“You ain’t the brave knight and I ain’t the swooning maiden and this ain’t no storybook,” mutters the character Shy South in Red Country, the sixth novel by gritty fantasist Joe Abercrombie. As clever as he is, Abercrombie rarely gets this meta; since the 2006 publication of his debut novel, The Blade Itself, the British author has taken numerous jabs at the tropes of epic fantasy, usually by lampooning the genre’s fluffier tendencies and exaggerating its icy, grim violence. That violence became almost overwhelming in his last book, 2011’s dark, sarcastically titled The Heroes—even as Abercrombie laced his lovingly rendered savagery with a keen analysis of why human beings are so damn horrible. That dynamic is so central to Abercrombie’s style, he’s now cheekily rupturing the fourth wall to acknowledge it. With Red Country, though, he’s thrown out a curveball: He’s begun breaking his own rules. And succeeding wildly at it.
On the surface, Red Country is Abercrombie as usual. Set in the same pseudo-Renaissance world of his previous novels, it likewise incorporates a handful of existing characters—most notably the tormented, introspective warrior Logen Ninefingers, one of the most compelling figures of Abercrombie’s original First Law Trilogy. Years later, the scarred Ninefingers is now a middle-aged man trying to bury his past, living on a farm with his three adopted children—including the young woman Shy—and calling himself Lamb. The parallels to Clint Eastwood’s role in Unforgiven are clearly intentional; Abercrombie has also slyly updated his setting so it resembles the Old West, although elements of his feudal milieu still intrude. When marauders abduct Shy’s little brother and sister, Shy and Lamb go questing to find them, coming up against provincial politics, a ragtag wagon train, and another one of Abercrombie’s most charismatically loathsome antiheroes, the drunken mercenary Nicomo Cosca.
From there, however, the tenuous ties to Abercrombie’s existing world grow even thinner. Magic—which has taken an increasingly smaller role as his series continues—is barely mentioned and never seen in Red Country. Instead, a jarring new power has begun to rise in the world: industrialization. Abercrombie injects tanks, firearms, and manufactories into the background of his book, often with a frustrating lack of consistency. And when the steam engine briefly appears, it seems Abercrombie is dismissing the possibility of steampunk rather than signaling its arrival later in the series.
But Red Country alters the trajectory of Abercrombie’s books in a subtler way. While his previous works dwell on the stark, wry ironies of military life, this one features far fewer soldiers waxing philosophical and far more characters of a broader range, including children, which have rarely shown up in Abercrombie’s writing before. A pall of gallows humor still hangs over the story, but rarely has Abercrombie had so much fun while rollicking through his colorful cast’s foibles and witty dialogue—and rarely has he dished out so much straight-for-the-heart poignancy. And the Western motif gives him leeway to expound movingly on the noble-savage stereotype, not to mention cram in plenty of brawls, wagon chases, and an achingly anticlimactic showdown that reinforces Abercrombie’s strengths as a subversive yet celebratory purveyor of fantasy. By the end of Red Country, he even tips his hat to one of the Western’s most threadbare clichés—the final scene of Shane—with fresh grace. “As a young man I found happy endings cloying but, call me soppy, with age I have come to appreciate them more and more,” says one of the book’s minor characters, an actor forced into vaudeville in his twilight years. Abercrombie is still a relatively young writer, but with Red Country, he’s deepened his gleefully bleak fantasy with a newfound wealth of wisdom, sentiment, and yes, warmth.