Review of Joe Abercrombie's Red Country
When her home is burned down and her siblings are kidnapped, Shy South goes in pursuit along with her cowardly stepfather, Lamb. As they follow the trail, however, the violent pasts of both characters come to light as they are forced into resolving conflicts with skills they’d thought to have left behind them. The narrative also follows Temple, a foreigner and lawyer to the mercenary leader Nicomo Cosca who has been contracted to protect Union Inquisitors and pacify the land for eventual colonization by that country. Temple’s conscience gets the better of him and leads him into collaboration with Shy and Lamb. In an uneasy alliance, they cross the Far Country and come across bandits, homesteaders, wagon trains, nomadic natives, and frontier towns gripped with gold fever.
Most traditional genre elements from fantasy literature are either subverted or replaced by western style tropes: there is virtually no magic, technological progress like primitive fire arms and steam power crop up, and the quasi-European Medieval setting introduced by Tolkien that has become the standard of fantasy literature is replaced by a lawless prairie that ends in rugged mountains. Though there are a few scenes and elements that echo The Lord of the Rings, Red Country actually is more similar to Unforgiven.
Woe to Live On
A common theme in Abercrombie’s works is the desire of characters to be better people. Shy, Lamb, and Temple are all ashamed of their violent histories and struggle—with mixed success—to being different if not better than they were. Characters with less conscience like Cosca seem to suffer less, though even he confesses to another sort of pain. During a savage combat and scene of looting, Cosca explains, “I look at things such as this and feel only . . . a mild ennui” (349). There is plenty of violence throughout the novel despite the efforts of many characters to avoid it.
Coupled with the hope of being a better person is the theme of regretting a life in retrospect. Even characters with the best intentions often cause as much harm as characters who are openly selfish or willingly do repugnant deeds like kidnap children. Many characters, central and tangential, express misgivings at what they’ve done, with even Cosca attempting to justify what his actions. “I want a chance to do it all again. To do it. . . right.’ Tears showed in the Old Man’s eyes. ‘How did it go so wrong, Temple? I had so many advantages. So many opportunities. All squandered’” (444). Similarly, when Lamb and a character named Savian find themselves in a tight spot, the latter reflects “You pick a path, don’t you. . . . And you think it’s just for tomorrow. Then thirty years on you look back and see you picked your path for life. If you’d known it then, you’d maybe have thought more carefully” (393). This regret is the tragic flip-side of the desire for advancement, or thirst for a new life on the frontier that motivates so many of the secondary characters; their optimism contrasts with the pain of disappointment at what these characters do with the opportunities presented.
Another theme is the idea of human action set against larger, impersonal forces. Nature often dwarfs the human such as with the vast scope of the Far Country or the effects caused by weather. A wagon train seems tiny and hopeless on its trek across the unforgiving plains. Also, international political gamesmanship crops up as the lives of people far from the centers of power are affected by land-grabs, power plays, and political theatrics that dehumanize the people caught in them. Even when people should come together for mutual benefit, there is frequently discord, treachery, greed, and unenlightened self-interest that it makes social interaction seem worse than a solitary life at the mercy of the prairie or mountains.
Red Country is another excellent fantasy novel from Abercrombie that should be read by people who enjoy his work as well as by anyone who wants to see a substantially different kind of fantasy novel that borrows some steampunk elements and that sits closer to Gilman’s Half-Made World or True Grit by Charles Portis than to any contemporary fantasy novel.
Abercrombie, Joe. Red Country. New York: Orbit, 2012.
© 2013 Seth Tomko