Monday, May 06, 2013

Red Country, a Review

Shy South is a foul-mouthed piece of barbed wire layered thick over a sandpapered-yet-beating heart.  Her life consists mostly of tending her farm, along with her step-dad (Lamb), her two siblings, and a ranch hand.  When she and Lamb return from a trip to town to find their farm burnt to the ground, the ranch hand hanged, and the children missing, Shy’s life changes.

Temple is a man of many professions, most recently employed as a lawyer to a gang of ruthless mercenaries.  Temple always takes the easy road in life, no matter the cost.  But the years of this taking the easy road are catching up with Temple, and sooner or later something will have to give.

Red Country is Joe Abercrombie’s sixth book in the world of The First Law.  Years have passed since the original trilogy.  The Union is ever growing, expanding to the prairies and empty lands of the Near Country and the Far Country.  Dark skinned Ghosts attack with the wind, quick and sneaky, eager to cut the ears off of trespassers on their lands.  Through this wild and untamed country Shy follows a trail, stopping at nothing to get back her brother and sister.

I find it interesting that Abercrombie, a master of trope subversion, falls back on a rather clichéd incident for Red Country.  A burning farm.  Kidnapped children.  This is nothing original to the Western genre.  Nevertheless, taking these tropes and placing them in the blurred fantasy world Abercrombie does yield some entertaining reading, albeit flawed.

It seems like many people enjoy Abercrombie’s gritty Realism feel.  I like that style to a degree, but this is not the predominant reason I like his books.  Indeed, this was what I rather disliked with Best Served Cold.  Abercrombie writes characters who are amoral and wretched, often portrayed with little-to-no redeeming qualities.  Altruism does not exist in his world.  Because of this, the reading is often heavy and bleak.  What I like about Abercombie’s world is his worldbuilding.  The history is mysterious and deep.  The magic is barely there, but enough to keep me intrigued.  I’m okay with shady characters, but I really connect with the worldbuilding.

Red Country is a Western and it’s a Fantasy.  I’ve been a fan of Westerns for a good portion of my life (at least through film).  I like the slow pacing of a Western, the simplicity of the plot, the landscapes and colors.  Red Country was slow (almost too slow, honestly) when it needed to be, but the action was intense whenever presented.  Abercrombie did a wonderful job of painting the untamed countryside.  He even did a great job blending this genre into his already developed universe.

So after all of this, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed with Red Country.  In some ways it was anticlimactic, as if Abercrombie matter-of-factly orchestrates events for these characters with little fanfare.  I was also somewhat underwhelmed with Shy.  It felt like she was reluctant to open up to even herself, and throughout her POV chapters I often felt as a viewer.  Temple, on the other hand, was engaging and much more interesting.

Despite some disappointment, I still very much enjoyed Red Country.  It improved upon the bleak, violence that Best Served Cold (my review here) offered.  It also had a more interesting plot than The Heroes (my review here), even if the action was less intense.  All in all, Joe Abercrombie knows how to craft an entertaining story.  More importantly, he knows how to keep me interested enough to read more of his works.  I can only hope to get a little more information about the Fantasy side of his universe with future books.  Give me some magic.  Just a little bit.  And stop making everything so bleak.  Red Country probably isn’t for everyone (especially people that despise Westerns), but it is a worthy addition to Abercrombie’s growing catalog.