The First Law trilogy that this superlative standalone should satisfy any and all comers.

That's the now. And the stage is intriguingly set for whatever comes next. What that will be remains to be seen, but there'll be blood, I bet, and if Red Country is any indication, a truly incredible book to boot.


This review was originally published, in a slightly altered form, on


Red Country
by Joe Abercrombie

UK Publication: October 2012, Gollancz
US Publication: November 2012, Orbit

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1 comment:

  1. This book is definitely high on my "I want it" list...possibly even higher now that I've read your review. Abercrombie is one of my favorite fantasy writers, and it's good to hear he hasn't lost his stride.