There's a short review and a long review, so I'll lead off with the former, then get my rambling on. You have been warned.
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.