RED COUNTRY by Joe Abercrombie

“Where I come from we got a different way of doing things.”

— Lamb

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.

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KING OF THORNS by Mark Lawrence

PRINCE OF THORNS, the first book in THE BROKEN EMPIRE, was probably my favorite discovery of 2011. The pace was swift, the action sharp as a knife, the prose subtly effective and the characters hiding unseen depths beneath their violent exteriors.

So it’s high praise indeed that KING OF THORNS is even better than its predecessor.

In the opening book, which I reviewed here, Lawrence chose to tell his story by introducing Jorg at his worst and then providing backstory primarily in the second half of the book. While I admire the tactic, I wonder how many readers Lawrence lost, people who never read to the second half of the book to find that while Jorg may not be a character you want to root for, he’s at least an understandable character.

Of course, I love a good anti-hero — Raistlin Majere, Gerald Tarrant, Nicomo Cosca, anyone? — so Jorg was right up my alley.

In KING OF THORNS, the tale bounces back and forth between the current action, in which an overpowering army prepares to invade the kingdom Jorg won in PRINCE OF THORNS, and four years earlier, when Jorg begins to explore his newly-won territory. It’s easy enough to tell which story thread each chapter addresses, as the chapters are all titled either “Four Years Ago” or “Wedding Day.”

The two storylines work well together and take full advantage of the dynamic world Lawrence has created, one that can host ghosts and dreamwalkers and computers and trolls without feeling like an awkward mash-up.

The secondary characters in the book aren’t given much time, but there are surprisingly likeable characters mixed in amongst the thugs who typically surround Jorg. In the first book, I liked characters such as The Nuban, Gorgoth, Gog and Morgog. In this book, Makin fills a similar role to that of The Nuban, and Gorgoth and Gog are key to the first half of the book. The two main female characters are also interesting. Nonetheless, none of the characters are explored too closely — in fact, Jorg is surprised in this book to learn the Nuban’s name.

Of course, Jorg is a self-centered character, so it wouldn’t make sense for him to be too concerned about his compatriots’ back stories and motivations, but it also takes away some of the impact when members of the band die. At one point, Jorg gets angry and avenges a comrade’s death in bloody fashion, but afterwards he’s asked why he bothered — he never liked that fellow in the first place. Jorg has no answer to this query.

Other characters die with only a passing mention.

It fits, of course, with Jorg’s worldview — he truly doesn’t treasure the lives around him, so why would he stop and weep for the fallen? At times I’d like to see more reaction when one of my favorite characters dies, but that really doesn’t fit with the tone of these books — it’s a violent world with a violent protagonist.

It’s a recipe that makes for a bloody (good) read.