Joe Abercrombie

Gollancz (2012)

ISBN 978 0 575 09583 0

Reviewed by Jason Nahrung

It’s no surprise that this latest novel from UK author Joe Abercrombie is dedicated in part to Clint Eastwood. Nominally a fantasy novel set in Abercrombie’s world established in the First Law Trilogy, it is quite the western homage, where quick swords, daggers and crossbows replace six shooters.

Abercrombie conjures a world in which magic is fading – he portrays berserker rage a la Dungeons and Dragons very well, but there are no Merlins or Gandalfs here – and an industrial revolution is around the corner – there is gunpowder, printing presses, early signs of steam power. There is a real sense that the practitioners of unmitigated violence who stride this stage, mostly veterans with more regrets than ambitions, have had their day.

Abercrombie uses multiple points of view to fill out the world, but there are two key characters: Shy, a former brigand who has turned her hand to farming, and Temple, a jack of all trades serving as notary to a mercenary band as the story opens.

Shy’s farm is razed and her siblings kidnapped by raiders, so she sets out with trusty farmhand and father figure Lamb to win them back. Lamb is a man with a past, and how interesting it is to see this character, familiar from previous titles, through Shy’s eyes as his violent past is given full vent on the revenge path.

The pair end up joining a pioneer caravan heading into the Far Country, a disputed territory between two states going through the throes of a gold rush.

The Far Country is a largely hostile environment familiar from many a spaghetti western, inhabited by Ghosts with a certain Native American vibe and a mysterious cult clinging to a mountain stronghold, both bumping into the multinational settlers.

The novel owes much to Eastwood movies Unforgiven, Pale Ride and the ilk, with a generous dollop of history-based television show Deadwood once the caravan reaches the frontier of Crease with its own political struggles underway.

Abercrombie’s use of minor characters to paint details and give a measure of insight into some of the pilgrims’ motivations does wonders for texture but does slow the pace – not so much of a problem when one is trundling across endless plains and any colour is welcome. It also spreads investment, less of a concern for most readers if his rampant sales since The Blade Itself announced his arrival in 2006 are any indicator.

His prose has settled down since that debut, too, with fewer instances of quoted grunts and better controlled stage direction.

What is undiminished is his talent for a clever line, ironic humour and fetching character portrayal: trademarks that overwhelm the occasional subject confusion and annoying present-tense observations about life that are either poorly telegraphed internal dialogue or jarring omniscient commentary, for all their meaningfulness.

Red Country offers condemnation of war and politics, greed and brutality, and offers up pragmatic, realistically flawed characters in a narrative devoid of heroes but inhabited by a rich cast of believable people.

I could’ve skipped one chapter of the denouement, that particular reckoning feeling a tad contrived and unnecessary, but overall enjoyed this journey through the Far Country as it unfolded at its leisurely pace, clomping towards the inevitable culture clash with all the surety of an idea whose time has come.