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Book Review: Red Country

By Joe Abercrombie
Published by Gollancz

Take a Western but with swords instead of guns. Set it in an epic fantasy world. Throw in a stagecoach chase, an attack by ‘natives’ around the wagons, a prospector town full of vice and criminals, and tough characters living in a harsh world. And make it good. You now have Red Country, the new novel from Abercrombie, set in the same world as his First Law trilogy (and featuring some of the characters from those stories, although without needing to know anything about them), and which is a compelling, violent, gritty, well-written tale that combines Abercrombie’s sense of realism, excellent characterisation and great action into a love letter to the Westerns of Clint Eastwood, to whom the book is dedicated.

Shy South is a teenage girl with a past who lives on a farm in Squaredeal in the Near Country; she is sister to Ro and Pit, looking after them after their mother has died. Lamb is a huge but timid Northman who works on the farm and has been a stand-in father for them. When Shy and Lamb return to the farm after selling their stock to the local shop keeper, they discover the farmstead burned, the old farmhand hanging from a tree and that Ro and Pit have been taken by bandits. Shy and Lamb have no other option but to follow them to get the children back.

Meanwhile, Captain General Nicomo Cosca of the Company of the Gracious Hand, a ragtag group of mercenaries (including legal counsel, Temple, who is developing a conscience), has been employed by the Inquisition of the Union (specifically Inquisitor Loren) to ‘pacify’ Near Country in their search for rebels. The Company ‘pacifies’ Squaredeal, killing and looting along the way, where they meet a Northman with a metal eye who is looking for a nine-fingered Northman …

Lamb and Shy catch up with three men who had split off from the group who stole the children, and Lamb shows that he isn’t the cowardly man he has pretended to be, extracting information that helps them: a man named Greg Cantliss leads the bandits, stealing children to sell on up river at the town of Crease. To get there, they join up with a famous scout called Dab Sweet and his partner, a Ghost woman called Crying Rock (Ghosts are the equivalent of Native Americans in this world), who are leading a Fellowship of people (Styrians, Suljuks, a Gurkish priest, a once-famous actor, a herder and his huge family, and many others) going to Crease for gold and a better life. Things will come together when everyone involved ends up in Crease, a classic frontier town run by a mayor and Papa Ring.

This is like The Outlaw Josey Wales, High Plains Drifter, Unforgiven, the Leone trilogy, but in a fantasy world – there is a stranger with a dark and violent past, a new-fangled metal weapon, a stand-off between enemies, a lawless town full of unpleasant types; the only thing missing is the Morricone score. Abercrombie is obviously a huge fan and it shows, but he is also a very good writer so the execution is very enjoyable. He has a great way with characters – he’s good with names and he’s able to essay them quickly and clearly – and his sharp prose and dialogue mean the book is filled with the West: you can smell the dirt and the open plains and herds of cows and the blood and death. Shy and Lamb always have a pithy retort, presumably through gritted teeth, which sometimes seems a bit much for people who don’t have much social contact and makes you think they have a scriptwriter – it’s fine in a two-hour film but in a book is stretching it a bit. But that’s the only qualm in an otherwise excellent book. Red Country is a great genre-smashing piece of work that is entertaining and hard to put down.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

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