Thursday, 22 November 2012

'Red Country' - Joe Abercrombie (Gollancz)

When I went to the Fantasy Faction Blackwells event, back in August, Joe Abercrombie was understandably surprised that I still hadn't read 'The Heroes'. I was quite surprised myself; in fact the only person who wasn't surprised was my daughter and her habit of taking books off me while I'm trying to read them...
This was going to be a 'Heroes' review then but Abercrombie had to spoil things by having another book published in the meantime ;o) A book that somehow came on holiday with me rather than its predecessor. A book that hinted at the return of a favourite character of mine...

That review of 'The Heroes' is going to have to wait a little while longer then but hopefully not too much longer. 'Red Country' is another excellent read that has got me eager to go back and finally fill in that last gap. I'm guessing that everyone who is going to read 'Red Country' will have done so by now. If you haven't though... I'll do my best to avoid spoilers but you have been warned.

Shy South thought that she had left her bloody past far behind her but her burnt out homestead and missing siblings suggest otherwise. It's time to hit the trail again, this time to get her family back. Her only companion on the trail is her cowardly Uncle Lamb, a man running from a bloody past of his own. In the Red Country though, everyones past will catch up with them sooner or later...

Reading 'Red Country' made me realise that it has been far too long since I read anything by Joe Abercrombie and I won't leave it that long again. I've got another couple of books that I want to read first but 'The Heroes' is now officially very much back on the 'To Read' pile because of the fun that I had reading 'Red Country'. It's not a perfect read (not like 'Best Served Cold' was) but it's so close that I feel a little guilty for mentioning the little niggly bits. More on those in a paragraphs time...

Before we kick things off, I ought to say that I'm not a big watcher/reader of Westerns these days. I've reviewed a couple of 'genre westerns' here and I've had to sit through repeated viewings of 'Calamity Jane' (long story), that's about as far as it goes. If you're after a more qualified opinion on whether Abercrombie hits that 'Western target', I'd be clicking Here. As far as I'm concerned... If Westerns are about wide open spaces, wagons, bar room brawls, the natives getting a raw deal and a quest for redemption then Abercrombie hits the nail right on the head. My little trip to the Far Country left me with a dry mouth, from all that trail dust, and a grudging respect for a cast of utter bastards who nevertheless stand firm against an inhospitable country that wants settlers to just turn round and go back where they came from. Abercrombie paints the Far Country in broad strokes, creating an epic backdrop for our cast to toil against. ‘Red Country’ is a book that demands a backdrop like this but I personally found it a little too big. It felt to me like that backdrop actually overshadowed the story when the plot really needed to take centre stage and get moving. I'm talking about those long, just a little too drawn out, wagon journeys that I just wanted to end so the story could continue. I think Abercrombie might have done his job a little too well here...

It's a good job then that the plot more than makes up for this.

Upon a first glance, you might think that 'Red Country' is a little too simplistic, it certainly looks like it. Shy's family is kidnapped so Shy goes to get them back (with her uncle in tow), that pretty much sums it up. There’s a lot more to it than that though and it’s to Abercrombie’s credit that it all ties back into the story. No filler here, at least no filler apart from those slightly ponderous wagon journeys that I mentioned just now.

Abercrombie basically pulls it off by populating ‘Red Country’ with some thoroughly reprehensible people who actually want to do the right thing (even if they don’t realise it at the time) as well as at least one man who wants to be good but will realise what a bastard he still is. You know whom I’m talking about here… I personally liked the way that Abercrombie never actually calls this character by his old name. You know who he is (the fight with Glama gives it away) but there’s a little mystery there that I like.
With a cast like this, ‘Red Country’ becomes a novel crammed full of individual journeys that you can’t help but want to follow (especially when hints are dropped about where the series might go in future). There are children to find and a wagon full of gold that could end up anywhere, that was enough to keep me occupied in itself as Abercrombie fills his plot full of little twists and turns. These personal journeys really open up the characters and Abercrombie is brutally honest about what you will find inside. What makes for gripping reading here is that Abercrombie leaves everything wide open. A bastard can be a bastard and somehow find redemption at the end of the book… or bleed out on the floor of a frontier brothel. It could go either way and I found that I had to keep reading to see which way the dice fell.

When you factor in Abercrombie’s ability to write engaging dialogue alongside brutal scenes of combat, ‘Red Country’ swiftly becomes a book that you can’t put down until you absolutely have to. The backdrop may weigh a little too heavily on the plot but that plot makes for a thoroughly satisfying read. Now I need to start on ‘The Heroes’ again.

Nine and a Half out of Ten

3 comments:

philnorris63 said...

I've been holding off writing a review myself for a while now, simply because I'm uncertain how I feel about the book.It was highly enjoyable, but - like you - found certain sections dragged on. Personally for me the chapters spent riding drag with Temple could have been broken up with what was going on with Cosca.

I got the feeling with this book that Abercrombie is drawing a line under events/characters so far featured. This is based on a recent interview where he states his next project - another trilogy - will be set some 20 odd years after Red Country.

As a winding up novel it does that with the demise of one (and my personal) fan favorite and the other riding off into the sunset. It also sets up a younger cast of characters (I don't think this is the last we've seen of Pit or Ro, ot maybe even Shy or Temple) that will feature in the coming trilogy.

Elfy said...

While I thoroughly enjoyed Red Country and rate it as one of the better 2012 releases I still think The Heroes was a better book. You should enjoy that too, Graeme.

Paul Miller said...

I really enjoyed 'Red Country' and while the story may have been a little 'sprawling' the pacing (I had no problems with time spent on the wagon train) was spot on and the dialogue was amazingly good.

'The Heroes' should be picked up and read without any further delay. It is probably a tighter book than 'Red Country' and just shows how much can be made of a single engagement over a few square miles of ground in the hands of a great storyteller.