27 November, 2012

Review - Red Country by Joe Abercrombie


You couldn't pay me enough money to read one...and yet mix it with fantasy and I couldn't be more enthralled. Take King's The Dark Tower series and recently this one, Red Country [US] [UK], and obviously I'm a fan of westerns. 

I even try to deny it with my movie choices, but again, some of my all-time favorites are westerns (Tombstone and 310 to Yuma). Why is that? Why do I think I hate them and secretly love them? I even lived in Wyoming (the cowboy state, well, equality state, but may as well be cowboy) for a time. I'm seriously asking this! I must be crazy.

Red Country, as I mentioned, is a western and a darn good one at that. It's not a shoot 'em up western, because they have no guns, it's more of a pioneer trek across uncharted lands and their inherent difficulties and dangers... and dust, lots of dust.

It, very simply, follows the trek of Shy South and her pseudo-father, Lamb, after they return home to find their friend hanged and Shy's much younger brother and sister taken. The only option, then, is to follow. It quickly becomes apparent that Lamb is much more than "[s]ome kind of coward" and readers of Abercrombie's earlier works will almost immediately recognize who he is (the cover doesn't hide much from the discerning eye either for that matter). Although his name is never actually given throughout the entire book!
We also follow a despicable character, as low as low can be, a lawyer named Temple. Okay, he's not that lowly, he just thinks that about himself and having recently finished law school it's nice to have a lawyer who isn't terribly unlikeable as a main protagonist! Usually we get this treatment.

Temple is far too easy for my liking to relate to. He's the type of guy who always goes for the easy way, even taking the easy way when he knows it will only become the hard way. I'm sure there are a few others who may be able to relate as well.

It's just too easy to take the easy way isn't it?

"And Temple always took the easy way. Even when he knew it was the wrong way. Especially then, in fact, since easy and wrong make such good company. Even when he had a damn good notion it would end up being the hard way, even then. Why think about tomorrow when today is such a thorny business."
Temple has had many professions in his life, but his current one as lawyer for the infamous Nicola Cosca (another recognizable face), mercenary captain extraordinaire, making his lawyering the least of what makes him so contemptible at the moment, it's more the company he keeps. Cosca's band of mercenaries is charged with rooting out rebellion, but what they do is anything but. They pray upon destitute towns, killing with abandon.

One of the things that makes Red Country great is that Abercrombie gives us the very interesting interaction between Temple and Shy, one who takes the easy way out with another who does her best, usually meaning hard work, no matter the situation. For me, this was the interaction of what I am compared to what I wish to be. It really got me thinking about looking for excuses and just getting things done. I'm in a position where I can easily blame all my problems on the fact that I don't get much sleep...or I can go out and do something good, make the world better in even the smallest way. The easy way tends only to help yourself.

Before I get any further in this review, I must admit that the only other Abercrombie I've read is his The First Law trilogy, but this book made it quite easy to jump back to old times. Having studied as a lawyer, I've learned that you can argue anything you want, so while I can't compare Abercrombie's newest to his last two offerings, I can find a place for myself. For those who have only read The First Law, you're in for another treat.

Obviously, I need to get back in the saddle, so to speak, and one of the things I've really missed is how quotable Abercrombie is. These lines just jump off the page and make you think about them long afterward. As Oscar Wilde has said, "Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

Here are a couple gems along with that quoted above:

"To be brave among friends was nothing. To have the world against you and pick your path regardless - there is courage." 
"My old commander Sazine once told me you should laugh every moment you live, for you'll find it decidedly difficult afterward." (Cosca)
...and of course my favorite appears again:
"Once you've got a task to do, it's better to do it than live with the fear of it."
Maybe I'm the only one who feels this way, but Red Country didn't feel as dark and cynical as I was expecting and it may be because of Shy's character. While as blunt and ill-tempered as any of the best of Abercrombie's characters, she is so great because she does what it takes no matter what those around her think. There are some other less-than-completely-cynical parts that occur toward the end that help as well.

Even someone as behind in his Abercrombie reading as me knows there are a few things you can expect in any Abercrombie novel. Is there lots of action? Yes, although it has a bit of a slow start, but I remember The Blade Itself being similarly slow and similarly excellent. Blood, guts? Definitely, mainly encompassed by one word, "Lamb." Deep thoughts and great lines? Yes, as mentioned above. Low magic? Yup, you could argue none in fact. Great characters? Abso-freaking-lutely. 

Abercrombie doesn't focus on the world building, although that gets accomplished well enough along the way, he's more about the characters and their relationships. This isn't really a world you want to live in anyway, although if you look around yourself you might just find out you're not far away. Detailed world-building, however, does not belong on the list of "Abercrombie-isms."

Some people may be put off by a bit of a slow start, but once you reach the halfway point you will have a decidedly difficult time putting the book down. This was a great reminder that I need to read more Abercrombie and soon. Red Country manages not only to be a stellar fantasy, but ranks with the best of the western genre as well. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid eat your heart out.

4.5 out of 5 Stars (Very Highly Recommended)

The First Law trilogy
1. The Blade Itself (2006)
2. Before They Are Hanged (2007)
3. Last Argument of Kings (2008) [My very old review.]

Standalone Books Set in the world of The First Law
-Best Served Cold (2009)
-The Heroes (2011)
-Red Country (2012)

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher


Ryan said...

I can't wait to read this. A new Abercrombie book is always a treat. I just recently turned a friend on to his First Law series. Nice review, as always.

Bryce L. said...

Thanks man, Abercrombie really doesn't disappoint. I actually also got a friend reading The First Law and he loved it. Always nice to hear that my recommending machine isn't broken.