Red Country by Joe Abercrombie

December 3, 2013

They burned her home.

They stole her brother and sister.

But vengeance is following.

Shy South hoped to bury her bloody past and ride away smiling, but she’ll have to sharpen up some bad old ways to get her family back, and she’s not a woman to flinch from what needs doing. She sets off in pursuit with only a pair of oxen and her cowardly old stepfather Lamb for company. But it turns out Lamb’s buried a bloody past of his own, and out in the lawless Far Country, the past never stays buried.

Their journey will take them across the barren plains to a frontier town gripped by gold fever, through feud, duel and massacre, high into the unmapped mountains to a reckoning with the Ghosts. Even worse, it will force them into alliance with Nicomo Cosca, infamous soldier of fortune, and his feckless lawyer Temple, two men no one should ever have to trust. . .

The past never stays buried . . .

After reading the book blurb above you could easily be mistaken for thinking that Joe Abercrombie has flipped his lid. Where the hell is the grimness? What has happened to the darkness? Shouldn’t there be a fabulously graphic coming together of the two in order to create some sort of vile fantasy by-blow (let’s call it “Grimdark” for want of a better name).

The First Law trilogy was Abercrombie’s take on the epic fantasy opus. The Heroes was a novel that explored the horrors of war, and now, Red Country heads off into the territory of the Western. I’ll admit to being a little sceptical before I began reading. I found myself continually going back to the big question – can a fantasy novel and Western inhabit the same space and happily coexist with one another?

Shy South is used to hardship. Running a farm in the middle of nowhere has created a woman of single-minded purpose and determination. When her younger siblings are kidnapped she sets out to find them. She refuses to let any obstacle get in her way and will move heaven and earth to find her family. At first meeting Shy comes across as hard, almost unfeeling, but there are hidden depths to this young woman. She is much more than just your average homesteader.

The other main character is a Northman, known only as Lamb. Some try to distance themselves from the past while others, no matter how far they travel, just can’t seem to escape it. Lamb has lived a peaceful, almost solitary, life for years but a series of events out with his control force him back into a place he thought he had left far behind. This character was the real highlight of the novel for me. There are some wonderful moments where we get to discover what’s going on in the mind of this world-weary man. Lamb is seeking peace but finds only violence. There is an astonishing split second of acceptance about three quarters of the way through when he finally succumbs to his inner demons. That revelatory instant manages to convey a plethora of emotions in a single beat. It’s truly stirring stuff.

Lamb has, over the years, become a surrogate father-figure to Shy, and she is blissfully ignorant of his dark past. To Shy, Lamb is just “some kind of coward”, the scenes between the two are riveting. As the plot unfolds, Lamb slowly rediscovers/reveals his true self and Shy realizes she is caught up with a man she thought she knew but who she doesn’t really know at all.

The other characters are just as delightful. Corrupt mercenary captains and army deserters rub shoulders with shifty business men and all other manner of scum. Nicomo Cosca in particular has a spectacularly florid turn of phrase which manages to be both amusing and nasty in equal measure, I liked him.

Let’s not forget that, though it features the trappings of a Western, Red Country does still owe some of its existence to the fantasy genre. The politics that Abercrombie has explored in previous novels also make a welcome appearance. There is a compelling sub-plot that sees forces representing the Union, the Ghurkish Empire and even the native tribes, the Ghosts, all against one another.

Grimdark, if you’ll excuse the turn of phrase, splits people right down the middle. Some relish it and all its brutal glory, while others consider it that one step too far. I can certainly appreciate that for some readers it is too much, but personally though I’m a fan. I’ll grant you characters really suffer, in any number of different ways, but it always feels like there is a sense of hope. The possibility for redemption, especially for a flawed character, is a tantalizing prospect to behold.

As you’d expect from this author, if you’ve ever read any of his work before, things get properly bloody. Red Country is not a novel for the faint of heart. Violence isn’t supposed to be glamorous, it’s supposed to have a brutal rawness and Abercrombie knows just how to capture the unrestrained chaos of a single moment. People die, often in a violent and graphic fashion, nothing ever gets sugar-coated. The writing doesn’t ever shy away from the consequences of any actions. I suspect, at least in part, that is the intent of this novel; characters learning to embrace their fundamental nature.

Yes, things get dark, yes thing get brutal. Hell, I’ll freely admit that I felt mentally drained by the time I reached the last page, but damn if it wasn’t worth it.

Once again, Abercrombie has decided that rules are there to be broken–can’t say I blame him, it sounds like fun–and has decided to try something new. With referential nods to genre classics like The Searchers, True Grit and Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, Red Country manages the impressive feat of being both a dark fantasy novel and a Western at its core.

By the way, the answer to the big question from earlier on is an emphatic YES.

Red Country is published by Gollancz and is available now.


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