He caught Handsome’s wrist just as he pulled his axe free, wrenched it up and with the other hand snatched the knife from his fancy belt and rammed it in his groin, dragging up the blade, ripping him wide open, blood spraying the pair of them.
And so goes Red Country. For those living under a rock, Joe Abercrombie is the best living fantasist. Notice, I didn’t qualify that by saying he’s the best living British fantasist, or the best living fantasist who doesn’t write A Song of Ice and Fire, or the best living fantasist who isn’t quite as good looking as China Mièville. I say this, not to trade in unnecessary superlative, but because I genuinely believe it. He’s subversive, creative, authentic, and all together, undeniably, modern.
His original trilogy, titled The First Law, was a fantasy enfilade — hard hitting, gruesome and completely unapologetic for a Nietzsche-esque worldview. It embraced the shifted paradigm of George R.R. Martin’s iconic series and elevated it, not unlike what Martin himself did to his predecessors. The triptych ended with a major character’s life status very much unresolved. While I found it a fitting end, it rubbed many readers wrong and Abercrombie has subsequently been under pressure to reveal his intentions.
Of course, like any good artist, Abercrombie continued to leave his fans wanting more, releasing Best Served Cold and The Heroes. Written ostensibly as standalone novels, they are very connected to one another, if less so than to the First Law Trilogy. They feature an all new cast of main characters, some of which grew out of cameos in previous work.
Red Country is both more a standalone and less — barely connected to his most recent novels, but far more connected to the First Law Trilogy (both in plot and theme). Don’t get me wrong, Red Country is a rewarding experience for the Abercrombie devotee. Easter eggs abound, and characters from yesteryear pop up all over the place. None of the back story is vital for enjoying the novel. In fact, dedicated fans may find themselves frustrated that promised fireworks never come to fruition. It is, however, unquestionably Abercrombie’s most successful application of metafiction.
The First Law Trilogy is a subversion of the epic fantasy. Red Country begins in Squaredeal, a small town on the outskirts of the Union and the Old Empire, desired by both, but occupied by neither. Shy South, a young woman with more responsibilities than she ought to have, and her adoptive ‘father’, Lamb, return home from selling the crop in town to find their farm ransacked and the younger children gone. With only a pair of oxen, they set off to find their kin. Deep into Far Country, a frontier riddled with prospectors, pioneers, and the people who prey on them, Lamb and Shy can’t escape the people they used to be.
In the First Law Trilogy, Abercrombie took many of the genre’s tropes and chomps them up into new shapes, giving his readers a taste of what they expect before he yanks the guillotine’s lever and chops off their heads. By contrast, Best Served Cold and The Heroes behave differently. Playing with some of the same tricks, Abercrombie over lays them with filters from other genre conceits. Best Served Cold is a story of revenge, not unlike The Count of Monte Cristo or The Godfather, and The Heroes tells the story of a single battle, bridging the gap between the idealized fantasy notions of war and the grim reality. Red Country does a similar maneuver using the Western genre, first indicated by a dedication to Clint Eastwood (although his vacant chair gets no mention).
The Near/Far country milieu Abercrombie employs is a simulacrum of the American West during the California Gold Rush. It’s a heavy handed creation that felt overworked throughout the novel. Most noticeably in the opening bits where ‘I reckon’ and leathered skin are more common than Abercrombie’s surfeit of bloody corpses. Set pieces that feel ripped from the big screen, most often calling to mind John Ford classics The Searchers and Stagecoach, don’t always function as they ought to, lacking the dramatic recoil of the six-shooter or the cultural texture of true history.
I found it unfortunate that Abercrombie relied so heavily on these Western ‘trappings’ to solidify himself in his motif. They have little to do with what makes a thematic Western. Taking a look at Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns, the same phenomenon can be observed in that it’s a fantasy despite being set on a future Earth. It’s a fantasy because of the techniques applied. The setting is irrelevant. The same could have been true of Red Country.
A Western requires two elements above all. First, the conflict between man and nature, or reworded, between tradition and progress. This element is perhaps the strongest part of the novel as Lamb and Shy come into conflict with the Ghosts (pissed off Native Americans) and later, the Dragon People (really pissed off Native Americans), who personify the loss of tradition in the face of ever expanding modern affectation:
They will come to your sacred places and build . . . tailors’ shops. And dry-goods emporia. And lawyers’ offices. They will make of them bland copies of everywhere else.
Second, the Western deploys personal and private justice, a sense that what is mine is mine to protect. It’s the theme most closely associated with the plot vis-à-vis Lamb and Shy’s quest to rescue their family. Abercrombie nails both of these points, and several deeper ones, but he does so far too literally.
While Red Country lacks subtly, it’s a testament to Abercrombie’s skill that he’s able to extend his metaphors beyond the expected Western motifs to elicit relevance to the modern day and the fantasy genre itself. Based on the quote above, it might be presumed that Abercrombie is placing a value judgement on progress, that making ‘bland copies of everywhere else’ is a horrific and altogether undesirable thing. Instead, taken in context of the rest of the novel, Abercomrbie seems to decry looking backward.
I find it timely that Red Country is being published weeks after Jo Walton’s novel Among Others won both the Hugo and the Nebula Award for Best Novel (and seems poised to add the World Fantasy Award). Likewise, a year ago, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One was widely lauded. Both novels are steeped in nostalgia, paying homage to things that have come before. They’re deeply connected to the men and women that lived and loved in the eras they aggrandize. Abercrombie might wonder how they’re relevant now.
Beginning with The Blade Itself, he’s made a career of pointing to the rut fantasy finds itself in, regurgitating the same kinds of stories and characters. He’s carried that message through in each subsequent book, but never with the kind of efficacy displayed in Red Country. Don’t get me wrong, Abercrombie isn’t advocating for cultural appropriation or colonialism or futurism. He comes at the issue as an absolute realist. He admonishes not because he believes tomorrow will be better than yesterday, but because tomorrow is inevitable.
That sense of inevitability permeates not just his metafiction, but his characters as well. Shivers, one of the major characters in both Best Served Cold and The Heroes is constantly fighting the man he is, with the man he wants to be. Lamb and Shy both undergo a similar struggle throughout Red Country. Giving nothing away as to how those results come out, I feel comfortable saying that Abercromie never lets them off the hook. There are no free passes and the wish to be something better is not, in and of itself, enough to bring the desired change.
Finishing this review I can’t help but feel that Red Country is something of a missed opportunity. It’s not Abercrombie’s best book, suffering as it does from an over reliance on tropes and a subtext that’s often far too literal. That’s an odd sentence to write for me given my love of his work and his history of gutting reader’s expectations. However, Joe Abercrombie at 90% is still the best thing going. I don’t hesitate to recommend Red Country to readers both new and old, with the caveat that newer readers would be better served starting at the beginning where Lamb isn’t hiding behind a docile exterior.
This review was written from a review copy provided to me by Gollancz, who publish Joe Abercrombie in the UK. I also received a copy from Orbit, who publish him in the United States. I’ve used images in this post from both editions.