If you’re looking for Tolkien-style fantasy, don’t read Joe Abercrombie.
On the other hand, if what you’re after is fantasy so gritty and dirty it’s almost depressing, pick up Red Country. Or, to judge by the blurb on the cover of the novel, any other of his books. The blurb, by the way, is from Lev Grossman of the Wall Street Journal and reads: “Imagine The Lord of the Rings as directed by Kurosawa.” It’s a recommendation for Mr. Abercrombie’s novel The Heroes.
Red Country is the story of Shy South. We’re never told Shy’s age, but she seems to be in her early twenties. Life hasn’t been easy for Shy, but ever since she landed on a farm near the small town of Squaredeal, it’s at least been tolerable. Sure, she has to make up for her stepfather’s shortcomings. For a large Northman, Lamb isn’t exactly ferocious, and can’t even haggle properly.
But when a gang raids their farm while they’re in town selling goods and steals Shy’s younger brother and sister and kills Gully, an old man who lives on the farm, Shy and Lamb begin a trek to the town of Crease in the Far Country in search of them.
Crease is a gold rush boomtown, and here’s where the story gets interesting: this book is as much a spaghetti Western as it is fantasy. Along the way, Lamb and Shy join a Fellowship, Mr. Abercrombie’s version of a wagon train. While crossing the great plain that separates the Near Country and the Far Country, they face all the usual wagon train dangers, from creek crossings to violent weather to the Ghosts, this world’s version of Indians (though Ghosts get the name because they’re pale in color, everything else seems much the same, with the exception they take ears instead of scalps).
The only problem I really had with Red Country was that it seemed a bit long, but I think that’s just because I’ve gotten used to the shorter novels of the crime fiction genre. Fantasy books are necessarily longer, as there’s more to explain. It’s this little thing called world building that accounts for that.
Red Country is dirty, gritty, and authentic. It seems the characters are rarely clean, and there certainly aren’t any flighty elves on display here. The Ghosts are, well, ghosts of what they used to be—a powerful force on the plains—and the boomtown of Crease turns out to be so nasty that I’m not sure if any self-respecting pig would live there. No one trusts anyone else, and not even the love story—between Shy and a man named Temple they meet along the way—is typical. It’s more like by the end of the story—spoiler alert!—they settle into some semblance of accommodation with one another and their feelings. Yeah, the love is there, but it’s not exactly flaming passion like you’d read about in some bodice ripper.
There’s humor here to counter all the depressing grime, though. Mr. Abercrombie is British, so the comedy can sometimes border on something from Monty Python, with that dry British tilt to it. For instance, in one scene late in the novel, Shy and Temple are fleeing with a wagonload of gold while being chased by mercenaries. Temple is driving while Shy attempts to fend off their pursuers with her bow. She’s even taken to throwing bags of gold out the back doors to distract them when the following exchange takes place:
“They still following?” shrieked Temple.
“What are you doing?”
“Having a fucking lie down before they get here!”
So, if you want high fantasy in the tradition of Tolkien or Katherine Kurtz, I’d say avoid Joe Abercrombie. But if you want something grittier, something that almost makes you feel like taking a shower after you read it, pick up one of Joe Abercrombie’s books. You might feel a bit sullied afterwards, but you’ll also feel satisfied you had a good read. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?