Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Red Country

by Joe Abercrombie


Red Country is a story of cowboys and pessimism, set in a lawless frontier land that's about to get much more lawless. Shy South and her family are just about scraping a living by farming near the town of Squaredeal, mostly thanks to Shy's talent for bargaining. Her stepfather, Lamb, isn't nearly as good at negotiating, but Shy has enough bluster for the both of them. But when they return fo their farm, it's all for nothing: men have come in and taken Shy's younger brother and sister, and committed murder. So Shy and Lamb set off in pursuit of a group of child-stealing killers who are roaming the country, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.

Meanwhile the mercenary, Nicomo Cosca, is leading his company of killers around the country, leaving another trail of death. The Company of the Gracious Hand has been contracted to root out a group of rebels, who the Inquisition are keen to torture and stamp out. As they travel, looting and massacring as they go, they always show a notable absence of conscience, mercy, or nobility.

This novel hops from one point of view to another constantly. Sometimes that's a sign of poor writing, but in this book it's part of the point the author is making. There's Temple, the cowardly lawyer who is bothered by his conscience. Inquisitor Lorsen despises the mercenaries and considers himself righteous, whilst the mercenary Jubair justifies everything he does as the will of God, and refuses to entertain any self-doubt. There's a lot of villainy going on, but very few characters who blame themselves for their part in it.

Another interesting theme is the stories that arise out of what happens. Cosca has a writer travelling alongside him to record his "noble" exploits, a proud man who is unused to violence and is very naive about how much glory is involved in warfare. And later in their quest Shy and Lamb join up a group, the Fellowship, led by a famous scout known as Sweet. The stories about Sweet's adventures have taken on a life of their own, and the ageing scout isn't in any hurry to dispel them.

The Fellowship travels west, into open country and the dangers that come with being in the wilderness. But the country is occupied by small groups of savage Ghosts. These are native American tribes in all but name, and they don't welcome the invading settlers. And in the mountains further west there are fierce Dragon People, who guard their secrets and their mountain home carefully. Between them and the warring factions in the town of Crease, there's no shortage of reasons for action and bloodshed. The body count is too high to number. Swords and axes swing with abandon, and even a few more modern weapons appear as progress comes to this world in the form of the start of an industrial age.

In spite of all of the point-of-view shifts, I was rooting for the flawed Temple and Shy, who seems mean but has a soft side. And of course Lamb, who starts out trying to hide his past but keeps discovering that it's very hard to change who he is. There are lots of flawed and interesting characters, and Joe Abercrombie's cynical voice is as humorous and engaging as ever. However, there's a point where the swearing, fighting, and debauchery become a bit too much, both in length and extremity.

There are some good, climactic endings. I say some, rather than one, because Red Country has a lot of characters' threads to tie off, and they do get wrapped up. All of the significant characters get their moments to shine, or die violently, as appropriate. Sometimes this is a little melodramatic and drawn out, but the novel ends with satisfying closure and resonance.

18th November 2013

Book Details

Year: 2012

Categories: Books


  Not For The Squeamish  

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4 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson
Read more about Joe Abercrombie