Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Red Country; Joe Abercrombie

This probably isn't for you if you like your fantasy traditional and whimsical; it's brutal, bloody, relentlessly cynical and depressing. It is also rather good indeed.

In 'Red Country', Abercrombie puts a fantasy spin on the classic Western. All the usual tropes are there - there's even a moment where some characters have to circle the wagons! In fact, it is often more of a Western than a fantasy novel, at least as the term is generally understood. Aside from the locations, which are of course made up entirely (although equally, easily recognisable as the backdrops to many a Clint Eastwood film), you would be forgiven for not knowing it was written in the fantasy genre at all. Sure, the duals have swords instead of six shooters, but other than that...In some ways, there's a parallel there with the later books of the Discworld; as with that series, 'Red Country' really shows the industrial development of Abercrombie's world, particularly with regard to one invention from an earlier book.

The plot is...well, it's there. It's a little slight, to be honest, certainly by the comparison to some of Abercrombie's earlier books. The First Law trilogy was epic, if low fantasy, with multiple POV characters, diverse plot lines, quests, war - the whole thing. After that, 'Best Served Cold' took 'The Count of Monte Cristo', slapped a ragtag bunch of misfits into the middle of it, and dished up a roaring rampage of revenge that took in several countries, an ever changing story and backdrop, and an astonishing amount of violence. His next book, 'The Heroes', was perhaps a more intimate affair, but still told a war story from two sides over several days. 'Red Country'...well, some children are kidnapped, their older sister and stepfather go looking for them. That's more or less it. It's well written, and the plot is a classic one done well, but it isn't as ambitious - or as memorable - as others in the same universe. A particular failing is that the notional villains of the piece aren't really developed in any meaningful way. We know why they do what they do, but we don't see beyond the surface of that - although knowing Abercrombie, that may well be intentional. Most of his outright villains have been pretty petty, selfish individuals, and while that's not an accurate description of the villains here, the general theme of people doing bad things to help themselves/the greater good is well served (for that matter, calling them villains is not strictly accurate. Antagonists, maybe).

As a character piece though, it is much better. The book sees the return of some old favourites from the 'First Law' books, and is a very satisfying conclusion to those character arcs. This is perhaps Abercrombie's greatest strength. While his characters are all too often miserable individuals in a bleak world, all capable of horrific things under the 'right' circumstances, every one of them feels believeable and sympathetic. In 'Red Country', the stepfather Lamb and the sort-of love interest Temple are the standouts, even if both can be fairly dispicable people at times. We also have the return of the mercenary Cosca, a roguish gentleman who claims to have fought in every war of the last fifty or sixty years, often on both sides, sometimes even both at once. Long a fan favourite, we get to see a bit more of how the years have changed him...and it isn't necessarily for the better.

Although strictly speaking a stand-alone novel, similar to 'Best Served Cold' and 'The Heroes', this doesn't work quite as well in that regard. Too much of the book is spent on a major character from the first trilogy, and while that's brilliant if you know what that means, if you've not read them you will probably be very confused by everything that happens with him. Still, all that really means is that it's a good idea to read another three thoroughly good books before this one, so it isn't a major problem!

In summary then, a well written, exhilirating novel, delivering satisfying, meaty characters and a plot that entertains if nothing more. A must read for Abercrombie's fans, but still recommended for anyone with a taste for gritty fantasy.

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