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Collecting the Cold War

Underground Reading: Red Country by Joe Abercrombie

This is part of a Quixotic attempt to read and review all nine finalists for the David Gemmell Legend Award before the winner is announced at the end of October. To keep things on track, I'll be approaching these books in a more or less templated fashion: plot summary, good stuff, not so good stuff, conclusion. 


Howdy, stranger.

Red CountryJoe Abercrombie's Red Country (2012) is the sixth book in his  First Law world. Rather remarkably, the latter three books have all been stand-alone stories, although each references characters, organisations and settings from the previous volumes.

Red Country moves the scene to a new frontier - in more ways than one. Whereas the previous volumes haven't been shy about exploring the nooks and crannies of the known world, Red Country is set in wholly unexplored territory.

The two protagonists are Shy and Temple. Shy is a (forgive me) feisty young woman with a bit of a dodgy (if not outright criminal) past. She lives with her little brother and her placid stepfather, Lamb. When her brother is kidnapped, Shy gears up and heads out to find him. What she doesn't expect is for Lamb to come along.

Temple is a lawyer, in the service of the infamous mercenary Nicomo Cosca. Cosca's a larger-than-life figure, a garrulous, unscrupulous man who would be pure comedy if he weren't so utterly black-hearted. Temple is essentially his straight man: an intelligent coward, caught up in the wake of Cosca's charisma. There's nothing he'd like more than to get free of his Mephistophelian boss. And nothing he's less capable of doing.

Temple (through no fault of his own) falls out of Cosca's clutches and lands squarely in Shy's path. The two buddy up (in the loosest sense of the term) as part of a wagon train, heading from parts slightly-known to parts completely unknown: Shy on the trail of her brother, and Temple in the hopes of finding a lasting sort of freedom. Their adventures begin on the wagon train - but by the time the book's over, they'll have ventured through a remote (and feud-ridden town), past the remnants of a bloody rebellion and into a sinister plot (or two). Shy and Temple learn that this land - out in the middle of nowhere - has become incredibly valuable to many of the world's powers and factions, and their actions could help decide its fate.

In the white hats... 

There's a lot that's great about Red Country. After a slow and self-conscious start (see below), the book hits its stride, and the wagon train section is particularly brilliant. The wagon train also serves as a handy metaphor for everything that works so well about the book: it is an uneasy alliance between strangers, against unknown (but undoubtedly hostile) powers, and it comes equipped with an innate sense of progression. The wagon train is moving towards something (freedom, revenge, a frontier town filled with gold, you name it) - and that gives plenty of scope for the characters to consider their own ambitions and fears, and to balance their optimism and pragmatism. The wagon train also provides a handy mechanic for storytelling: stuff comes to the characters, the characters come to stuff, there are barriers to overcome.

And, really, what amazing characters. Shy is mouthy, cunning and vicious - also loyal, open-minded and immensely intelligent. Despite her youth and (relative) inexperience, Shy's astoundingly competent, fearless, up for every challenge and relentless in pursuit of her goal. On a day to day level, that's evident in her negotiation techniques. In the greater sense, her sheer bloody-mindedness becomes apparent when we realise the scope of her quest. She's setting out to do the impossible. 

Temple's equally astounding, and possibly even more fun. He's been swept up in events out of his control since before the start of the book, and, more than anything else, just wants a bit of agency. Temple rates himself as a coward. Unlike Shy, Temple's well-educated but naive - he struggles with everything from standing up to bullies to finding food. But what he doesn't realise is that his quiet self-effacement gives him a sort of dignity. Temple's a fish out of water in Red Country. Which is why the insecure (Cosca) and secure (Shy) are both drawn to him. Cosca humiliates him as a way of combating his own doubts. Shy cultivates his friendship (in her rough way) because she's intrigued by his refinement.

It is also worth noting that the two point of view characters are a woman and a person of colour. Nor is this glossed over. Shy is perpetually dismissed - and threatened - because she is a woman, making her already overwhelming quest that much more difficult. And Temple is even more of an outsider: his background and skin colour combine to isolate him from everyone else. Even in a landscape of populated by outsiders and outcasts, he's still alone. His isolation is deftly and empathetically done.

And in the black hats

Red CountryAlthough easily the most important element of the text (and arguably the hardest to get right), characters aren't everything. Shy and Temple are brilliant (and progressive, and entertaining...), but the plot itself is, well, kind of meandering.

The wagon train, as noted above, is easily the strongest aspect of the plot, as it creates a simple conflict-generating mechanic that helps define and highlight the characters. But as soon as the travelling party gets to the frontier town of Crease, they're suddenly caught up in a Big Story that's as rushed as the wagon train was pleasantly languorous. This tiny outpost on the far side of nowhere suddenly becomes the focal point for everyone and everything, and things get, for lack of a better word, messy. 

It also doesn't help that Red Country is overtly a Western. Starting with the clunky opening scene (folks sit on a fence, spit on the ground, and whine about the gold rush), Red Country seems determined to include as many tropes of the genre as possible: the wagon train, the frontier town divided between two rival gangs (A Fist Full of Dollars), the gold rush (Pale Rider), the Native American kidnappers that "ruin" children (The Searchers), the reformed gunman returning to violence (Shane, Unforgiven, every other Western ever...); the list goes on and on... 

Part of Mr. Abercrombie's appeal is that his fantasy novels draw on influences from outside the category entirely, from video games to historical fiction to The Wire. This is, well, kind of brilliant. It is just that, prior to Red Country, the external influences have been more subtle, and less jarring. In my previous review of Red Country, I noted that Mr. Abercrombie had already written a fantasy Western in Best Served Cold - a book that beautifully translates one genre into another. In Red Country, the process is less translation than transliteration: a direct lift-and-shift of recognisable aesthetics and plot points.

If my first issue with Red Country's Western status is the direct appropriation of the Western aesthetic, my second problem is that the text doesn't take into account the baggage that comes with it. This is where steampunk often struggles as well: it's intellectually dishonest to play up the pretty-shinies of an era while glossing over, or ignoring entirely, its uglier aspects.

Red Country steps straight into two major problems with the Western: the treatment of Native Americans and the (American) Civil War. As to the first: the "Ghosts", Red Country's Native American analogues, are problematic - ignorant, greedy savages with "necklaces of human ears". Part of this also stems from the fact that they are the fearsome "other" throughout. They're not orcs (thank god), but they are an uncomfortable accumulation of dime-novel stereotypes.

In fairness, I think Mr. Abercrombie tries to mitigate this. For example, in one scene with the Ghosts, Shy notes that the men on "her side of the fire scared her more" (pg 177, emphasis mine), presumably in an attempt to show that Ghosts are people too. But overall, it is still uncomfortable the Ghosts - the fearsome, foolish, primitive, alien Ghosts - are there in the first place. Arguably, there's not even a narrative reason for their presence, except for the underlying assumption that a "Western" is required to have both cowboys and Indians present.

Similarly, as soon as a text includes a parallel for the Civil War, it also has to take into account that the war wasn't just a literary event. In Red Country, the analogue comes in the form of the rebellion in Starikland. The rebels are presented as a group of underdogs; heroic crusaders for personal freedom who are fighting an uphill battle in the face of the overwhelming, proto-industrialised forces of the empire (which is, in turn, controlled by a sinister capitalist institution). This is, to put it lightly, incredibly dodgy - imitating as it does the Confederate propaganda of the time (and of revisionist histories to this very day).

I don't for a moment think this is authorial intent, but it is an unfortunate side effect that comes from leaning so heavily on the aesthetics of an existing category. Nor is this a new problem in fantasy, or fiction as a whole: as soon as any text utilizes analogues for real world events, settings or people, it implicates everything that surrounds those events, settings or people, like it or not.

The clock strikes high noon...

If the above sounds like I'm being tough on Red Country, well... I am. I've grown to expect more from Joe Abercrombie's books than I do from the rest of the field. The First Law trilogy, Best Served Cold and Heroes were all fantastic, so the bar isn't just high - it is hovering somewhere in the stratosphere.

Ultimately, my feelings haven't changed since I first reviewed it last October. If anything, I've reinforced my conclusion from that review: Red Country may not be Mr. Abercrombie's best, but it is still very good. Red Country is impressive because it is a complicated, ambitious innovative book - it does all the stuff we "need" (great, progressive characters, big story, entertaining plot), and also tackles that extra level of subtext by layering in the Western themes. My disappointment with Red Country is that it does the latter with neither sublety nor consideration, more concerned about appearing like a Western than reading like one.

Relative to the rest of the First Law books, Red Country is merely ok; relative to the rest of the epic fantasy category, it is exceptional.