Gold has been discovered in the hills and mountains of the Far Country, that untamed frontier beyond the Old Empire and far to the west of the Union. Prospectors, mercenaries and those eager to find a new life flock to those lands, only to find the greed and violence of their pasts following them, even those of honourable intentions. Shy South and her adopted father are searching for missing kinfolk, kidnapped for purposes unknown. Their pursuit across the Far Country leads them into an alliance with a fellowship of the plains, a caravan hoping for a better life in the distant mining town of Crease. But, with rebels gathering in the mountains and Nicomo Cosca and his Company of the Gracious Hand also on a sworn mission to root them out for His Majesty's Inquisition, this is a journey where nothing will turn out as hoped.
Red Country is Joe Abercrombie's sixth novel and his third semi-stand-alone set in the same world as The First Law sequence. As with its two immediate predecessors, Best Served Cold and The Heroes, Red Country can be read by itself, but regular readers will pick up on a lot of nods and winks to previous novels, from cameo character appearances to the ongoing development of a 'cold war' between two opposing factions.
The book moves between several major POV characters. Shy is our main protagonist, but shares a lot of the page-time with Temple, a lawyer in Cosca's army whose moral centre is gradually crumbling in the face of so much pain and violence. Other characters also flitter in and out of the story, with Abercrombie re-using the 'POV handover' trick from The Heroes to great effect several times, where the perspective shifts between several characters in succession to help clearly tell the story of a battle or confrontation. As usual with Abercrombie, the characters' personalities and motivations are convincingly laid out and developed, and there are some nice pay-offs for returning characters (Cosca, in particular, gets some fairly thorough character development here). One slight flaw is that the storyline following one of the kidnapped children never seems to really develop, and feels like it either needed several more chapters dedicated to it or the whole thing dropped and the reader (like Shy) made to discern for themselves what happened off-page.
The novel has been billed as 'Joe Abercrombie's Western' and there is certainly a degree of that in the book's influences. Brief nods to The Searchers, Unforgiven and the mighty Deadwood can be discerned, though unexpectedly the most constant cultural reference is the original Star Wars movie: one brief line of dialogue by Obi-Wan Kenobi inspires an entire subplot in the novel. However, there are significant deviations from the Western motif. The West in this case is the long-abandoned northern provinces of the Old Empire, festooned with ruins from ancient times, rather than a totally virgin and untamed land (apart from the natives, of course). The area is also (relatively) close to the Old Empire, the Union and the North, making it much more of a cultural melting-pot and having it effect (and be effected by) events in more established lands than you might expect. Finally, there's no six-shooters, with everyone falling back on the old stand-bys of swords and bows. More or less.
The tone of the book is bloody and cynical, with Abercrombie's trademark line in black humour preventing things from getting too depressing. However, the cynicism feels a little harder-edged and a bit blacker than in his previous books, the humour perhaps a tad less prevalent. It's still a page-turning, well-written book with points to make about human nature, but at times the tone feels wearier than his previous books. However, this also ties in with a feeling of tragedy underpinning the book, one that results in a grimly satisfying pay-off at the end (and one element of the novel that is completely lifted - if appropriately - from a Western).
Red Country (****½) is Joe Abercrombie doing what he does best, writing a story of violence, mayhem and vengeance and the effect it has on all-too-human characters. As with his previous stand-alones, the book works as both a satisfying novel in its own right and also moves a lot of political and religious pieces into position to be (presumably) used to good effect in his next work, a full-on trilogy. Some may find the cynicism a tad overwhelming at times and at least one of the subplots doesn't quite work as well as it could have, but this is a strong effort from one of the better writers in the genre. The novel will be available on 18 October in the UK and 13 November in the USA.