(2012) Joe Abercrombie, Gollancz, £16.99, hrdbk, 451pp, ISBN 978-0-575-09582-3
This is very much a fantasy meets Western novel set in Abercrombie’s 'First Law' universe. It is a stand-alone book with the advantage that if you have not read his previous works, you will still be able to appreciate the drama unfolding and the introduction of the characters. However, if you have read Abercrombie’s previous works, there is the added bonus of encountering characters from the previous books and of knowing their back stories.
This is the tale of Shy South who comes across as wanting a quiet life and to look after her younger siblings with the assistance of her unassuming step father, Lamb. They venture to town to take care of business and to ensure they are able to make a living on their farm, but upon returning home find it razed to the ground and that Shy’s younger siblings have been kidnapped.
It turns out that Shy’s farm is not the only place to have suffered this fate and as a consequence, Shy and Lamb have to venture forth to find the kidnapped children, knowing that their lives will be in peril and to make matters worse, they will need to collaborate with Nicomo Cosca, an infamous soldier of fortune, and his lawyer, Temple...
If you are familiar with Abercrombie’s works, you will be familiar with his writing style, but for those who are not, it’s gritty, earthy and brutal, set in a pre industrial world with a dose of fantasy thrown in. I say a dose as the heart of the story is very much the characters and the dilemmas they find themselves in, with the fantasy element being present but not overplayed – and when it is utilised, it’s done in a surprising and unexpected way.
The setting of the story sets it apart from standard fantasy backgrounds by blending elements of a Western with Abercrombie’s better known fantasy backdrops. This has the advantage that it adds variety to his First Law world universe, illustrating to the reader the variety of landscapes and environments that exist within that setting.
There is a gold rush going on and the opening scenes take place within what is essentially a frontier town, plus the 'Ghosts' of the piece seem to be an interpretation of Native American Indians. This adds individuality to the environment and works well as a background of the tale that is unfolding.
The battle scenes are graphic telling of the experiences of the characters plunged into the heart of conflict. Given the kind of world the tale is set in, this explicit type of storytelling blends perfectly world exploration with driving the plot. However, there are moments of humour that lift the mood – once again, this is not overplayed and adds a welcome relief in an environment of conflict and betrayal. There is also a fair amount of swearing in the novel, but given the gritty nature of the characters it comes across as simply the way they speak and not for shock value.
Having said that, despite the verbal hostility, the lead characters work together well and their quest to find Shy’s younger siblings really does draw you in. Hints at their pasts leave the reader wanting more, something I felt when Shy asks Lamb whether he had always been called Lamb... Shy herself is a strong character whose desire to find her siblings provides a cohesion point for the narrative.
Temple adds some more to the mix when he finds himself in situations where he is like a fish out of water. That being said, it is an ideal opportunity for character development and the way he handles the challenges in his path with determination adds more to the characters' points of view. I was not sure what to make of him at first, but his point of view conveys his trying his best to adapt to challenging circumstances when all does not go his way.
This novel does not quite live up to Abercrombie’s previous works but only very marginally so. I felt the storytelling could have done with being a little tighter and then again there are times when there are peaks of the drama unfolding when I could not help feeling there could have been just a little more.
Once again, a number of the background characters add another depth to the narrative but in some cases could have done with a little more elaboration given the hints we do have as to their nature.
The ending is well done but I cannot help but feeling it was a little rushed: again there might have been a little more.
Nonetheless, Red Country is still a very enjoyable read. But personally speaking, anyone wanting to give it a go is advised to start with Abercrombie’s other works earlier in the series (beginning with The Blade Itself) so as to get the satisfaction in this novel of seeing familiar faces reappear, but that being said Red Country still can work perfectly well as a stand-alone.
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