red countryTitle: Red Country

Author: Joe Abercrombie

Publisher: Gollancz

Published: Out Now

RRP: £16.99 (Hardback) – £8.99 (Kindle)

They burned her home, they stole her brother and sister, but vengeance is following.

 Shy South hoped she’d buried her bloody past, but she’ll have to sharpen up her old ways to get her family back. She sets off in pursuit with a pair of oxen and her cowardly old step-father, Lamb, for company. But she learns along the way that Lamb buried a bloody past of his own, none bloodier, and out in the Far Country the past never stays buried for long.

 Their journey will take them across the barren plains to the frontier town from hell that is gripped by gold fever. Through feud, duel and massacre they must go, then high into the mountains for a confrontation Ghosts. But worse their journey will force them into an alliance with Nicomo Cosca, infamous soldier of fortune, and his feckless lawyer Temple; two men no one should ever want to trust.

I’ve been following the progress of this sixth book set in the First Law universe with interest. I’m a late comer to the works of Joe Abercrombie, I only discovered him after he’d published the original trilogy, but since then he has fast become my favourite fantasy author. So it was with a tingle of excitement when I read on his blog that his next project after The Heroes would be the fantasy take on the classic Western. I grew up watching the genre, my Dad is a fan of John Wayne, and he instilled that same interest in me. From Bonanza to The High Chaparral, from True Grit to The Wild Bunch. Westerns were a big part of my non SF/F growing up.

Red Country is themed very much in that classic mould, with sweeping vistas, dangerous natives and lawless towns without a sheriff in sight. But it also draws from more modern takes on the genre, it is clear as soon as we reach the frontier town of Crease that the brilliant Deadwood was very much in Joe’s mind when he described it. With all the ingredients taken from the past few decades mixed together, the ingredients from the First Law world were delicately added, the outcome the best of both worlds, but with some minor glitches (more of them later).

Red Country is very much a swansong book. In a recent interview Joe has already hinted at his next project, another trilogy set in the First Law world, but set some fifteen to twenty years after the events of this book. So it should come as no surprise that one fan favourite character doesn’t survive this book and the other rides off into the sunset, with more an idea as to his fate than we were left with after he fell into a fast flowing river at the end of Last Argument of Kings. It feels that with this book Joe is drawing a line under the events and characters we’ve seen over the past six books, and laying the foundations for what is to come. The world of the First Law is moving on, unlike most other fantasy worlds there is a definite sense of progress, of time moving forward. Industrialisation is sweeping across the civilised world, the boundaries of the map are being pushed back on the unknown, but I feel that after six books of building his world and the forces at work within it that perhaps the unknown is about to push back.

That’s not to say this is a perfect book. I did find after reading it somewhat empty, I’d not felt like that since reading A Dance with Dragons last year. I think in my mind I’d built it up to such a height that when it came down to it that height wasn’t reached. I did enjoy it, it is still miles ahead of anything else on the market at the moment; but there was still something missing. I have no idea what it was; I have no answer to what is needed to set this book up alongside the pinnacle that is the original trilogy. But there are something’s that either didn’t work (for me) or could have been done differently.

The Ghosts for me were a missed opportunity. For the first third of the book we were led to believe these tribes of the plains were a big danger, they were uncompromising, vicious and could not be reasoned with. But when it came down to it they were little more than a desperate ragtag band, scavenging from the weak and unwary. And all it took to deal with them was for Lamb to kill their chief to make them fade away into the night. OK, I know the whole Ghost threat, when it came to the Fellowship, was a set up and the expected outcome was for the pioneers to pay out. But even so, I thought the son of the chief was going to break the deal that his father had made with Sweet and go native; alas he was never seen again.

The Dragon people, like the Ghosts, seemed to be all hype and little else. I appreciate the bulk of their strength was away dealing with the growing Shanka problem, but even so I was expecting more. And being honest I was hoping to see some Lamb/Shanka action which would have tied into the original trilogy.

But these were my only major quibbles. Joe Abercrombie has said himself that this book was the hardest of all the First Law books to write. I think some of those difficulties he experienced might be why there are some flaws with the finished product. That being said it is still a great read, and a great ending for two of the series stand out characters.