Red Country, by Joe Abercrombie
Say one thing for Joe Abercrombie, say he’s a clever chap. Since the completion of his début trilogy, the First Law, he’s focused on standalone novels set in that same world, with each one co-opting and subverting a particular kind of story. Best Served Cold was a revenge novel, The Heroes was full-bore military yarn, and now, with Red Country, we have a Western of all things. All of the classic elements are here: one-horse towns, wagon trains, scalp-hunting natives, dissolute mining communities, the lawless, the dispossessed and the adventurous; but because this is Abercrombie, we also have the Inquisition, mercenary companies and a mystery – and nothing feels in any way out-of-place in Abercombie’s world.
Shy South is a simple farmer, scratching a living out of the soil and hoping to put her past as a bandit behind her – but when she returns home to find the place burning and her brother and sister stolen, she sets off in pursuit, along with her stepfather Lamb. The journey leads them in to the wild and lawless Far Country, a frontier land that’s in the throes of a gold rush. Joining up with a caravan led by the famous scout Dab Sweet. whose legend precedes him, they continue the pursuit across the plains, picking up a new member along the way, the lawyer Temple, on the run from the aging Nicoma Cosca and his mercenary company – they’re abroad in the Far Country too, seeking rebels who torment the Union along its borders, a group of Inquisitors in tow.
When they reach the vile town of Crease, a mud-streaked mixture of bars and brothels catering to the miners and adventurers (like an x-rated version of Deadwood), they find the man who took the children, but he doesn’t have them any more. Rescuing them requires a push in to the mountains, to cross swords with the Dragon People. But of course, nothing is ever simple – Shy and Lamb have made enemies in Crease, and Lamb’s bloody past is catching up with him. In fact, by now any reader of previous volumes will know who Lamb really is – a character with a fantastic facility for violence, thought long dead, who tends to take bloodshed and sorrow wherever he goes. The stage is set for a thrilling rescue mission in to the mountains, in a temporary alliance of convenience with Cosca’s mercenaries. It’s bound to get messy.
Bloody, unheroic, compelling – Red Country is all of these things, a real page-turning fantasy. Abercrombie co-opts the best elements of the Western without pastiche or mockery, and delivers a massively enjoyable read, combining action and genuine emotion to great effect.