Joe Abercrombie’s new novel, Red Country, is getting a lot of press because it’s a Western. But Abercrombie’s already written some Westerns — The Heroes and Best Served Cold are westerns almost more than they are typical fantasies. Both of those books dealt less with common fantasy themes of magic and coming-of-age and mysterious unfoldings of ancient wisdom, and more with themes more often found in Westerns like revenge quests and the conflicts between personal codes of honor vs law and between loners vs civilized society.
But rather than argue about genre — which is relatively pointless once you grant the obvious and common point that Abercrombie plays with genres — we ought to do an independent assessment of whether the book is any good. And my assessment is that yes, it is good, and for more than just the
fight battle killing scenes, which are Abercrombian. (I mean that as a term of praise.)
What Abercrombie gives us more than any other fantasy author in the business these days is character. He’s famous for his action, but his characters really make his novels great. And his dialogue. After all, his books are thick, and they’re not just one violent scene after another. It’s the characters and the dialogue that keep us interested all the way through these thick books. Abercrombie’s characters, admittedly, have been scarred by violence, threaten violence, fear violence, and thrive on violence. So, yeah, a reader can be forgiven for thinking that Joe Abercrombie is a violent author, but it’s not because there are necessarily more fight scenes in his books than in anyone else’s.
It’s because Abercrombie understands violence better than any other fantasy author. He refuses to treat it as entertainment — or, rather, as just entertainment. He takes violence seriously, and understands that it can change people, usually for the worse, for the rest of their lives. An Abercrombie character isn’t a cut-out because an Abercrombie character actually has to face the consequences of carving someone up with a sword (or chopping off their fingers with a meat cleaver) in a way that other author’s characters don’t.
But I did mention dialogue, too, didn’t I? Joe Abercrombie is one of those authors who could fill several little books of aphorisms and one-liners, sort of like Edward Abbey. Even after only six published books, the time has come for the first Abercrombie pocket quote book to be published. It would be full of gems like the following:
“Every man has his excuses, and the more vile the man becomes, the more touching the story has to be.”
“The truth is like salt. Men want to taste a little, but too much makes everyone sick.”
“There are few men with more blood on their hands than me. None, that I know of. The Bloody-Nine they call me, my enemies, and there’s a lot of ’em. Always more enemies, and fewer friends. Blood gets you nothing but more blood. It follows me now, always, like my shadow, and like my shadow I can never be free of it. I should never be free of it. I’ve earned it. I’ve deserved it. I’ve sought it out. Such is my punishment.”
“‘A whole new thing. A forging of the humble parts of bread and cheese into a greater whole. I call it…a cheese-trap.’ Whirrun took a dainty nibble from one corner. ‘Oh, yes, my friends. This tastes like … progress…’”
“The lowly have small ambitions, and are satisfied with small indulgences. They need not get fair treatment. They need only think that they do… ”
In the interest of avoiding any spoilers, I will say the following about Red Country. It’s a Joe Abercrombie book. That means it has Joe Abercrombie characters, and dialogue. That constitutes from me a positive review. More specifically, I’ll say that it has what most fantasy novels that I love always seem to have — plenty of wilderness, bad weather, and empty land. It has a quest in it. It has a romance in it. It has a stagecoach chase. And it has what I suspect has to be some sort of homage to Tolkien in the middle of all the Clint Eastwood, but of course I can’t be sure because I haven’t seen any admissions of that from Abercrombie yet.
Big thumbs up!