Book Review – Red Country by Joe Abercrombie

Sometimes you go to rate a book on Goodreads and it makes you rethink every book that you’ve ever rated, before. RED COUNTRY was that book, for me.

When I started reading RED COUNTRY, I did not know that it takes place in the same world as the FIRST LAW TRILOGY. I had read Abercrombie’s short story from DANGEROUS WOMEN, so I was familiar (a bit) with Shy South, but there was no telltale clues that Shy’s world and the world of Bayaz, Glokta, Logen and Ferro were the same. Discovering that A.) This was the same world and B.) That there were some spillover characters–was like receiving a late birthday present. I was giddy.

RED COUNTRY is to epic fantasy what toe nails are to hair–It’s slightly related, but it isn’t really the same thing, at all. This is a western, reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and, ironically, Mark Millar’s brilliant comic, OLD MAN LOGAN.

It is the wagon train and the hardscrabble, sinew-and-bone frontier folk. It is dusty and exhausting and wear-through-your-boots toiling. It is not pretty–no courtly meetings or feasts with the nobles. It is the very definition of the word ‘gritty’–and yet, it is also a freshening of a world that we’ve spent more than a thousand pages exploring.

Here, in RED COUNTRY, we see new, deeper sides of characters we thought we knew. We scrape away all of the magic and the spirits and the politics and the city and we encounter a raw, bare-skinned tale of a family. They are broken and battered and not always very kind to one another. They don’t even share blood. But make no mistake, this is a family saga, and it is beautifully rendered, even in its brutality.

I have contended, previously, that Abercrombie’s strengths lie in the exquisite characters that he creates, and RED COUNTRY is no exception. I am repeatedly drawn to, and amazed by, his dexterous handling of “gray” characters. Each and every one of the people that populate this book is deeply flawed. They are cowards, bastards, murderers, thieves–monsters. They are beautiful, horrible monsters, and he makes us love them, in spite of their weaknesses, despite their failings. He is so successful in doing this because he shows us the contradictions within them–the murderess that fights for her siblings, the coward that wants desperately to be brave, the savage killer that sings his children to sleep. Over and over, I find myself drawn to his characterizations because they have the stink of real people on them. No one is perfect. We are all flawed–tiny, monstrous failings, fracture each of us.

There are a handful of scenes in this book that, due to avoiding spoilers, I will not further discuss. However, I would like to say that I was moved by this book in a way that THE FIRST LAW books did not emotionally move me. There are scenes and events within RED COUNTRY that made me cry, that made me laugh, that made me hold my breath in fear. There is a myth in THE FIRST LAW world, of a nine-fingered Northman–bloody, barbaric songs are sung about him–The Bloody Nine.

This book, for what it’s worth, made me a believer.

*** I am very eager to now read Abercrombie’s other books–THE HEROES and BEST SERVED COLD–both of which also take place in the FIRST LAW world.***