As a fan of Joe Abercrombie’s other books, such as The Heroes, Red Country was a must-read for me. Even though I had no idea what Red Country was about, or how it might be related to his previous stories, it didn’t really matter because I was certain that Joe Abercrombie would entertain me.
Red Country feels almost like a Western in the way that the towns are laid out — there’s a quasi general store and a the local saloon, for example — and I was starting to wonder if Abercrombie was breaking away from his usual setting. But the conditions, as in all of Abercrombie’s other stories, are pretty rough, and so very realistic. Red Country has a good setting for the type of hard story that Abercrombie writes.
Shy South is a girl with a hard past. She’s been in trouble before in her life, the kind of trouble that has left her always looking over her shoulder and wondering if she is well and truly out of it. Her natural intelligence, slightly coarse manners and generally tough demeanor make her the perfect caregiver for her younger brother and sister. Life is not easy for Shy and her family, including Lamb and other hired hands that help them work their farm, but it’s not a life without a future and good prospects.
Shy’s somewhat tragic life gets wrapped up with the tumultuous gold rush heading from the Near Country to the Far County. It’s like the great Western migration as companies of people, some poor and looking for something better, and some not so poor and hoping to stay that way, are travelling to make their future. (The feeling of being in a Western is really kind of disconcerting because there are no six-shooters or stage coaches here.)
The recurring theme of Red Country is that the past doesn’t always stay in the past. For Shy and other characters in the story, choices they have made in the past keep coming back to haunt them. From the hired hand who was once a soldier, to a member of a migrant mercenary company who has run from one problem to another all his adult life, people are continually plagued by what they did long ago. The beauty is that Abercrombie allows some of them to grow. The moments when choosing to continue as you have been or choosing to stand for something, even if your motivation is just that you are sick of being who you were, are when real personal change can occur. It’s not always pleasant to read about and at times the story is downright gruesome.
Red Country left me thinking. The story was entertaining, the characters memorable and tragic, but what really impressed me was the way that Abercrombie made me think about how much someone’s past dictates their future. Are there things that we can’t run from, that so define us that trying to deny them is futile? Well, in the world that Abercrombie writes, you can decide for yourself. For me, Red Country makes a great book.
Red Country is technically a stand-alone novel, but like Joe Abercrombie‘s other stand-alones (Best Served Cold and The Heroes), it draws heavily from events that transpired in his FIRST LAW series. Reading Red Country before FIRST LAW will spoil things for you and you will lose out on a lot of the fun surprises and mystery characters that Abercrombie has set up for fans of the previous books.
The events in Red Country take place in a location west of the setting of the other books. The story draws heavily from Old West themes that are prevalent in American Western movies and folklore. The mud, dust, cattle, wagons, and scruffy adventurers are all here. Abercrombie unapologetically paints the scene with the brush of an old Clint Eastwood movie. I was even expecting those ominous whistled notes followed by a tumbleweed rolling through a dusty ghost town. Firearms do not really exist in this world yet, so everyone is still carrying swords. You can picture it like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly with swords. There was a very specific feel Abercrombie was going for, and he nailed it.
Fans of medieval fantasy that are unwilling to accept departures from that mold may find themselves feeling a little out of sorts with Red Country. My response to them is “too bad.” You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You loved Abercrombie for spitting in the eye of modern fantasy tropes only up until the point he decides to mess with your own particular beloved trope. There is nothing wrong with the setting Abercrombie created for Red Country, and it meshes perfectly well with the world he already established in previous stories. I thought the Western elements were brilliantly executed, and it provided yet another refreshing angle from Joe Abercrombie.
The story itself is fairly straightforward in its premise. A plains farming family already familiar with tragedy is victimized by bandits, and their children are stolen. The remaining adult sister named Shy, and their stepfather called Lamb are determined to get them back. The journey to save the children gets increasingly difficult, complicated, and violent as the story progresses. Everyone has a past that seems to hang over them. The decisions they made years ago suddenly have significant ramifications in the present. As with any Abercrombie tale, it is often hard to tell who the good guys are, but the characters are easy to sympathize with even if they’re rotten bastards.
The gore and violence is ever-present, and the main cast is in constant peril. It’s a given from the start that a lot of the cast will not make it to the end of the book. Every Abercrombie novel I’ve read so far has had certain moments that really made me react strongly, usually to some terrible plot event. In Best Served Cold there was a moment where a character was tortured to the point of breaking. It was so real, and visceral — it stuck with me, maybe even disturbed me a bit. The Heroes had one or two of those moments as well — moments I will never forget. Moments that changed how I perceive fantasy fiction and its place in literature.
Red Country did not have those moments for me. There were plenty of great moments, but at no point did I feel like I got sucker punched. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Justin, why on earth would I want to be punched… unexpectedly even?” Well, because good writing should make you feel something, and great writing will make you feel something more. Brilliant writing will make you cry yourself to sleep that night. In some of my favorite Abercrombie books there are moments of brilliant writing. Red Country was very good; it just seemed to be missing a hard hitting moment.
I know that seems like a pretty hollow complaint. Sorry Joe, but your book didn’t “change me” so I won’t give it 5 stars. As unfair as it is, it’s my reason for a half-star deduction. Abercrombie has set the bar so high that not keeping me awake at night becomes a half-point deduction. Red Country is fun, nail baiting, and brutal. All the gritty elements I have come to expect from an Abercrombie story are there. It challenged me in philosophical and moral ways, and it continues to push the boundaries on what we expect to see in the fantasy genre. Any fantasy fan that loves to see the genre bent and tested in creative ways should read Red Country.