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UK Cover Red Country

Review: Red Country, Joe Abercrombie (2012)

The First Law

Since the 2006 publication of The Blade Itself, the first entry in the First Law trilogy, Joe Abercrombie has been intent on deconstructing the modern fantasy genre. In contrast to traditional (read: Tolkienesque) fantasy, the world of the First Law is characterized not by lofty ideals, but by politicking and the pursuit of power, all of which is more commonly referred to as “grimdark.” In this, Abercrombie follows in the footsteps of the modern forebear of dark fantasy, George R. R. Martin, he of A Song of Ice and Fire.

And, like A Song of Ice and Fire, there’s blood. Lots of it.

Red Country is a “standalone” entry in Abercrombie’s First Law world, set approximately 10 to 15 years after the close of the original trilogy. Red Country is preceded chronologically, both in publication and in plot, by Best Served Cold (2009) and The Heroes (2011). It’s not necessary to have read Abercrombie’s other novels to follow Red Country, but a number of the characters are recurring, so some familiarity is implied.

Red Country (2012)

Abercrombie continues in Red Country the experimentation he began with Best Served Cold, which is a revenge story, and The Heroes, which, in contrast to traditional fantasy, condenses its activity to a single battle that takes place over just a few days. (And in which is introduced the best-named character ever, “Stranger-Come-Knocking.”) Here Abercrombie tackles the Western genre, but the results are less successful than were his previous standalone novels.

UK Cover Red Country

UK Cover

The story opens with the destruction of Shy South’s family farm and the abduction of her younger brother and sister. Shy and her stepfather, the cowardly Lamb, set off in pursuit of the kidnappers. Meanwhile, on the geopolitical scale, the Union is in pursuit of rebels who have taken refuge in “the Near Country,” where Shy and Lamb reside. The Union employs infamous mercenary Nicomo Cosca, familiar to readers from previous novels, and his right hand and lawyer, Temple, to wreak havoc throughout the Near Country, ostensibly to root out the rebels, but really in anticipation of the possible annexation of the frontier. The main plots, of course, are destined to collide.

Red Country begins energetically, economically introducing Shy and Lamb and setting up their quest, the recovery of Shy’s younger sister and brother, Ro and Pit. Lamb abandons his passive demeanor and soon, in a (typically) brutal scene set in a saloon, reveals his capacity for epic violence. Readers familiar with the First Law world will find something…strangely familiar…about Lamb….

That sense of familiarity, which often works so well in Abercrombie’s novels, is less effective in Red Country. Nicomo Cosca, for instance, first introduced in the original trilogy, and employed to great effect in Best Served Cold, here becomes something of a parody of himself. Abercrombie uses Caul Shivers, one of the main characters of Best Served Cold, to play with the Western trope of the “showdown.” But Shivers’s appearance is essentially a cameo and, as a result, feels forced. My sense is that a host of other minor characters reappear in Red Country, but I’m not quite sure; the sprawling nature of fantasy, with its dense tomes and casts of thousands, works against me here. Readers will forgive me for an impression that might not be true. (But it felt that way.)

US Cover Red Country

US Cover

The plot is comprised of a variety of intersecting storylines that come together and are held that way mainly through battle scenes. That’s not entirely a surprise, given Abercrombie’s predilection for violence. It all feels a bit forced, though. In reading Red Country, I could never quite shake the sense that it’s the bridge to the next trilogy. It has the feeling of a placeholder: Abercrombie advances his geopolitics, as he did in Best Served Cold and The Heroes, but nothing definitive happens. A few new characters are introduced, for instance Shy and Temple, but few significant changes are made. There is some redemption and just rewards, neither of which I’ll spoil here by going into detail.

All of which raises the question: Should you read Red Country? If, like me, you’re an avowed Abercrombie fan, then by all means, yes. I’ve always enjoyed Abercrombie’s prose, which I’ll describe as “earthy,” and his dialog is, as always, snappy. Red Country will meet, but likely not exceed, your expectations, and it lacks some of the energy of Abercrombie’s previous novels. If you haven’t read anything by Abercrombie before, begin with his first novel, The Blade Itself, or his young adult series, Shattered Sea. But, by all means, reading something by Abercrombie.

Similar books:

  • If you’re curious about Abercrombie but prefer less grim in your fantasy, try Half a King
  • If (for some reason) you think Abercrombie isn’t grimdark enough, consider the sociopathic The Iron Wolves by Andy Remic
  • For more traditional fantasy fare, see Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards series, the third volume of which is The Republic of Thieves
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Review: Half a King, Joe Abercrombie

It left a bad taste in my mouth, like toothpaste and orange juice, when I learned that Joe Abercrombie was writing a series for young adults. Lord Grimdark is pandering to the kiddies? Gross. I needn’t have worried. From the moment I got my clammy, fanboy hands on Abercrombie’s latest book, I was hooked. Abercrombie and YA is like peanut butter and chocolate. Come, fantasy fans and Abercrombie aficionados, and gorge upon the bounty that is Half a King (Del Rey, July 3 2014).

Half a King, Joe Abercrombie

Half a King, Joe Abercrombie

The story opens when Prince Yarvi of Gettland, intended for the ministry (in this case, a brotherhood of advisers and diplomats who work toward peace) learns that his father, King Uthrik, is dead, killed by the Gettlanders’ neighbors and foes, the Vanstermen. Yarvi was not meant to be a king: His left hand is deformed, rendering him unsuitable for the throne. But with his older brother dead, too, Yarvi is the only heir, and he swears an oath to avenge his father. Yarvi leads a raid against Vansterland, only to be betrayed. Armed with only one good hand, years of resentment, and the cunning he learned as an initiate of the ministry, Yarvi sets out to fulfill his oath.

The world of Half a King is separate of that from Abercrombie’s previous fiction. Although still within the vaguely medieval consensus that defines traditional fantasy settings, there is a definite Norse, particularly Icelandic, flavor here. Gettland, Vansterland, among other kingdoms unified under the “High King” border the Shattered Sea, a roiling, storm battered mass traversed by longboat. Much of the middle of the book is set in northern ice fields and, subsequently, land rent by hot springs. And then there are the elves. Not to worry: Abercrombie’s focus is decidedly human, and his elves are long extinct. Only their ruins and artifacts remain, hinting at a curious back story. For instance, the woman who wears around her neck “an elf-tablet, the green card studded with black jewels, scrawled with incomprehensible markings, riddled with intricate golden lines.” The millennium-old ruins, untouched by time, are reminiscent of the Eldren constructions of Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series, haunting the scenery with an implicit threat.

Is this an "elf-tablet"?

Is this an “elf-tablet”?

If the setting is different, the tone is the same. This is a broken world: Yarvi has a “crippled” hand; the characters sail on the Shattered Sea; and even the gods are broken, the elves having waged war on the One God, shattering her into many. Perhaps writing for young adults has mellowed Abercrombie. Half a King may not be upbeat, but neither is it the cynical Ouroboros that characterizes Abercrombie’s previous novels: Here the backstabbing has an end. The camaraderie of Yarvi and his fellows is refreshingly authentic, free of the edges apparent in The First Law trilogy and its successors.

That’s not to say that violence is absent from Half a King. I lost count of noses broken with a “crunch” after a half a dozen. Abercrombie continues his fascination with the grotesque; he knows that, however much violence sickens us, it draws us in, too. We cannot look away. Abercrombie has always been sophisticated in his attitude toward violence: He portrays it with gusto, knowing that we’re attracted to it despite our denials (and thus making us complicit). But he has always portrayed its consequences, too, perhaps to greater effect in Yarvi, who is no warrior: “And Yarvi realized then that Death does not bow to each person who passes her, does not sweep out her arm respectfully to show the way, speaks no profound words, unlocks no bolts. The key upon her chest is never needed, for the Last Door stands always open. She herds the dead through impatiently, heedless of rank or fame or quality. She has an ever-lengthening queue to get through. A blind procession, inexhaustible.”

If Half a King has a weakness, it is the plot, which is predictable. Perhaps that’s because I’m older than the intended audience, or maybe, having read Abercrombie’s other novels, I am able to intuit when he’s preparing to spring a trap on his readers. That the twists and turns of the story are unsurprising in no way diminish the reader’s pleasure, a testament to Abercrombie’s storytelling skills. Indeed, I found myself turning the pages as quickly as I could, impatient to see what travails would next befall Yarvi.

Abercrombie, if not the anti-Tolkien, is a contrarian, turning on its head the tropes of high fantasy. He lays aside that ideological jihad in Half a King, instead telling the story of one character’s quest, and a very grounded one at that, motivated by revenge and gold. The only magic here is the depth of the world and the propulsive story, all of which Abercrombie manages in less than 300 pages. The only disappointing thing about Half a King is how soon it ends, and how long we have to wait for the sequel. Highly recommended.