Review: Red Country by Joe Abercrombie

Red Country is the third of Abercrombie’s stand-alone books, after Best Served Cold and The Heroes. While all three books can be read in isolation they are based in the same world as The First Law trilogy and feature some well-loved characters.

Abercrombie draws, in part, on his experience as a film editor when writing and he has likened Best Served Cold to a gangster/revenge movie set in something like a Machiavellian renaissance Italy, and The Heroes to a big-picture war film like Waterloo or A Bridge Too Far. His new book, Red Country, with its air of ‘narrowed eyes’ and ‘clenched jaws’, is firmly set in the fantasy equivalent of a good western.

As with all his books Abercrombie likes to tell a story in tight close-up, where the reader feels uncomfortably pressed-up against the characters and knows exactly what they’re feeling. Red Country is no exception, with vivid depictions of the squalid and violent lives of people chasing the elusive goal of a quick profit in the fantasy equivalent of the Klondike gold rush of the late 1890’s. The story centres on Shy South and her stepfather Lamb and their mission to rescue Roe and Pit, her brother and sister, who were stolen by bandits. Their journey takes them across the Far Country, where their bloody pasts slowly catch up with them.

Abercrombie uses his writing to explore the difference between heroic motivations, heroic actions and heroic outcomes. With Red Country he takes a slightly different slant on this theme. His opening and closing chapters are entitled ‘Some Kind of Coward’ and refer to the character aptly named Lamb. Here, it is Lamb’s seeming cowardice that turns out to be—as opposed to the one man against impossible odds in the intervening chapters—the true heroism.

None of Abercrombie’s characters fit neatly into the hero mould—in fact most are variously ambitious, incompetent, profiteering, selfish, greedy and violent. Nicomo Cosca, captain general of the Company of the Gracious Hand—an undisciplined group of about five hundred mercenaries—has never been a trustworthy soul, and here at the end of his career he is determined not to be disappointed again. He will secure, at any cost, his final big payoff.

Temple is presented as a slimy, self-serving lawyer that always takes the easy way, even when he realises that the easy way will probably turn out to be the hard way in the long run. He works as the notary for Nicomo Cosca and draws up the contracts that result in the looting, rape and wide scale destruction that is the modus operandi of the Company of the Gracious Hand. Temple is an unlikely hero who, over the course of the story, finds something he is prepared to risk himself for. He listens to his conscience, even though he knows it is a ‘shitty navigator’.

Even Dab Sweet, the famous scout with a raft of heroic deeds to his name, turns traitor to secure enough money to retire on. This act helps push him, in the end, to make some restitution by helping Shy South to rescue Lamb—though Dab Sweet’s primary motivation is revenge against Nicomo Cosca.

This is also a book about the old giving way to the new. The discovery of gold in the distant hills and a failing rebellion against the Union has drawn the greedy and the desperate to the Far Country. The journey of Shy and Lamb heralds the decapitation the power of the Ghosts who claim the open grasslands as their own and leads to the destruction of the last creation of the Makers—a huge mechanical dragon—and the slaughter of people and knowledge alike.

Abercrombie reveals the inexorable progress of time, the frailty of ancient wisdom swept away by the modern invention of gunpowder, the clean air of the foothills clogged with the belching smoke of new industry. We see the magnificent ruins of a forgotten people smothered by the ramshackle buildings and accumulated filth of the invaders. It turns out that there was precious little gold in those hills, but plenty of coal.

In the end we see Company of the Gracious Hand under new command and turning its heels to the Far Country. Shy setting up a new life with her brother and sister, and Lamb facing the ghost of his old life.

‘A man’s got to be what he is,’ Lamb says.

And in the style of all the best westerns, rides off into the sunset.

This is a book well worth reading. A fine example of Abercrombie at his best.

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