Review: Red Country
I love Westerns. LOVE them. I grew up reading Louis L’Amour and watching John Wayne movies. When I got older I found I loved the more mature stories in the genre. You know, Unforgiven and the like. Can you even begin to imagine how excited I was when Joe Abercrombie announced his next novel would have Western themes in it? And it would be called RED COUNTRY? If that doesn’t scream Western-styled violence, I don’t know what does.
In short, RED COUNTRY (Amazon) is the best Fantasy Western I’ve read.
Right from the start of RED COUNTRY, we are introduced to a couple new characters, Shy South and Lamb. They represent your typical frontier family with past baggage. They live. Survive. Make ends meet mostly. You find out shortly that Lamb isn’t Shy’s actual father, but he’s promised to raise Shy and her little brother and sister. Lamb is made out to be a coward of sorts, but you know there is more to him than is immediately said.
And then Shy and Lamb return to their home to find it burned to the ground, and Shy’s little brother and sister have been taken. This scene not only acts as the inciting incident for the rest of the novel, but it also serves notice that this is a Western Fantasy novel. Everything has that Old West/Living on the Frontier feel to it. Shy and Lamb start tracking the kidnappers, and this journey is 90% of the story.
While the cast here isn’t as charming (in a gritty way) as the main characters from, say, THE HEROES (EBR Review), Shy, Lamb and Temple (introduced later, and I personally thought he was an amazing character) all have their moments. I think this is mostly due to these characters growing more over the course of the novel than the already-grown characters in THE HEROES. The character development in RED COUNTRY is a bit more reminiscent of the First Law Trilogy, but without a full trilogy to give us a full picture. Make no mistake, this novel has some great characters, but we just don’t get enough of them in varied settings to see their full growth potential.
When I think of Westerns, I expect a slow burn until an explosive ending. In many ways that theme is carried out–maybe even a bit too far–in RED COUNTRY. The beginning is fascinating, and the ending (including a bona fide standoff!) is explosive… but the middle loses its direction in a couple of places. It’s as if Abercrombie was so anxious to show how authentically Western he could make this book, that he did so at the expense of focus and pace. There are a few places that add nothing to the story, and could have been cut completely. In fact, their absence may have made the book a tad better. But the ending, again, makes up for any issues in pacing.
Yes, RED COUNTRY is extremely good. Almost every facet of the novel was incredible. Non-traditional fantasy + Wild West and nearly perfect.
Another nice thing about RED COUNTRY is the absence of women being treated like sex objects. In a previous novel, Shy South would have been objectified and we would have had a few awkward sex scenes. Not here. Her character, and her actions, feel much more grounded and normal. It’s refreshing to see Abercrombie portray a female as a strong protagonist without delving into shock value.
I had one other issue with the novel which strays almost into spoilers. I’ll try to be as vague as possible, but feel free to skip this paragraph if you want. I may ridicule you forever for doing so, but how bad could that possibly be? Anyways, I had a bit of a problem with how quickly the kidnapped children seemed to just say, “Yay! New family!” In one case, one of the children goes from an attempted escape to Stockholm Syndrome in a paragraph. It’s jarring, and it feels forced. I understand the reasons for it, but it just felt rushed to me. In reality it’s a minor nitpick, but when books are this good, those nitpicks stand out.
Yes, RED COUNTRY is extremely good. Almost every facet of the novel was incredible. The non-traditional Fantasy mashed up with a Western was, dare I say, almost perfectly executed. The way people spoke, acted and thought was spot on. The action scenes were absolutely terrific in true Joe Abercrombie fashion, but they felt completely different from the action scenes of his prior novels.
Saloon brawls, standoffs, the introduction of guns, boom towns, fearsome indigenous tribes (called Ghosts in the novel), street fights, and hangings are all mixed in with Sword & Sorcery tropes. This isn’t my favorite Joe Abercrombie novel in every aspect, but it is in some. Joe Abercrombie novels, by now, should be a automatic purchases whenever they are released.
- Recommended Age: 17+
- Language: Joe Abercrombie went Unforgiven on us. It's way violent.
- Violence: Lots and lots
- Sex: Talked about frankly, but no super-long, awkwardly descriptive scenes
Nice review!!! Red Country was the first fantasy I reviewed on my blog, The Arkham Digest, and after reading it a friend of mine went out and bought a copy. He enjoyed it so much that within a few days he devoured every one of Abercrombie's books, much like I did when I first read his short story (featuring Curnden Craw and his merry band) in Swords & Dark Magic.
Although Red Country wasn't Abercrombie's best novel, I still thoroughly enjoyed it and absolutely loved the fusion of gritty western themes (I'm a big western fan myself) with Abercrombie's already gritty fantasy. Guess that makes it one of the grittiest books I've had the pleasure of reading.
I hope this is vague enough to not to be considered a spoiler.
Did Abercrombie tell us who the Mayor was? It was hinted at. I think its the woman from the second book (from Dagoska or something like that) who let the enemies in. The same woman who surfaced in 'Best Served Cold' as the prince's girlfriend.
BTW, was the lawyer viewpoint character in the 2nd book? He was clearly at Dagoska. Abercrombie brings forward minor characters and I read that book a few years ago.
You're spot on about the woman. As for the lawyer….I don't think he was ever mentioned before Red Country.
A cracking good read and a well thought out plot and ending. I am looking forward to his next book already.