Red Country – Joe Abercrombie

‘Severed heads,’ Cosca was explaining, ‘never go out of fashion. Used sparingly and with artistic sensibility, they can make a point a great deal more eloquently than those still attached. Make a note of that. Why aren’t you writing?’

Joe Abercrombie goes country this was billed as, a lot more cleverly than that obviously, and it is exactly that, although still within the first law universe. There is potentially a character spoiler in here, I’m not really spoiling the plot, but if you’ve read the trilogy, you will probably work out what I’m blathering on about.

As the brilliantly shallow Nicomo Cosca rages havoc in the far country, Shy South and her cowardly ‘father’ Lamb track her stolen brother and sister high up into the mountains, falling in with a caravan being guided by the legendary Dab Sweet, where they meet others swept up in the tide of men seeking fortune, to where where prospectors have been flocking in search of gold.
I spent the book trying to remember if I had come across some of the names before, but at some point early on, there was a flicker, a glimmer, was Lamb..could he be back? There were a few oblique references before he first fights, then the confirmation is almost there, by the time the party leaves Crease, it’s irrefutable, welcome back the Bloody Nine.

For all the pleasure I gained from the return of the Northman, it is Nicomo Cosca who for me was the star of this book. He has the best lines and is one of the best characters I’ve come across in a fantasy book. Hopelessly vain, shallow, selfish and self-centered he is the most mercenary mercenary ever to walk on a page. His relentless drive for money, at the expense of those around him is almost commendable, tempered only by his completely lack of scruples and morality.

Temple comes close to Cosca as an enjoyable character, another flawed good guy, a type seemingly loved by Abercrombie, or perhaps just a truthful reflection of life, only in fantasy would the good be all good and the bad be all bad, this is almost real fantasy.
What I did enjoy, and I thought Abercrombie did really well, and it almost surprises me to be saying this, is the budding romance between Temple and Shy. The shy recognition that something’s there resonated with me, and my own muddling attempts at forging a relationship in the early stages.

There are a lot of references to the past, to it catching up with you, you can’t run and hide from what you do or who you are, indeed perhaps only Temple manages to break from his past, although he is still the same coward he was before. I wasn’t sure how I wanted the book to end, there is certainly food for thought by the time you turn the last page, but mostly it’s the warm feeling of finishing a thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing bear-hug of a book.

I love what Abercrombie is doing, a whole world, with characters drifting in and out of all the books. At one point I wondered if the Mayor was Murcatto from Best Served Cold (the standalone books seem to follow a rough chronological order I think). It reminds me again of Terry Pratchett, the world is always there, and the cast of characters grows and grows, allowing Abercrombie to give the reader almost limitless reading pleasure.

‘I was once Grand Duke of Visserine you know.’ Cosca waved down attempts at abashment which had, in fact, not happened. ‘Don’t worry, you need not call me Excellency – we are all informal here in the Company of the Gracious Hand, are we not, Temple?’
Temple took a long breath. ‘We are all informal.’ Most of them were liars, all of them were thieves, some of them were killers. Informality was not surprising.

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