Review of 'Red Country' by Joe Abercrombie
While I think new readers will enjoy the various characters used in Red Country, those who have read his previous works get bonus enjoyment points from seeing various secondary and/or primary characters return. Since each of these characters have certain distinct traits that make them easily recognizable, you get that extra thrill of figuring out who they are after a word or two. I am becoming ever more impressed with Abercrombie's ability to create recognizable character types that feel fresh and new even if they are struggling with similar challenges as characters from previous books. If you're an Abercrombie fan and have been holding your breath for the Bloody Nine's return, wait no longer. If you're not a fan of Logen Ninefingers, there are plenty of others to enjoy.
Plotting and Pacing: 4/5 and 4/5
Abercrombie wields a wide variety of POV characters, new and old, to good effect in moving down the road of Red Country. While there are certain character 'types' that appear frequently in his novels, they are exquisitely crafted here and each POV feels distinct and original. This allows him to illustrate various conflicts from multiple angles that one might not expect. Often he has the annoying (yet extremely effective) habit of choosing characters near the action who get to watch as someone else does something crazy. Even though there are a great many characters that you only learn about through other characters' viewpoints, they feel real and fully formed (the same way Sandor Clegane in GRRM's Song of Ice and Fire series is someone I feel I know and can understand on some level, despite that fact that we are never able to read from his POV). Thanks to Abercrombie's masterful (and still improving) prose, the characters and plot are inseperable, thus leading to my inability to comment on them seperately. With regards to pacing, the novel starts off with a strong hook and drags you all the way along through a smorgasboard of dangers. Frankly, most of the excitement was due to the fact that I knew how the novel began and couldn't wait to see Logen back in action. While there were one or two points where I felt things were dragging ever so slightly, Red Country is a slow burn that you can't help but want to keep reading. This is his best novel to date, and the various crumbs he leaves behind here mean that I will be buying his next novel as soon as it hits the shelves (assuming it isn't a novel about an extremely happy unicorn, or something of that nature).
The world of the First Law is still as interesting and enjoyable as ever. The western-style-fantasy bit never feels forced to me. It still feels like fantasy, although he is shaping it in such a way that western tropes are crammed in wherever possible. Abercrombie's remarkable ability to weave other genres with fantasy is evident here, and I look forward to seeing what he does next. He also drops small tidbits of information about the overall setting and its evolution that made me feel like a dying man in the desert chasing a single raincloud. There is so much more that I wan to know about. What is the state of alchemy in the world of the first law? How is the war going elsewhere? How can a mechanical dragon exist? What is its purpose? What happened to all my other favourite characters? A low magic setting if ever there's been one, but there is just enough of that spark of mystery in the alchemy of the world and in various other areas that it does still feel like fantasy and not historical fiction. Nothing but good things to say about the setting.
Style and Themes: 4.5/5 and 4.5/5
Style-wise, this is the best writing Abercrombie has demonstrated so far (I'm sure he'll be happy to hear that, ambitious sociopath that he is). There isn't much to say. The prose is as tight as a taut bowstring (let's keep this review PG-13) and is a perfect vehicle for his excellent characterizaion and plotting. My only complaint would be that, early in the novel, I had to hear Lamb being referred to as a 'coward' a few too many times. Abercrombie's editing knife must be as sharp as Valyrian steel, as not a single scene feels melodramatic and the action sequences are so well done that you can literally feel the tension. Every scene uses just the right amount words to hit home emotionally and is then cut short. It takes an extremely skilled author to do this well, and Abercrombie does it here.
Theme-wise, Abercrombie does what he's been doing in previous novels. He illustrates the difficulty (and/or impossibility) of escaping your past. Various characters who thought they'd changed, or want to change, or are in the process of changing, must struggle upriver as the weight of their previous actions drags at them. As always, he exemplifies the brutality with which humans can operate under extreme conditions, and while the outright cynicism and pragmatism of the characters rings true for me, sometimes it is a bit depressing. This is, however, by no means a criticism of his writing. The best works of fiction are like mirrors to the world, revealing the best and worst in human nature (and mostly the worst here, if we're being honest). This is like 'The Wire', were it done in a written format concentrating on the life of mercenaries. The futility of recklessly seeking riches and the need to find happiness in the small things are but a a few of the topics dealt with here (I'd call them themes, but that'd be wrong).
I've said it already, but I'll say it again: this is Abercrombie's best work to date, regardless of the fact that he is forcing himself to blend another genre with fantasy, regardless of the fact that the plot is a fairly straightforward affair, regardless of the fact we see very little from Logen's POV. The characterization is phenomenal, the prose superb, and the craftsmanship of individual action scenes would be shocking had I not seen it already in his other works. If you're an Abercrombie fan, pick this one up, and if you're not, maybe you should be.
Grading: Note that "6" is an average grade for each category, unexciting but still decent. Therefore, any novel that scores above 24 is above average and thus better than most of the other stuff floating around in bookshelves (at least in my opinion).
01-09: Nigh unreadable
10-19: Get it from the library
20-24: A modest endorsement
25-29: Well-rounded and enjoyable
30-34: Highly recommended
35-40: A must-read!