by Joe Abercrombie
Published by Orbit
4 Out of 5 Stars
This is my first foray into the world of Joe Abercrombie and for those of you who are about to make the mistake of starting with Red Country like I did, my advice would be to go back and start with the First Law books. Red Country is marketed as a standalone novel and one can certainly enjoy it without having read Abercrombie’s other work, but the reason I’m giving it only 4 stars is because I always felt like I was missing out on something--that there was critical, need-to-know information from previous books that would have elevated this one to giddy kick ass heights. Reading the reviews and comments of other diehard Abercrombie fans, my suspicions have been proven correct. Without reading the previous books, I was doomed to live in the dark as references and revelations that should have held a “holy-shit-you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me” relevance whizzed right on by. Despite feeling like the kid who decided to start wearing stonewashed denim the day after stonewashed denim became decidedly uncool (as it should forever remain), I still really enjoyed the novel.
Red Country is a western/fantasy, a combination that never fails to hook me. However, this is fantasy in the sense that Game of Thrones is a fantasy: there’s little/no magic (although it hints that it may exist, but in a darker, more sinister form than in lighter fantasies), nary a fantastical creature in sight, and no prophecies or fates to fulfill. This is fantasy in that the world in which the novel is set doesn’t exist; however, it’s written so realistically that it seems like the history of ordinary pioneers whose stories were simply swallowed by time. In fact, it’s possible to go entire chapters while forgetting that it is a fantasy, which at first bothered me. It’s so true to the western genre that I thought, “Why not just write a straight western?” The answer, of course, is that the novel fits into the context of a larger world created by Abercrombie and, if I had been exposed to that world by reading the previous books, such a trivial concern wouldn’t have bothered me. As it stands, Abercrombie’s tale of the main characters’ journey to the Far Country (the equivalent of the the Wild West) is gritty, blood-drenched, and populated by people who see violence as a tool to be wielded by those strong enough to use it when necessary. It’s a world where there aren’t anti-heroes so much as anti-villains—all of the characters have dark pasts shaped by need and want and necessity, carrying the guilt of doing what had to be done while possessing a moral code that leaves them painfully aware of why it shouldn’t have been done. All live with the ghost of regret and hope they have left their more violent selves behind.
Such is the case with Shy South, a young woman trying to raise her younger brother and sister while managing the family farm. Shy is a hard-worker and a ruthless negotiator, much too young to bear the burden of providing for so many and much too young to have to outrun a past that includes murder and theft. Shy’s hell-bent on seeing to it that her siblings don’t have to make such dark choices. However, when Shy returns from town to find her farm in smoldering ruins and her brother and sister kidnapped, her past serves her well in her quest for revenge. With only her passive and cowardly step-father, Lamb (whose past, much to Shy’s surprise, makes him far more equipped for the ensuing violence than she is), to help, Shy goes on a journey that brings her into contact with outlaws, pioneers, savages, mercenaries, and a soggy, hilariously droll lawyer named Temple while attempting to find her siblings and bring them home.
Shy’s tale is the axis around which Red Country revolves, but it’s not her tale alone. The novel follows a large cast of characters; it’s like True Grit meets Lonesome Dove. What makes the novel stand above typical fantasy fare is Abercrombie’s talent as a writer. There are no info dumps, and he’s happy to skip ahead to move the action along (for example, when Temple begins building a store for another character, there are plenty of writers who would have drug us through every damn day, describing every nail and every board). He also writes with humor and wit, refusing to imbue his characters with idealized perfection. They wake up with morning breath, they reek after months on the trail, their lovemaking does not read like sexy-time-porn, and they have physical as well as character flaws. What impressed me the most is how he takes characters that from the outside seem like stone-cold bad asses unfazed by anything and explores their internalized fears, regrets, and worries. Their actions may seem heartless, but his revelation of their motivations often makes them anything but. Theirs is a brutal, hardscrabble life where easy choices are hard to come by and an aversion to violence can place serious limitations on one’s shelf life. As one character is told, "The world out there is a red country, without justice, without meaning" (298). That these characters still go on without the guarantee of justice and meaning gives them a heroic bravery despite some often unheroic choices. And, if you ask me, that's the stuff of life, not fantasy.