January 5, 2013

Review: "Red Country" By Joe Abercrombie

Wow!  Joe Abercrombie's Red Country is one of the first books that I've read in 2013, and I'll wager that it ends up being one of the best I've read this year.  I found the dark gritty fiction of Abercrombie a few years ago when I read his First Law trilogy (2006-2008), and then followed it up with his brilliant, and my favorite, novel, The Heroes (2011).  Red Country is right up there with The Heroes and is somehow an incredibly clever blend of cinematic gorefest ala Sam Peckinpah and the unrelenting violence and pathos of the writing of Cormac McCarthy; and while Red Country is a fantasy novel of the first order, it reads and feels like a western.

The plot is really quite simple.  Farms in the hinterlands have been burned, people brutally killed, and a lot of children have been captured and kidnapped by a gang of desperadoes.  The novel's primary protagonists are all a group of misfits and deeply flawed characters that have come together to trek across a brutal landscape, some in search of the missing children, others in pursuit of gold, and others just trying to find themselves and start new lives.  'Shy South' and 'Lamb', a father-figure to Shy and her younger siblings, are in pursuit of the kidnapped children.  And if you've read any of Abercrombie's earlier novels you'll be delighted as you encounter a goodly number of rogues who reappear in Red Country.  Additionally, there is a whole group of fascinating new characters that range from utterly monstrous and despicable to some that are honorable and good-hearted.  Having said that though, it is amazing to me that at times it is still hard to sort out who is really good and who is really bad, and that is solely a function of the quality of Abercrombie's plotting and writing.

Abercrombie has a way with words and can truly turn a phrase.  One thing I've come to expect when reading his fiction is the earthy and pithy philosophical one- or two-liners from his characters.  They're really quite priceless, and I've taken to marking them as I encounter them whilst reading.  Here's a sampler of Abercrombie witticisms--
My old commander Sazine once told me you should laugh every moment you live, for you'll find it decidedly difficult afterward.
'Severed heads,'Cosca was explaining, 'never go out of fashion.  Used sparingly and with artistic sensibility, they can make a point a great deal more eloquently than those still attached.'
There is no bad living, and no good death.
The bottle's a shifty banker--it might lend you courage but it's apt to call the debt in sudden.
'Death loves me.' Lamb smiled, black-eyed, wet-eyed, and the smile was worse even than the snarl had been. 'All the work I done for him? The crowds I've sent his way? He knows he ain't got no better friends.'
'Why does everyone pout so over children?' Cosca called after him. 'They'll turn out just as old and disappointing as the rest of us.'
'Men are animals.  Conscience is a burden we choose to bear.  Morality is the lie we tell ourselves to make its bearing easier.'
Well, you get the picture.  Abercrombie sure can write, and Red Country is a relentless torrent of words and writing that simply compels you to keep reading and turning pages, one after the other until you reach the immensely satisfying conclusion.  This is a great book with awesome characters that is sure to please any reader encountering Abercrombie for the first time.  If you've had the pleasure of reading any of Abercrombie's other books, oh are you in for a hell of a delightful surprise.  Finally, even if you're the type of reader who swears they don't like fantasy fiction, give Red Country a try, I'm gonna bet that you're gonna find Abercrombie's fiction is well worth it and in the 'wheel-house' of many, many readers.  Red Country gets a solid five out of five stars from me.

Red Country
By Joe Abercrombie
Orbit Books, 2012
453 pp.
ISBN 9780316187213


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