Red Country by Joe Abercrombie
Red Country is the most recent of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law spin-off books, and I’m genuinely really going to miss this world. I wasn’t convinced at first, but as has often been the case with Abercrombie’s books there was a tipping point where I realised I was absolutely hooked, with the slower ground work at the beginning being all worth it. Red Country doesn’t quite top my personal favourite Best Served Cold, but it’s nonetheless a fantastic read and certainly one of Abercrombie’s best.
Red Country takes place in the Near and Far Country, a relatively untamed frontier between Starikland and the Old Empire. There are two main protagonists. Shy South is a former bandit who has given up her unlawful ways to return to her family farm, tended by her young siblings and her step-father, the gentle and cowardly Lamb. When returning from business in the town of Squaredeal, Shy and Lamb find their farm raided, and her siblings kidnapped. Shy embarks on an epic journey across the Near Country and into the Far Country, following the trail of the kidnappers. The other protagonist is Temple, an unreliable lawyer in the service of the Company of the Gracious Hand, led by none other than infamous soldier of fortune, Nicomo Cosca. With Union Inquisitors in tow, they are entering the Near Country is search of the fled leadership of a rebellion against the Union in Starikland. After a particularly brutal sacking of an innocent town, Temple flees the Company, eventually coming across Shy and a group of travellers who are making their way across the Far Country, to the town of Crease.
There’s an extremely strong Wild West influence in Red Country, with Abercrombie playing around with many Western tropes, but without resorting to cliché. Possibly the biggest difference between Red Country and Abercrombie’s other works is that, for once, his protagonists are actually fundamentally decent people. Where the trio of Glokta, Jezal and Logen of the original trilogy were all terrible people who flirted with doing good before returning to their nefarious ways, Shy and Temple are good people who have, in their past, fallen into evil and murderous ways. Although I liked Abercrombie’s earlier characters, the relentless pessimism of the series was getting a bit wearying, so Red Country’s slightly more positive tone in welcome. Of course, all things are relative, and by most people’s standards Red Country would be a deeply unpleasant, violent and dark book, but compared to his earlier work there in a streak of good at the centre of the whole thing. Red Country is also a much more personal book than the others. The First Law trilogy and The Heroes told of vital moments for The Union, and Best Served Cold started intimate but escalated to epic. The stakes are somewhat lower in Red Country, really only the lives of two children, with a much lesser focus on massive battles. There’s lots of action of course, but it’s grittier and more intimate than the great sieges in Best Served Cold or the Battle of Osrung in The Heroes.
Red Country is just as savagely funny as the rest of the series, and Abercrombie’s unique style has been so refined at this point to being instantly recognisable. He’s not afraid to leave the typical plain prose of the genre behind, and he does an excellent job of conveying not just the appearance of his settings, but the feeling behind them as well. The cess pit town of Crease is particularly memorable and well-drawn, showing Abercrombie’s impressive world building ability.
The new characters of Red Country are great; Shy is grizzled and tough, but with a heart of gold, and Temple is witty and charming. In some ways he’s similar to Jezal dan Luthar from the original trilogy, but where Jezal was a coward to the core, Temple is a good man buried under layers and layers of a bad man. I’m always happy to see more from Cosca, the Jack Sparrow of the First Law world, and he’s as amusing and likeable a monster as he ever was. There are some very nice appearances from characters in the earlier books, some as cameos and others with more extended roles. Caul Shivers appears briefly, but is given enough time to allow his story arc which has stretched between Best Served Cold, The Heroes and Red Country time to pay off and resolve in an extremely satisfying manner.
Now, I typically try to go fairly spoiler free in these reviews, and there’s one element of the book whose spoiler status is oddly nebulous. It’s an element which will be completely obvious to anyone who has read the original trilogy, but these books are also aimed at appealing to newcomers, and this part may give away key elements of a major characters history. I’m going to talk about that now, so don’t go any further if you’re not sure.
So, Red Country is the return of Logen Ninefingers. He’s never referred to by that name, not even the Bloody-Nine, but it’s him. Since plunging into the river following his betrayal by Black Dow in Last Argument of Kings, Logen moved south and helped raise a family, putting his bloody life behind him and taking the new name of Lamb. As the story goes on, Lamb is forced to become Logen again, and the steady stripping away of the pretence of gentleness and the re-emergence of the Bloody Nine is absolutely thrilling to read. There’s something tragic about it too; Logen had finally succeeded in putting his past behind him and building a new life, but the overarching theme of this novel is that nobody can really escape their past. I enjoyed Logen a lot in the original trilogy, but I think it’s in Red Country that I’ve liked him best.
Red Country isn’t necessarily the best received of Abercrombie’s books, but it’s certainly one of my favourites. I’m definitely looking forward to giving Half a King, Abercrombie’s new book set in a new setting, a go, but I’m also hotly anticipating Abercrombie returning to this world. It’s a good ‘un.