Like the characters in his novels, Joe Abercrombie is not a man to be taken lightly. Launching his writing career in 2006 with The Blade Itself, his First Law trilogy was heralded by the legendary genre publishers Gollancz as a major event in modern fantasy, and their confidence remains justified, with consistent critical praise, placements on the bestseller lists and the continued success of series, as evidenced by the release of his sixth volume, a tale of life on the frontier where bravery boils down to an unstable mixture of obligation and desperation.
From the start, Abercrombie’s novels have been to the quests of virtuous heroes epitomised in the classic fantasy of Lord of the Rings as modern westerns such as the remade True Grit and The Assassination of JesseJames… are to their sanitised predecessors of fifties Hollywood: colourful and epic but monochromatic in characterisation and bloodless in execution, a romantic interpretation of the foundation of a country that can be told more honestly now time has passed and censorship has relaxed. It would be untrue to say Abercrombie’s characters are not afraid to get their hands dirty, for frequently that is what they would most like to avoid, but inevitably in a world of misery, pain and squalor nobody is ever far from violence and death.
The western comparison is chosen deliberately, as in Red Country, the third standalone novel set in the same realms as The First Law, Abercrombie has moved from the battleground of The Heroes and the twisted revenge saga of Best Served Cold to offer the company of a band of disparate travellers forced together by happenstance and circumstance, some seeking a new life, some driven from their homes, some on the run, but for Shy South, her need is unique. Her home destroyed, she believes her younger brother and sister have been taken, possibly to be sold into slavery, and with a lumbering softly spoken farmhand, the appropriately named Lamb, she is tracking the brigands across the land to the Far Country to rescue them.
Running parallel to this, a group of mercenaries led by General Nicomo Cosca, in the company of his lawyer Temple, his biographer Sworbreck and the Inquisitor Lorsen, are also moving west, seeking out rebels who would stand against the Union and executing them, anyone who gets in their way, and indeed anyone who has anything of value they desire. It seems there is always one more battle just around the corner, but they are never glorious, only bloody. These two narrative streams are suddenly and unexpected swept together in a scene that owes more than a little to Abercrombie’s first dip in the river of The Blade Itself.
With two parties in transit, the cast is large, but every minor character is given a moment, a scene to visit their thoughts, sharing how they came to be, with even the most apparently inconsequential torturer more than just an expendable background player, and few are who they first appear. For all his reputation, Cosca is soon seen to be drunken and underhanded, with scant regard for rules of engagement so long as his forces are victorious, whereas Temple, “a man so slimy he would have found employment as axle grease,” quickly becomes a much more interesting and sympathetic character, trapped in circumstances he is desperately trying to better when they are unexpectedly changed for him.
A repeated theme through the book is the dreams of the characters, the hopes that things might get better, but from the opening pages of greed and desperation, a migration of people fleeing war, there is little chance that a new land will change anything. In the words of Caul Shivers, a survivor of Abercrombie’s previous novels, “I had dreams of being a better man. I woke up,” yet some will manage to be better men in the course of the book, achieving more than perhaps they even expected despite their acknowledged shortcomings.
This is not to say that the story is relentlessly grim; in fact, through the death, mayhem, kidnapped children and genocide, the characters are armed not only with blades and flatbows but with dry wit, and scenes often develop in unexpectedly humorous directions, making the trek into the harsh mountains faster and more enjoyable for the reader than the characters. The frequent battles, while bloody and upsetting, are also exciting, and true to the form of the western there is even a stagecoach race with the baddies following on horseback, trying to reclaim their suddenly liberated stolen booty.
For those who feel fantasy isn’t their thing, an escapist frivolity with no real world importance, Joe Abercrombie might be a place to start. As Sworbreck explains his role, “I hold up the mirror of past glories to expose the moral collapse of today,” and though we may not live in this world, the suffering of the weak and disenfranchised is universal: “Every nation was rich in different ways, but poor in the same.”
Nor is it necessary to have intimate knowledge of the previous novels in order to follow this novel or appreciate it; there are recurring characters, but it is complete in and of itself, a new world to explore, a new frontier, though not one that will be tamed without challenge and risk. “The world out there is a red country, without justice, without meaning.”