When Shy South returns from market rip to find her homestead burned and her brother and sister kidnapped, she sets off to rescue them accompanied by her step father Lamb. Her will journey takes her across the Far Country where she and her allies will confront hostile nature, dangerous outlaws, fierce natives, greed, corruption, and a vainglorious mercenary captain named Nicomo Cosca.
To my mind one of the most fascinating genre mix-ups to arise from speculative fiction is the fantasy or supernatural western. The Western not only provides the central founding mythology goes the United States of America (serving as our King Arthur Story, Mabinogi, or Vedas) but has found itself adapted to address the issues of the times. It seems only natural that fantasy and sci-fi authors would want to try their hand at this most American of genes. Usually these works take the form of either a traditional western setting (America from about 1835-1905) with fantasy elements (magic or the supernatural) or traditional fantasy novels written in the style of a western. Over the next couple of columns these reviews will look at several different aspects of the Western in speculative fiction, starting with Red Country, by Joe Abercrombie.
I picked up this book based on the book jacket’s description of it as a fantasy novel written in the style of a western. I had heard the Joe Abercormbie’s other novels had a reputation for featuring gritty violence and morally conflicted heroes. After starting the book, I realized that several of the characters were from the author’s other works, but Red Country managed to convey who these characters were, and the earlier adventures are not necessary to understanding this story (though those who have read the other books may find certain characters fate more resonant however). I had a conflicted reaction to this book, and I think the best way to review is to riff on the tile of the concluding chapter of Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy of films.
Red Country is a well written book. Abercrombie’s prose creates a vivid picture of the environment and the characters, and it gave a clear understanding of the geography of the world they inhabit. The book provides a lot of action, and moves quickly from event to event. It does not devote a lot of the time to extraneous filler and has a very lean structure, which allows it to emulate the classic western novels and films that are its influences. If you are a fan of Abercrombie’s First Law World or his other works, you will probably like this book immensely.
The events of this book read like a greatest hits of the modern western film canon. I easily identified elements of The Searchers, Ride the High Country, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Wild Bunch, and of course A Fistful of Dollars. This is in itself not necessarily a weakness of the book as the various western works often use the same situations to different ends and much of the action is based upon a series of stock tropes (hostile natives, the wagon train, the corrupt town, the mysterious stranger with a background stepped in violence). However, in this book I feel the author tried to place one too many western elements in the book, and it made it feel like it was too dependent on the works that had come before it. Additionally, I felt that this book has a problem with its ending as it appears to be heading towards a climactic showdown reminiscent of The Wild Bunch, switches to copy the final scene The Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, before finally deciding that it wants to steal the ending of The Outlaw Josey Wales (an ending which I felt the character who received it did not deserve). How much of a drawback this will be to the readers will depend on ones familiarity with the Western genre I suppose.
Early on in this review I mentioned that this book has a number of stock western characters (the woman with a past, the man of peace who has turned his back on violence but is forced to pick up his old ways, the youngster with no skills seeking vengeance), and this is not a problem as such characters are the bedrock of western fiction. It is what the author does re-conceptualize these roles that count. However, I found one character in this book especially problematic, and I think it is because it is an attempt at a pastiche of a real life western character: the mercenary leader Nicomo Cosca. It was obvious form the introductory paragraph that this character is meant to be a version of the real life General George Armstrong Custer (mostly known for his actions at the Battle of Little Bighorn). This works great as narrative shorthand for conveying everything you need to know about the character, but I felt the similarities to the real Custer detracted from giving Cosca a unique voice and pulled me out of the story. I think that Cosca is one of the characters from Abercrombie’s other works, as there seems to be a lot of back-story to his role in the storyline.
In short I think Red Country is a great book for fans of modern, darker edged fantasy, fans of Joe Abercormbie’s other works, and anyone looking for a crash course in the history of western film since about 1965.
Related works – Mad Amos and Blood Meridian
Mad Amos (1996) – Alan Dean Foster
The best fantasy/western I have read is this collection of short stories by Alan Dean Foster. Mad Amos is a mountain man/scout in the American frontier who rides a unicorn named Worthless and battles supernatural and occult threats.
Blood Meridian (1992) – Cormac McCarthy
McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is a truly gritty western about morally compromised people traveling across a hostile and dangerous land. The Judge (the books main villain) and his band of mercenary’s depredations make Nicomo Cosca and his men look like armatures at the art of violence.