Joe Abercrombie is probably the finest British fantasist of his generation. And by fantasist, I mean the uncut, unparsed definition of the profession: the sword-swinging, big world, explodey magic, epic type. Abercrombie writes the sort of dick-swinging ubermensch of David Gemmell (who, if I understand correctly, was the last British fantasy author to crack the bestseller lists), but with the added values of self-awareness and contemporary craft. Abercrombie's characters are flawed, not superheroic, and he puts them through their karmic paces. His stories combine tongue-in-cheek self-reflection with a strangely ethical (if not wholly moral) sense of justice. In Mr. Abercrombie's books, there's a single rule of law: everybody gets what they deserve.
[It is (and I understand there's some irony here), an absolute shame neither Best Served Cold nor The Heroes managed to pick up a single British, fantasy-focused award. In ten years' time, we're all going to look back and feel really, really sheepish about this.]
Meanwhile (and this is the short review, remember?): Red Country.
This is neither Abercrombie's best nor his worst, but, let's be clear - the 'average' Abercrombie is anything but, and this book still sits atop the rest of the fantasy field. Red Country contains all the vim and vigour (and violence and venality and variety and...) of his earlier works. It merely lacks a little of the subtlety.
The thematic origins of Best Served Cold and The Heroes were just that - origins. They served as inspirations that evolved into something new. Red Country tries too hard to establish itself as a Western. For the most part, Red Country is so immersive that the reader doesn't notice the seams. But there are instances where it stumbles; where the story fits the aesthetic and not the other way around.
Still, if you've been waiting for this year's big doorstop fantasy: Red Country is it. There's jaw-dropping violence, twists, turns and character arcs that prompt the occasional muted cheer. Abercrombie is fast supplanting George R.R. Martin as the standard by which all contemporary epic fantasy should be measured.
That's the short review. Now let's get cracking on the long one.
Joss Whedon's Firefly is often cited as having set the standard for integrating Western themes into science fiction and fantasy. I agree, but not because it is a positive role model. From the grotesquely twangy opening theme to the random insertion of horses, Firefly's approach to the Western is almost wholly superficial. Trains, cows and hookers with golden hearts doth not a Western make. The one Western theme that Firefly explores at length is the idea of freedom - and here, the show excels. The boundlessness of space evokes the infinite plains of the "Old West", and Mal's ambition to live unfettered mirrors that of the cowboy archetype. Arguably, the show's success with this theme is ultimately self-defeating: Whedon's ill-considered Civil War analogue means that the dashing Mal was a hero of the Confederacy.
Although Red Country doesn't have a plinkly-plonky theme song, it still wears its aesthetic heart on its sleeve. The opening scene has folks sitting on a fence discussing a gold rush and ain't-ing away like there's no tomorrow. From there, the story bounces from one tired Western trope to another: the kidnapped children, the divided boom town, the attacks by hostile natives, the duel, the 'reformed' gunfighter... The list goes ever on and on. Whereas Mr. Abercrombie has taken inspiration from the Western in the past (perhaps most notably in The Heroes), they've never before dictated the flow of the story to this extent. Much of Red Country is a picaresque journey between Western set-pieces, and if his characters weren't so astoundingly good, I'm not sure it would work.
I'm skirting a discussion of cultural appropriation - that is, British appropriation of American mythology. Although I thought about it quite a bit, I don't think the label applies. It is hard to appropriate that which is freely exported (that is, American mythology). A closer approximation would be the issues surrounding steampunk. Borrowing elements of the Victorian aesthetic (top hats and silly names) is fun. But trying to recreate a complex historical period in a fantastic setting comes with a host of issues.
In the case of Red Country, Mr. Abercrombie uses the elements of the American West as convenient shorthand - the reader easily understands the significance of a gold strike and a wagon train. But trying to create analogues for the Civil War or the Native American tribes is a far more problematic proposition. Just as steampunk is often accused of (at best) naivete when it portrays industrialisation and colonialisation, a fantasy Western is equally vulnerable when it trips up against race and imperialism. To return to Firefly: it is nice to have a dashing hero who's the survivor of a lost cause - less so when you know he's inspired by the history of a war over (among other things) the right to own slaves. A dehumanised 'other' living on the fringes of civilisation makes for a convenient villain - but this convenient other is exponentially problematized when it directly correlates to a real culture and real history.
The irony is, of course, that, when it comes to fantasy Westerns, Mr. Abercrombie has already written the gold standard: Best Served Cold. In Best Served Cold there are no gold rushes, wagon trains or whooping Indians. In fact, the setting of Best Served Cold is almost entirely incidental. Monza Murcatto is left for dead, betrayed by her comrades in arms and her employer. She puts together a misfit band of outlaws and underdogs and, one by one, hunts down her enemies. That's a Western. It doesn't matter that they use swords, not guns, and there's not a single 'ain't' in the book. Mr. Abercrombie explores the themes of revenge and honour, betrayal and righteousness, law and justice - it doesn't get no more Western than that. (spits on ground; kicks snake with boots.)
Setting aside the commitment to the Western aesthetic, Red Country does explore a few traditional Western themes, particularly freedom and, more importantly, the ideas of legacy and progress.
Despite the occasional reference, the discussion of freedom is largely tangential. There's a rebellion going on in the background, but the only real exploration of independence comes from the relationship between Temple and Cosca. In their case, the power that Cosca holds over Temple is less physical (or even social) than emotional. Temple repeatedly tries to slip loose of the old man's hold on him, but is always drawn back - he's too afraid to disappoint his self-proclaimed mentor.
More impressively developed is the idea of legacy. Logan is, of course, hiding from his past. He's trying to be a peaceful man and put his previous life behind him. When (quickly and inevitably) challenged, he finds himself drawn back into being the man he once was - with all the good and evil that contains. But Logan's storyline, although excellently written, is almost predictable. The more interesting development is with Cosca. The garrulous old mercenary has been a staple presence in Mr. Abercrombie's books, but never as he been as captivating as in Red Country.
Cosca's life has been a series of ups and downs, fortunes and misfortunes, generally of his own making. A character straight out of Dumas, he's venal, inappropriate, arrogant and, in all cases, more lucky than good. Red Country features Cosca in his twilight years. He's dictating his legacy to a stunned (and incredulous) scribe as he steers his men towards increasingly foolish and dangerous capers. Despite his stated desire for wealth and power (two things he's repeatedly possessed and lost), it becomes clear that Cosca, nearing the end of his days, just wants respect - to be remembered more for his daring than his cunning.
Another theme that Red Country explores extraordinarily well is the idea of progress in a fantasy world. The status quo for the genre is to build static worlds, vast landscapes in which nothing has evolved for thousands of years. Where progress does occur, it is often the villain. Tolkien gets the blame for this one, with his "Scouring of the Shire", the vicious denouement in Lord of the Rings in which industrialisation is Saruman's way of revenging himself on the rural idyll of the Shire. Generally speaking, there's nothing so evil in epic fantasy as a smokestack - and nothing so good as the doddering old conservatives that cling to the 'old ways'.
In Red Country, Abercrombie separates change from the people who are driving it. No one actually likes the various powers that be (Union or otherwise), but there's a recognition that change - political, social, technological - is not only inevitable but also not a wholly terrible thing. The metaphorical railroad is coming to town, and it will change everything. "We will seize the future", Cosca declaims at one point. And that's the motto for many of the book's characters - from the ambitious Mayor of Crease (and her cross-town rival) to the rebels Corlin and Savian to the optimistic immigrants. The world, such as it is, isn't working for them, and they're anxiously looking (or preparing) for something more. The exceptions to the rule are notable: the Dragon People, and their desire to bring back an ancient era by force, and Logan, whose natural pessimism has him convinced that the future only holds more trouble. This recognition that progress itself is neither good nor evil, but acknowledging that it simply is is incredibly rare in the genre, and one of those effortless inclusions that demonstrates why Mr. Abercrombie is leading the pack of contemporary fantasy writers.
Just two final personal notes, and I'll be cryptic to avoid spoilers. I'm not sure Shivers was used to his best in Red Country. Theoretically a figure of Ultimate Menace, he wasn't seen enough to be appreciated as a threatening presence. Readers familiar with The Heroes and Best Served Cold will understand who he is and why he is significant, but I'm curious what newcomers to Mr. Abercrombie's work will make of Shivers and his involvement in the book's storyline.
On a similar note, the ending (or resolution) to Red Country was unexpected. And, although it didn't go the way I wanted it to, I appreciate Mr. Abercrombie's consistency in returning to his world's underlying philosophy: everybody gets what they deserve. I'm also curious how the people who didn't like the ending of The Last Argument of Kings take to the ending of Red Country. Enough so that I look forward to someone else spoiling things so I can talk about it less enigmatically.
I'm aware that, 2,000 words in, this sounds like an extraordinarily mixed review - and I haven't even explored half Red Country. I've left out both problems (the use of Native Americans amongst them) and praise (all other race-related topics; Temple, for example, is one of the most fully-developed and charismatic non-white protagonists in epic fantasy). For all the reasons elaborated above, Mr. Abercrombie's work goes beyond the traditional themes of epic fantasy and explores new territory - as such, it invites thoughtful criticism and full discussion.
Simply put, Mr. Abercrombie has established himself, with good cause, as the best in his field. As such, he deserves serious attention. To echo the short review (way up above): Red Country. Read it.