“Where I come from we got a different way of doing things.”
I think what separates Joe Abercrombie’s characters from so many others we see in fantasy fiction (and real life, for that matter) is the incredible self awareness each character possesses, from the primary protagonists all the way down to the lowliest henchman. Abercrombie’s greatest strength is creating these world-weary characters who just don’t have the energy to sugarcoat things any more, and this unflinching honesty not only extends to the world and the people that surround them, but to their own faults and inadequacies.
In RED COUNTRY, Abercrombie actually introduces two characters that, with the possible exception of the Dogman from previous novels, seem the least likely to engage in sociopathic tendencies. Shy South, a woman whose younger brother and sister have been kidnapped, has a past that includes theft and murder, but those days seem to be in her past. As we get to know her during the events covered in the novel, she’s capable, but she’s often shocked by the violence of her compatriots and the wasteful deaths that plague her rescue efforts.
Meanwhile, Temple, a self-professed coward who admits to taking the easy way out whenever it’s available, actually isn’t that bad a person. He’s cowardly, but his heart’s generally in the right place. That makes him a tremendous deviation from many of the other characters Abercrombie has introduced us to over the years, especially the apparent good guys that often prove just as bad as their adversaries.
Unfortunately, I didn’t find Shy and Temple to be as interesting as some of the other, less sane characters from previous Abercrombie novels. Fortunately, many of my favorite sociopaths return, including Caul Shivers, Friendly (possibly my favorite character in the Abercrombie-verse), Nicomo Cosca and Lamb, a nine-fingered Northman who’s new name certainly won’t fool readers who have read Abercrombie’s previous works — though interestingly enough, the character’s real name is never actually mentioned.
The fantasy western conceit works well with Abercrombie’s strengths of playing with common tropes and utilizing the aforementioned world-weary characters. (Perhaps I like my characters slightly insane.) The plot moves a bit slowly and I didn’t find these characters as gripping as I have in Abercrombie’s previous books, but the POV characters’ voices still provide the story with a sturdy backbone that makes it better than most everything else out there.