The Red Country by Joe Abercrombie has been the only book written by my favorite grimdark author which I had not read. Perhaps I had been saving the best for the last. I had left the World of the First Law far behind and already switched loyalties to the cunning Father Yarvi and his rag-tag bunch of rebels in the cruel and cold Viking-esque world of the Shattered Sea. But I had to come back – a full circle to the blood-drenched black and vile country that Joe has so vividly and expertly created in his past few books. The Circle of the World – where all his First Law based books are set in. This time, for one last plunge. Back into familiar grounds – a surfeit of bloody corpses, chopped heads and brutal violence – all laced with dark black humor and razor-sharp banter that digs deep and comes up with bitter truths about life.
Red Country is Western spaghetti by way of the good, the bad and the Joe Abercrombie. It is truly amazing how he manages to subvert the tropes (This time – a lot of strong ones that smack of the Wild West during the Californian gold rush period) we are familiar with [ the lawless western frontier town run by a Mayor, the bar where all the ‘shoot-outs’ happen, the wagons and the large groups that trudged west to dig a gold nugget and find their calling ] and how he maims the predictability associated with such. Not just maims. He has a habit of taking an axe and then chopping off body parts without remorse.
Much like Lamb. Who is Lamb you say? A man who’s made his mark on Fantasy literature a few years back with his fearsome repute of being Bloody Logen Ninefingers. While Abercrombie never comes out in the open and gives us his name, for anyone familiar with the First Law trilogy shouldn’t have issues relating to this man. Berserker, mad raging killer let loose – we’re still not privy to his secrets. As to whether this is indeed a mental makeover he does himself or is it the Spirits getting inside him?
But am getting ahead of myself here. Red Country is basically a tale of redemption. Every main character in the book ( and there are quite a few ones we have come to know from his earlier books!) is broken, has had regrets in the past that they are guilty or ashamed of and in a lonely outpost town at the very edge of civilization, they all yearn to attain that redemption. Make no mistake, there are villains in the story – characters so vile and black that you can see them from miles off – but they only serve as the rein-posts on which the main guys would rest their galloping black stallions and try to rein in. to do good one last time before the wide open gully of guilt swallows them whole.
The story starts with Shy South, a young woman with a colorful checkered past trying to live straight – with her adoptive father, Lamb – some sort of a coward with a mysterious past – coming back to their farm. Only to find their farm burning, a body swinging in the air and Shy’s younger siblings, Pit and Ro missing. It’s a spectacular start to the book and Abercrombie sets the tone straight on – this isn’t going to be a picnic. On the trail of a gang of child kidnappers who are casual about killing and loot – out into the Ghost-ridden plains and the Far Country – their eventual destination being a lawless and unpredictably violent Frontier town called Crease. Enroute, they join up with a Fellowship – a merry band of men and women looking to make their living in this town caught up in the feverish gold-rush. However the town throws up its own band of merry-makers who want a piece of the pie and have their own hidden agenda. Like pit Lamb in a circle of death against another Northman. Much like old times. And into this swirling mad chaos steps in the infamous soldier of fortune, Nicomo Cosca. With his mercenary company looking to capture the rebels against the Union. You would assume this is madness enough – with Joe setting in climactic action set-pieces with its dizzying highs and frustrating lows. Only to plod on again. And the mire only gets murkier.
The book is alive and brimming with broken people with a past haunting their actions. A ghostly whisper at their shoulder guiding their flawed decisions – driving the plot forwards like runaway stallions celebrating their freedom from the wagon-yoke. Take Shy – our leading lady. A fine reversal of tropes wherein she is initially presented as the tough as nails lady who needs no protection. Only softening a bit towards the end – her feelings for Temple, a disgraced lawyer who is ashamed of his past for not having stood by for what is right – a clear indication of the warm-hearted girl beneath that prickly hard exterior. Temple is a delight. I loved this character the most [ after Lamb of course!] A man who does a 180-degree U-turn on his disgraceful life and develops a semblance of dignity by the end of the events described. It is easy to despise him in the beginning and even right through the book, he makes no bones about being courageous or standing up for what is right. He leads his life – like a leaf loose in the wind – battered by fate, going wherever the tide turns. But as is with most characters in Joe’s world, this is the guy who undergoes the best transformation and for the better.
Nicomo Cosca, embittered by his fall from grace in Best Served Cold, is back in blazing form in Red Country. He is like a spring – all bravado and blustering drunk, the Old Man makes the best quips about life’s uncertainties and is a pleasure to get back in touch with. There are countless others who make their mark in their brief appearance in this long tale – Dab Sweet, the scout with a legend larger than life, Savian the silent tough guy with his own secrets, Majud the merchant who wants to carve a living in the slushes of the Gold-rush town, Nicomo’s miserable bunch of mercenaries with their own batch of eccentricities. All of them add their unique stamp to the proceedings.
Lamb – sadly though doesn’t have a POV. In spite of being the clear star of the whole narrative. Indeed, driving most of the plot and majority of the action forward like an unstoppable freight-train. While this may have robbed us of his own internal demons, I think witnessing the fearsome bloody acts through the eyes of others itself was reward enough to have read this book. For those who were left in the lurch at the end of the First Law trilogy wondering about the fate of the man they all loved, here he is in blazing red hot form. With dollops of quiet wisdom and skull-splitting badassery on the display, it should be enough to keep us fans satisfied for sometime now.
Of all the standalone novels, I think the Red Country is indeed the finest by Joe Abercrombie. But in someways, I frankly felt like the book was never going to end. It was like being caught in the middle of a tsunami – being thrashed around, flung up high to dizzying heights only to be crashed down deep to frustrating lows. A meandering journey for close to two hundred pages – wherein the initial sense of urgency and helplessness of having lost the kids and the need to track down the kidnappers is smothered over – by other fears and adventures aplenty these guys face. In fact, each time I felt I reached the climax of the book only to be cheated and the narrative to plunge back again to another harrowing journey. It served well in terms of expanding Joe’s world – all the way from Near Country at the border of Union and the Kingdom – across the dangerous plains where Ghosts raid the parties crossing – to the Far Country. And beyond. In to the realms of the Dragon People. Now that was a mystery I would have loved to learn more but I cannot reveal without spoiling it for folks who haven’t read this one.
Red Country is vintage Joe Abercrombie in piping red form. A scarlet tide that bursts forth and lets loose to form a torrential torrent of blood that never lets up. A novel that redeems a few characters and then some that don’t. It’s like a refreshing plunge back into pools we know and are familiar with. The vile and the black splattered with blood. Getting another chance to witness the scintillating acts of a bloody hero. One last time. You know you want to dip your hands back into this mire of cynicism and misery deep unto your elbows knowing full well that the warmth and wit would never stray far. Moments of love and laughter, few and far between the harrowing visceral action set-pieces but still there. A great book as all other Joe’s fine works.