Evil turned out not to be a grand thing. Not sneering Emperors with their world-conquering designs. Not cackling demons plotting in the darkness beyond the world. It was small men with their small acts and their small reasons. It was selfishness and carelessness and waste. It was bad luck, incompetence, and stupidity. It was violence divorced from conscience or consequence. It was high ideals, even, and low methods.
By this point, I have read all the standalone books between Mr Abercrombie’s first First Law trilogy and his second First Law trilogy, and my esteem for this author only grew ever higher. Best Served Cold was a powerful revenge fantasy set in the Italy of the First Law world. The Heroes is a multifaceted military story which succeeded in giving depth to both sides of a conflict while also digging deeply into the very concept of heroism itself. Sharp Ends, which was published after Red Country, is a delightful collection of short stories which explores the backstories and fates of multiple memorable characters which appeared in all of Mr Abercrombie’s books, with a connected series of chapters following the compelling (and oft hilarious) adventures of the thief Shevediah and the muscleheaded, comically horny Javre as they Forrest Gumped their way through many major events in the First Law world.
Red Country is set in the Near Country and Far Country west of Starikland, but functionally, they represent the lawless frontier region of the American Wild West—so yeah, this book is Mr Abercrombie writing a western, yee-haw! The story follows Shy South who lives on a farmstead with her cowardly stepfather, Lamb, when a band of outlaws burned their farm down, murdered an old family friend, and kidnapped her two younger siblings. This kicked off an epic chase by Shy and Lamb across the country to rescue the children, and in their journey, it became increasingly obvious that Lamb is not the man Shy thought he was (though longtime First Law fans would immediately recognise this particular very large, very strong and very scarred old Northman). I could tell that Mr Abercrombie was having a ball of a time playing with Western tropes. There are cattle drives, prospectors participating in a gold rush, and raids by indigenous natives who take trophies of their victims by cutting off
scalps ears. More specifically, it seemed to me that Mr Abercrombie was paying homage to spaghetti westerns by Sergio Leone. Lamb falls easily into the role of the Man with No Name as he plays a pivotal role in a frontier town torn apart by two feuding gangs like in A Fistful of Dollars, with one of the faction’s leader being another favourite from Abercrombie’s previous books. Heck there is even a Mexican standoff in this book over stolen gold, a send up to another Sergio Leone film, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
As I have always said, my favourite aspect of Mr Abercrombie’s writing is his undisputed skill in crafting memorable, believable, sympathetic characters. Through some of his authorial alchemy, his new characters like Shy South and Temple felt as just familiar to me as his older ones from previous books like Lamb, Nicomo Cosca, Friendly, and Glama Golden. And I think that part of the secret sauce is in how every character felt like they have really lived. New characters like Shy and Temple have obvious pasts that they constantly make references to, and their histories clearly inform their choices and their actions in the present; while the characters who had already appeared in previous books (and thus already possess inbuilt backstories) act consistently with what we have learned of them before as well. For example, I adore how Abercrombie depicts Lamb as someone who avoids conflicts and confrontations as much as he can, leading to his stepdaughter Shy in thinking him a bloody coward, but those of us who knew him from the original trilogy knows another reason for his seemingly craven behaviour. This is the sort of layered storytelling that so many authors attempt but rarely achieve at the level of mastery Abercrombie demonstrates. Abercrombie characters may not always be three-dimensional (some have just one or two defining characteristics), but what they do have in spades is depth.
Just like Best Served Cold, which delivered a satisfying standalone story while giving us a good look into a previously unexamined corner of the Circle of the World, Red Country achieved the same in setting up tantalising things to come in future books in both geopolitical and technological sense. And now that we are on the topic of world-building, I also noticed that Mr Abercrombie’s “Ghosts”, which are stand-ins for Native Americans in Red Country, were described as being red haired and pale skinned to avoid the politically incorrect stereotype of savage injuns common in the western genre. I don’t know if he is fooling anyone with that but I guess he is expending some effort there. It is, after all, an improvement over his depiction of the dark-skinned Gurkish (his fantasy equivalent of Middle Easterners) who follow the teaching of a “Prophet” depicted as (yikes) a cannibal running a magical anthropophagic cult.
Red Country is a story about shady pasts and redemptions. It is an exploration on the concept of identities. It is a tale of a thrilling adventure undertaken by flawed but well-meaning people facing impossible odds. It will make you laugh along the way, and it may even make you cry by the end. If you have never read a single First Law book before, you can start here because it is a fine tale on its own, but reading it after reading all the preceding volumes will magnify your enjoyment significantly.
P.S. I experienced this work through an audiobook, and Steven Pacey’s narration remains top form. As I have said in my review of Best Served Cold, this is the best way to consume Abercrombie’s writings.