I must admit that I was immediately intrigued when, over a year ago, Joe Abercrombie revealed that his next work would be a fantasy Western. I mean, how could my curiosity not be piqued? So I have been looking forward to Red Country for quite a while. And interestingly enough, though there are a lot of mixed reviews regarding the novel, it made me want to read the book even more.
Like Best Served Cold a few years back, Red Country is an extremely gloomy tale filled with graphic and gratuitous violence. There are no good guys, no heroes to root for. Indeed, Red Country is Joe Abercrombie at his darkest, bloodiest, most snarky, and most cynical ever. It might also well be Joe Abercrombie at his best. Although it suffers from a few shortcomings, Red Country remains one of the top fantasy offerings of 2012.
Here's the blurb:
They burned her home.
They stole her brother and sister.
But vengeance is following.
Shy South hoped to bury her bloody past and ride away smiling, but she’ll have to sharpen up some bad old ways to get her family back, and she’s not a woman to flinch from what needs doing. She sets off in pursuit with only a pair of oxen and her cowardly old stepfather Lamb for company. But it turns out Lamb’s buried a bloody past of his own, and out in the lawless Far Country, the past never stays buried.
Their journey will take them across the barren plains to a frontier town gripped by gold fever, through feud, duel and massacre, high into the unmapped mountains to a reckoning with the Ghosts. Even worse, it will force them into alliance with Nicomo Cosca, infamous soldier of fortune, and his feckless lawyer Temple, two men no one should ever have to trust. . .
As was the case with its predecessor, The Heroes, the worldbuilding doesn't intrude much on the storytelling in this one. And yet, even though we don't discover much about the Far Country and its past as part of the Old Empire, Abercrombie did a magnificent job describing the harsh realities of what appears to be a god-forsaken land beyond the boundaries of civilization. Not since Best Served Cold, in which the author's Mediterranean setting truly came alive and lept off the page, has Abercrombie created such an arresting imagery.
In addition, I loved how Abercrombie mixed fantasy elements with Western themes, thus creating something special yet familiar. I was concerned at first, for I doubted that this could be done without something being lost in the translation. But the author managed to incorporate Western motifs into his tale without it losing its fantasy "flavor." The Western influence is not just in terms of setting, far from it. Western themes such as the conquest of the great unknown, the clash between what is supposed to be civilized and uncivilized, greed, justice, etc, were interwoven into the various storylines, creating an even more layered work of fiction. I also liked how the budding first steps toward industrialization were introduced, which is something to look forward to in Abercrombie's upcoming trilogy.
Red Country features all the grit, the blood, the violence, and the wit that have become Joe Abercrombie's hallmarks. The novel's main problem is that it features a decidedly weaker cast of protagonists than what we have come to expect from the author. Even the return of a fan-favorite character cannot change the fact that the cast is subpar compared to Abercrombie's previous works. It might be due to the fact that Shy South and Temple are not always the most interesting or engaging of narrators. Perhaps the narrative would have benefited from additional POV characters? Hard to say. As I mentioned, the humor and the snark are always present. But for some reason, it doesn't always work the way it did in other novels. That being said, I chuckled every couple of pages or so, from start to finish.
The pace is also an issue. Shy and Lamb embark on what sometimes feels as though an interminable journey in search of her siblings. At times, the rhythm is crisp and the book is a page-turning affair. Yet ofttimes, Red Country slows down to a veritable crawl and you have to wonder if such and such chapters were just another excuse for another case of gratuitous bloodshed.
Red Country is another morally ambiguous work with many shades of gray. By daring to mix fantasy elements with Western themes, Abercrombie took a big chance. SFF readers are well-known for not always enjoying going out of their comfort zone and the author takes us to the Wild, Wild West of the fantasy genre. Whether or not fans like it as much as its predecessors, you have to respect Joe Abercrombie for writing exactly the sort of book he wanted to write and for succeeding in mixing two such disparate genres to create something original.
And though Red Country may not be as great as past Abercrombie novels, it is still a top fantasy read for 2012.