Red Country by Joe Abercrombie
As a fan of Joe Abercrombie’s other books, such as The Heroes, Red Country was a must-read for me. Even though I had no idea what Red Country was about, or how it might be related to his previous stories, it didn’t really matter because I was certain that Joe Abercrombie would entertain me.
Red Country feels almost like a Western in the way that the towns are laid out — there’s a quasi general store and a the local saloon, for example — and I was starting to wonder if Abercrombie was breaking away from his usual setting. But the conditions, as in all of Abercrombie’s other stories, are pretty rough, and so very realistic. Red Country has a good setting for the type of hard story that Abercrombie writes.
Shy South is a girl with a hard past. She’s been in trouble before in her life, the kind of trouble that has left her always looking over her shoulder and wondering if she is well and truly out of it. Her natural intelligence, slightly coarse manners and generally tough demeanor make her the perfect caregiver for her younger brother and sister. Life is not easy for Shy and her family, including Lamb and other hired hands that help them work their farm, but it’s not a life without a future and good prospects.
Shy’s somewhat tragic life gets wrapped up with the tumultuous gold rush heading from the Near Country to the Far County. It’s like the great Western migration as companies of people, some poor and looking for something better, and some not so poor and hoping to stay that way, are travelling to make their future. (The feeling of being in a Western is really kind of disconcerting because there are no six-shooters or stage coaches here.)
The recurring theme of Red Country is that the past doesn’t always stay in the past. For Shy and other characters in the story, choices they have made in the past keep coming back to haunt them. From the hired hand who was once a soldier, to a member of a migrant mercenary company who has run from one problem to another all his adult life, people are continually plagued by what they did long ago. The beauty is that Abercrombie allows some of them to grow. The moments when choosing to continue as you have been or choosing to stand for something, even if your motivation is just that you are sick of being who you were, are when real personal change can occur. It’s not always pleasant to read about and at times the story is downright gruesome.
Red Country left me thinking. The story was entertaining, the characters memorable and tragic, but what really impressed me was the way that Abercrombie made me think about how much someone’s past dictates their future. Are there things that we can’t run from, that so define us that trying to deny them is futile? Well, in the world that Abercrombie writes, you can decide for yourself. For me, Red Country makes a great book.