There's an awful lot going on in Red Country, Joe Abercrombie's largely successful attempt to write a spaghetti western in a fantasy setting. There are at least four climaxes, and nearly as many endings as the extended edition of Lord of the Rings. Impressively, at least two of the climaxes would have done a lesser man fine as the whole point of a book, but Abercrombie starts chucking them at the page from about the middle of the book and keeps them cranking out from there on in, as if to say "You like that? You think that's a big deal? That's nothin', nothin' I tell ya. Check THIS out." In lesser hands, it would be story telling by hyper active five year old; with Abercrombie, it's all part of a bigger story about mission creep, and the way that every quest is someone else's disaster.
The engine for the book is deceptively simple; Shy South, bandit turned farmer, comes back from a trip to market to find her farm in ruins, her farmhand swinging from a tree and her younger brother and sister missing. There's only one thing any book can do at the moment; start out on the roaring rampage of revenge to get the kids back, aided only by her cowardly useless stepfather.
This being Abercrombie, nothing is ever that simple. For a start, as Shy's stepfather Lamb says. "You have to be realistic." Long time readers of Abercrombie will feel their ears prick up at that phrase; Lamb is just one of several characters to wander in from Abercrombie's earlier work with a new name or no name at all. Being realistic means slowly and painstakingly following the trail not on the fleetest of horses, but in the broken down ox wagon which is all that's left to them; Shy's quest is going to be a lot slower, and a lot bigger than she bargained for.
Abercrombie's first books, the First Law trilogy, had a fairly manageable number of viewpoint characters and usually stuck with one for the length of a whole chapter. In Best Served Cold, the viewpoint shifted among the various revengers even within the chapters. By The Heroes, he was comfortable flitting into spear carriers for a few lines, usually before clobbering them unmercifully. Red Country is positively dizzying by comparison, the view shifting from one minor character to another from page to page. It's a mark of the way that he's developing as a writer that Abercrombie can make this work, with each little voice having something distinctive to it. In The Heroes, he was flitting among his characters to bring home the arbitrary way in which a battle carries everything before it, deliberately bringing them to life specifically to make a point about the way that every death is the end of a whole world. In Red Country, he's flitting among his cast of ne'er-do-wells to show us how everyone is the hero of their own story, the decent sympathetic person just doing their best and appalled at the scoundrels around them. And then we switch to the next scoundrel and hear their jaundiced view of the person whose eyes we've just been looking through.
The message that - in our own minds - we're all getting the soundtrack music synched to our walk is one of the two big themes in the book; the other being that once you get hold of one end of the spaghetti, there's no telling what size of a meatball is going to flick off the other end. There's a whole lot of kids being stolen and a whole lot of bad guys to get through before Shy and Lamb find out why. And of course, child stealing on an epic scale must have some suitably grandiose plot behind it, though Abercrombie being Abercrombie, the grandiose plot neither works out well for the plotters, nor forms the centrepiece of anything in particular. Abercrombie is quite fond of blowing up the Bond villain HQ almost as collateral damage while sweeping on towards something else which is more important to the characters.
So, how does it all go? Well for fans, there's all kinds of fun. The return of the character presently known as Lamb. The return of Nicomo Cosca, back once again to command scoundrels in the pursuit of profit. Cosca is always huge fun, since even if nothing else happens, there's the enormous entertainment to be derived from his explanations of how his contract absolutely required him to let down his employer and, indeed, now calls for a bonus payment. It's been ten years, apparently, since the events of Best Served Cold and Nicomo has had any number of reverses of fortune in between, though somehow he's managed to retain the loyalty of Friendly from those days, and he's still there counting everything and emotionlessly schwacking whoever he's told to schwack. Friendly is somehow the Bubba Rogowoski of Abercrombie's world, except that everyone else in his world is so ruthless that it hardly needs a Rogowsk….
And there are others from the good old days, though it would ruin some of the fun to say too much about who's around and why. And it would take the attention off the new characters, who are great fun in their own right, especially Cosca's notary, Temple, who appears to be a cross between Moist Lipwig from Ankh Morpork and one of KJ Parker's more slippery anti-heroes, but somehow rises above all those influences to make a tremendous foil for Shy as the book unfolds.
What surprised me the most was how Abercrombie managed to keep the characteristic beats of a spaghetti western without somehow swamping his own world. It's hugely influenced by Clint and by Deadwood and all the really good Sergio Leone flicks, but it's still somehow recognisably the frontier of the world which Abercrombie has been sketching in through half a dozen books now. I wasn't sure how well he'd carry that off, but it works. And threaded through the whole thing are the laconic wisecracks which pepper his books. He has the knack of getting his characters to say funny things which sound like the kind of funny things people might well say at a bad moment.
And just as with The Heroes, there's a sense of bigger things being moved around while the main cast aren't looking. The bigger cosmic battle which preoccupied the plot of the First Law Trilogy hasn't gone away, and the child-stealing ties into it, though our heroes solve their problems so shambolically that any possibility of a big explanation flies out the window. Future books will spell it all out, no doubt, only to swab over the spelling lesson and change the rules.
And a big hats off to Abercrombie for being perhaps the first ever writer to do Chekhov's gun with an actor. To say more would ruin it.