by Joe Abercrombie
Cover Artist: Photo Illustration by Michael Frost and Gene Mollica
Review by Benjamin Wald
Orbit Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780316187213
Date: 13 November 2012 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Each of Joe Abercrombie's books has applied his dark, gritty brand of fantasy to a new subgenre--the quest fantasy, the war story, the revenge tale, and now, with Red Country, the western. Like his previous novels, it takes place in the same fictional universe, and features quite a few repeat characters, so that the story becomes all the richer if you have read previous works, but it also stands perfectly well on its own.
Abercrombie explores a set of themes familiar from his earlier works; the difficulty of changing one's character, the hollowness of violence and revenge, the banality of evil. However, he continually manages to find new twists on these themes, making his novels feel fresh. Abercrombie is, to my mind, an essential fantasy author, and each book just gets better.
The story follows Shy South and her stepfather Lamb, who return to their farm in the frontier Near Country to find their farm burned and Shy's siblings kidnapped. They set off in pursuit, towards the Far Country, in the middle of a gold rush. Shy has a dark past, a former bandit who has tried to put this behind her. Lamb, she begins to suspect, has an even darker past, and in the course of the chase he begins to cast aside the slow, passive farmer he has become and return to the bloody killer he used to be.
The other main character is Temple, a lawyer for the infamous mercenary company of Nicomo Cosca. Sickened by the bloodshed he has seen, Temple runs away seeking a second chance, and ends up accompanying Shy and Lamb into the Far Country. But this being a Joe Abercrombie novel, redemption will not be an easy thing to find.
Abercrombie's writing is compulsively readable. He makes use of many of the tropes of the western, with showdowns and dark pasts and marauding "ghosts" who take ears as trophies. However, Abercrombie avoids fetishizing the violence he depicts. One might find oneself cheering the protagonists on as they deal out vengeance to some particularly sordid villain, but in the end this will always be something regretted, or at best accepted as necessary but without glory or satisfaction. This makes for somewhat dark reading, but it's a worthwhile antidote to the parade of movies and novels that depict brutal violence as a solution to one's problems.
Red Country is an excellent new fantasy novel. It is one of Abercrombie's best yet, and shows his increasing command over his themes and writing. This is no Tolkien, it is much more brutal and focuses on the losers and scum instead of the leaders and nobles. I don't think we need to choose one over the other, but I think that Abercrombie provides an important counterbalance to so called "epic" fantasy, as well as being an excellent read in its own right.