Red Country by Joe Abercrombie

Red CountryA review by Nalini Haynes

Red Country by Joe AbercrombieI interviewed Joe 2 years ago while he was researching this novel.  He said,

‘I’m planning and researching, I’ll have you know. Alright, I’m watching the complete Deadwood, Unforgiven, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Ride With The Devil, playing Red Dead Redemption a lot and reading a lot of classic and revisionist westerns. Can you guess what sort of book I’m planning to write?’

Red Country is that novel, with the above influences evident. I interviewed Joe again in 2012; available in MP4 and MP3 formats.

Shy South and her step-father Lamb go into town to sell their farm’s produce, only to return to their Near Country (mid-western) farm to find Gully, a friend, hanged, Shy’s brother and sister stolen and the farm burnt to the ground.  Shy and Lamb set off in pursuit, intending to rescue the children.  Along the way they join a Fellowship, a wagon train headed to the Far Country (wild west), facing similar hazards to the original real-world settlers.

Cosca is a mercenary with a band of over 500 followers, hired by the Inquisition (read: Spanish Inquisition equivalent) to root out those who rebel against the Union while avoiding Imperial entanglements.  Temple is a lawyer whose poor choices and cowardice have led him to Cosca’s employ.  During the course of the narrative we get to know Cosca, various members of his not-so-merry band of cut-throats, the inquisitor, his henchmen and sundry other parties who find themselves embroiled in this story of revenge and rescue.    Red Country is set in an imagined world, thus the Inquisition, Union and Empire provide a fresh political landscape to an otherwise fairly traditional Wild West novel.

Red Country is written in the third person but from varying characters’ points of view.  This worked well as varying points of view provided a richer story, emphasising the self-justification of the most villainous characters.  I was somewhat thrown when one set of new characters took the limelight during the climax of the novel; it would have been better to have seen their point of view – however briefly – before that point.  Overall this style worked so well that at one point I didn’t want to read on: there were two groups of people that I found I liked and they were set head on for a bloody conflict.  I am reminded of Paul and Storm’s plea to George R.R. Martin: ‘stop killing our favourite characters please.’

Previously I’ve only read The Heroes by Abercrombie; others have told me that was Abercrombie’s best work to date.  I enjoyed The Heroes but I think Red Country is superior.  Although I recognised the black humour in The Heroes, I’m not a huge fan of black humour in general.  Red Country had glints of humour as when panning for gold but didn’t seek to make a running joke of bloody deaths.  I must also confess I’m refreshed to read the occasional book that is not part of a trilogy or a back-breaking doorstopper: Red Country is 451 pages and covers several months.

Abercrombie’s prose is generally good, solid prose well-suited to his content and style; occasionally his descriptions are so poetic I re-read a sentence two or three times.

Red Country can be read as superficially as a blood’n’guts aficionado could wish or it can be plumbed for surprising depth.   Characters sometimes reflect on the nature of civilisation, the motivations of men, choices and their consequences.  There is frequent reflection on the nature and existence of God; this could appeal to the more ruminative religious person but fundamentalists, beware!  Character development is good, with characters either revealing layers, exposing their true depths or changing over the course of months with good justification.

Red Country is like Game of Thrones in that it can be described as ‘not really fantasy’ for those who abhor or cringe at high fantasy.  No-one is casting spells, the First of the Magi is an actor not a magic-user, and the only dragon… [spoilers, sweetie!]  In short, Red Country is a western set in an imaginary world so the author has more creative freedom: for example, international politics provide new plot twists and there are no worries about offending or appropriating indigenous American culture.  Highly recommended.