Author: Joe Abercrombie
Title: Red Country
Series: First Law World #6
Abercrombie’s Red Country is in many aspects a continuation of the First Law Trilogy, the review of which was incidentally one of our first Two-shots. After all, Logen Ninefingers, known in the North as Bloody-Nine, is one of the main protagonists of this bloody fantasy western. And if that comes as a spoiler… Well, it’s on the back of the freaking cover, so we don’t count it as a spoiler – though probably some of the book characters would disagree 😀
In many other aspects, however, it’s as standalone as Abercrombie’s novels go: it takes place in a fundamentally different part of the First Law world, on the very frontier of the Western continent, Far Country. This part of the world is no more peaceful than Angland or Styria: torn by gold fever, hostile encounters with elusive aboriginal people called Ghosts, and inhabited by the shattered dreams of people who ran away from their past, hoping for a new opening, Far Country only seems serene from far away. But its biggest selling point, especially for the Lamb, was the pronounced lack of Bayaz.
Ola: Oh, lack of Bayaz was definitely one of the biggest selling points of the whole endeavor for me. That, and, obviously, the presence of Logen. I’ll be frank here: Abercrombie is a terrific writer, imaginative and skillful, but the conspiracy theory underlying all his books, mainly that all events are manipulated by an impossibly powerful cabal of near-immortal wizards, is something that significantly lessens my enjoyment of his work. But Logen Ninefingers, hands down the best male character in Abercrombie novels, always lifts my mood – and that says something, for Bloody Nine is the coldest, ruthless killer in the whole First Law world. Well, he is that, a berserker the North tells stories about, and at the same time he is a kind, shy stepfather to three orphaned kids.
Piotrek: Well, as a staunch dis-believer in conspiracy theories, I find it very amusing that here we really have a cabal of world-controlling l(w)izards 😉 And I find Bayaz to be a great anti-Gandalf, he was one of my favourite characters of the First Law trilogy. Still, the very favourite did not make it, and Logen definitely fits into the top 5. Here, trying to get away from his bloody past and lead a good, simple life, he is once again a very complex, compelling protagonist, and the fact most of the other characters know, for once, less then the reader – why, I found it very satisfying.
When he needs to get back into his old, ruthless self, even if it’s from the noblest of reasons, I kind of knew where it’s ultimately leading, and it gave the novel a whole new layer of grimness.
Ola: Is it me or is the Unforgiven vibe rather overpowering here? 😉 Elderly William Munny, played by none other than Clint Eastwood, had been the meanest, nastiest outlaw the West had seen – before he settled down, married and fathered a couple of kids, all the while trying to atone for the sins of his past. I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise to any reader of this blog that there is something very Eastwoodian in the way I imagine Ninefingers.
Piotrek: It could be a great role, and a chance for Eastwood to get into the king of genres, fantasy. Well, not now, but… 10, 20 years ago?
Ola: I must admit, if not for Logen, and Nicomo Cosca, to a lesser extent, I would consider this novel among the least successful works of Abercrombie. It is plodding, slow-burning, decidedly too long and too crammed with good intentions to maintain the cleanliness of Abercrombie’s usual style or to measure up to the ecstatic cruelty of The Heroes – and to make things worse, neither Shy nor Temple as the notional protagonists didn’t really click with me – but Logen’s arc really compensates for most of these flaws. There is something irresistible to see a character going through so much growth: the realization of what he’s done, the stubborn, continuing attempts to atone for his past sins, the humility and safety of his anonymous everyday existence… and yet the twists of fate time and again draw him against his will into the very thing he tried to escape from – violence.
Piotrek: Maybe he overdid it a bit, with Shy and Temple, to give us a bit of hope in a younger (our age, +/-?) couple that actually achieved redemption. But it was all within the conventions of the genre. And I simply bought the book as a whole, as an exercise in genre-bending. I was looking for the tropes, and they were there, done aptly, not always brilliantly, sure… that is a great fantasy-western that does not quite reach the level of Unforgiven. The whole wagon travel through the planes was really nicely done
Logen’s arch, though, and Cosca’s… both epic in their ways, dwarfing other storylines.
Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD!
Piotrek: Logen’s arc ended in a scene taken from Shane, one of the great classical westerns that also inspired Logan’s authors. Hero comes, shrouded in mystery, saves the situation, and then, understanding the settled life is not for him, he goes away.
Ola: Oh, but Shane’s ending, analyzed so stunningly well in The Negotiator, is far from being straightforward. Besides the famous dispute whether he lives or dies at the end, the concluding scene with Shane riding away from the life he led is an admission that his attempt to start anew had been, in the end, a failed one: that our nature, however much we’d like to disown it, will always out. It’s not about choice, quite the contrary: it’s the realization that the choice was an illusion, and that the one thing you cannot escape is your self.
Piotrek: And here Logen agrees. We don’t have to. It makes for a great conclusion to a journey of one anti-hero, anyway.
Cosca, on the other hand, is not redeemed. A mercenary that occasionally pretended to be more than a thug, ended up as a common robber and we could see there was never much difference anyway.
END OF SPOILERS
Ola: Cosca had some great lines, and his story served as a wonderful counterbalance to Logen’s arc – the two stories eerily similar in some aspects, depicting two lives filled with violence and following the same winding, ruthless, painful route, yet arriving at totally different destinations. This might actually be the only book in which Abercrombie makes a moral stand of sorts, in defence of ethical values, in which the effort is not entirely doomed (not only, but also, because of the aforementioned lack of the evil wizard :P). And that’s another of the main selling points of Red Country – at least to me.
What is not so great, apart from the apparent difficulties in wrapping up this book, to which Abercrombie admits freely on his blog, is the villain of the piece: the Ghosts. I appreciate the difficulties in transplanting a straightforward 18th century Western to our modern times so as to not offend the evolving sensibilities – especially with regards to the issue of dehumanization and demonization of the enemy, yet, as a result, the Ghosts are papery and completely unconvincing. Their whole story arc seems half-baked, a literary primum movens necessary to put in motion the subsequent events of the book – but then, Red Country is a character-driven novel.
Piotrek: I have to agree here. We do not spend enough time with them, they do not fit well. But I love what their big, almost woken-up Dragon turns out to be 😉 In their defeat we have a defeat of the mysterious by the efficient, technical, forward-looking civilization triumphing over the fantasy. I wonder, how Bayaz will keep the strings of power – perhaps it will be even easier, when he changes robes for a suit?
Ola: Spoiler for A Little Hatred – it is 😉 And who he could have become if not a bankster? 😛
Piotrek: I’d say the story could use some more work. I kept expecting to learn about some connection of the Ghosts to Bayaz’s arch-adversary. Ultimately, there were only a pretext.
So, we have a few great arcs, we have a conclusion or two, and actually a preview of the technological progress that will define the new Abercrombie’s trilogy. I say, great stuff. Not as great as Best Served Cold, but great nonetheless. And another proof that he’s not that grim nor dark, at heart, as he always finds a way to bring some warmth into his novels, and confirm one or two traditional values 😉
Ola: Heh, I’d say better than Best Served Cold, which holds the least appeal of all Abercrombie’s novels to me 😛 So, better than Best Served Cold, on par with the First Law trilogy, but not as good as The Heroes 😉
Score: Ola: 8.5/10, Piotrek 8.5/10