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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

"Red Country" by Joe Abercrombie (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu and Mihir Wanchoo)



INTRODUCTION: "They burned her home. They stole her brother and sister. But vengeance is following.

Shy South hoped to bury her bloody past and ride away smiling, but she'll have to sharpen up some bad old ways to get her family back, and she's not a woman to flinch from what needs doing. She sets off in pursuit with only a pair of oxen and her cowardly old step father Lamb for company. But it turns out Lamb's buried a bloody past of his own. And out in the lawless Far Country the past never stays buried.

Their journey will take them across the barren plains to a frontier town gripped by gold fever, through feud, duel and massacre, high into the unmapped mountains to a reckoning with the Ghosts. Even worse, it will force them into alliance with Nicomo Cosca, infamous soldier of fortune, and his feckless lawyer Temple, two men no one should ever have to trust . . ."

Bursting upon the epic fantasy scene with his superb First Law trilogy, Joe Abercrombie became the "perfect" representative of the "new gritty" epic fantasy for me and his books have not disappointed so far. Best Served Cold was a top 5 sff of mine in 2009 while Before They Are Hanged was my top fantasy in  2007.

So of course Red Country was a huge asap, especially when early comments leaked that Logen Ninefingers will make his return here after more than a decade since we have last seen him in the last paragraph of the First Law trilogy:

"Logen turned over slowly in the air, limbs flailing pointlessly, too scared to scream. The rushing wind whipped at his eyes, tugged at his clothes, plucked the breath out of his mouth. He'd chosen this? Didn't seem like such a clever choice, right then, as he plunged down towards the river. But then say one thing for Logen Ninefingers, say that—
The water came up to meet him. It hit him in the side like a charging bull, punched the air out of his lungs, knocked the sense out of his head, sucked him in and down into the cold darkness…"

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS:  (Mihir) I was lucky to get a copy of Red Country from Gollancz and my thanks to Jon Weir for sending it all the way across the pond. To say this book was highly anticipated would be an understatement, once it was announced that this book would be featuring the return of Logen Ninefingers. A character that has been synonymous with the term “bad-ass” along with other famous ones such as Druss, Anomander Rake, Waylander, Oberyn Martell etc. 

After reading the ending to the First Law trilogy, many readers were left stymied a bit with it. Most characters had an ending that belied their start however for one particular character the journey was a full circle. People were left wondering what exactly happened to Ninefingers and this book answers the pivotal question of his survival without divulging any particular details as to how. The following review will have some minor spoilers for the previous five books and for this one so be warned for those who haven’t read all the previous titles.

The story begins in a bloody fashion of sorts wherein we are introduced to the main protagonists Shy South and Temple. Shy is a person who has had a rough adolescence and is now learning to live straight. She has her stepfather Lamb to help her out however with his timid behavior it often turns out that she has to step in to take care of situations as they arise. Temple is a jack-of-many-trades, who considers himself a coward of the highest order and is currently working as the legal counsel to Nicomo Cosca and his band of mercenaries.

Both characters have a journey ahead of them thanks to the actions of others and this is where this fantasy western story really explores the arc of each and every character. The story is focused on Shy & Lamb's search for Ro & Pit, the two missing children who have been abducted along with a host of others by an outlaw called Grega Cantliss. Their search however will cross roads with Nicomo Cosca and his band of mercenaries that include Temple and sergeant Friendly (seen previously in Best Served Cold).  Cosca is going along with the inquisition to root out the rebels and is actively searching for a specific rebel leader.

For me this book was the best of Joe's standalone books and possibly one, that is great for all those wanting to see and read more about Ninefingers as he returns in a bloody manner as befitting his nature. The story follows a couple of plot threads that start divergently but soon merge in a surprising way that makes the book slightly more streamlined.  Shy South and Temple can be said to be the main POV characters among the various ones featured in the book; however the sad part is that we don't get a POV from the character that we want to know about the most.   

This part seriously was the biggest downer of the story for me as with everyone else I wanted to know about Logen and what he had been doing after his betrayal by Black Dow. We never get a clear cut idea about whether his so-called berserker state is super-natural or just a part of his mental persona. The author certainly loses points for this move as to not feature Ninefingers as a POV robs the story mightily of its sheen.

The pacing of the story however is spot on and we get a story that is a western as well as a redemption
tale. The character arcs explored are very similar to a Stephen King story wherein flawed characters either make it or they don’t but their journey will be one that enthralls the readers and powers the story completely. Plus Logen Ninefingers finally transcends his journey into an iconic one by accepting who he is and what he is not, hopefully the author might provide further illumination by featuring him in more stories.   


I was waiting to know all and be enchanted by Logen’s presence in the book but to paraphrase Logen himself “you have to be realistic about these things.” The ending of Red Country is perhaps much more optimistic than of the First Law trilogy and for that I’m glad however it is still as open ended as its predecessor and that might be a sticky point for some. I loved this book and the way the story ends readers will be hoping that we get to know more about what happens next for several characters.

Joe Abercrombie definitely knows how to write a story, he also knows to create memorable characters but his strongest suit is his dialogue and writing copious amounts of black humor. This book is no stranger to these facts and it manages to be the most uplifting of all his standalone books by virtue of twists and turns of this story. 

The book is a complete winner for all fans waiting for the return of one of the most iconic barbarians ever, however for fans wanting to know Logen’s inner thoughts they might just have to wait a little longer. Dive in to read another fantastic effort by a veritable fantasy writer who is the first law when it comes to writing dark, bloody, action packed stories.


(Liviu) "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. Make a note of that. Why aren’t you writing?"

The quote above shows Joe Abercrombie at his best and encapsulates why the first half of
Red Country was awesome. After that, the insistence of the author to limit himself at least temporarily to the convention of the western leads to a considerable slowing down of the action, as we are treated with cliche after cliche in the frontier town of Crease. 

Luckily, either that was a feint to prepare for what comes next, or the author realized that mimicking the "new western" is maybe not such a great idea and the book comes back to roaring life with a great last third of all out action, twists, turns, comedy and tragedy.

Shy and Temple as main leads and with a great role change from the usual stereotype, so she is the "tough guy" and he is the one to be protected, work very well in a book that is the most "personal" of the author, as the stakes are not the world as in the First Law, or various countries as in the two previous standalones, but the fates of the characters introduced here. 

However, from the smallest touches - oxen called Scale and Calder (!) - Lamb, the current incarnation of Logen Ninefingers, is the true star of the novel and ultimately the main driver of action too. Yes, we do not get a  POV from him and we see his actions at a distance or through the eyes of Shy and the others, but I think the decision was the correct one as it preserved the essential "mystery" at the core of Ninefingers.

On the other hand, I was disappointed in Cosca; excellent in the first half but for what it seemed mostly like authorial intent than something deriving from the story, a cartoon villain with no subtlety in the second half.

The rest of the large cast worked well overall, both known characters like Pike or Friendly and new like Dab Sweet for example - the whole ensemble mixed well and I thought the author did a very good job in balancing the over-the-top and cynical with the ironic and even the earnest on occasion...

I also loved the ending which I found somewhat predictable from a point on, but still very good nonetheless. Overall, Red Country is not quite at the level of the author's signature works to date, Before They Are Hanged and Best Served Cold, but by escaping from the self-imposed shackles of its western sub-genre, it is better than the limited The Heroes and consequently a top 25 of mine for 2012, with its scope almost matching the superb writing and characters that Joe Abercrombie never failed so far to produce.

2 comments:

limonka said...

Hello :)
My opinion about this book is totally different. I've read polish translation and I felt very tired of this book (6 days of reading, seriously...). Imo, Shy South is like Calamity Jane (do u know her?) :))

(sorry for my english)

Aditya Raj Bhatt said...

Well, books generally lose much of their flavor when translated into other languages. I thought it was an excellent book (English of course) and I love Logen. Really want to know if the "Bloody-Nine" is just a psychological problem (massive understatement) or an actual demon possessing Logen.

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