My first reaction to THE HEROES was “Oh great, another one of those middlin’ fantasy pseudo iron age novels, with noble savages against corrupt civilized foes and blah blah blah”. I can’t help it. I worked in a bookstore for much of my early life and you get a feel for this kind of mush. By chapter 3, I was asking myself “Who IS this Joe Abercrombie fellow, and why haven’t I read everything he’s written yet?” I am currently working on that goal.
I’ve kept that promise! Three years later and I have the First Law trilogy and Best Served Cold under my belt, and I possess a greatly expanded world view of the First Law universe of Joe Abercrombie. So I was pumped to see the re-emergence of Logen Nine-Fingers (although his name is never mentioned, check me if I’m wrong!) in his latest* First Law book Red Country. Minor spoiler here– Logen survived the dive out Bethod’s castle window and wandered away from the North, where he inexplicably settled down with an unnamed woman to be her ranch hand/stepfather of her children. Geography is purposefully vague in Abercrombie novels, which is why you see few if any maps in his books. Logen settled in the “Near Country” which appears to be on the edge of Starrickland and just this side of the “Far Country”. Under the guise of “Lamb”, he has become a father to his step-children, Roe, Pitt and especially Shy South, a half-breed of sorts. Point of explanation: the local version of American Indians are called “Ghosts” in this world and are blonde or red-headed. Shy’s mother apparently had one for a husband or “companion” at some point in her past– her mother is deceased at the start of the story.
After the characters of Lamb and Shy are introduced at a local store haggling over supplies, tragedy ensues and the other children are kidnapped and a farmhand on the farm is murdered. At this point the story goes into full on SEARCHERS mode. If you are stumped at the reference, the Searchers is the classic 1956 Western starring John Wayne in arguably his greatest role, Ethan Edwards. Edwards is a grim faced Civil War veteran that relentlessly pursues the kidnappers of his niece. Abercrombie borrows from this structure with both hands, casting Lamb as Edwards and Shy South as a foul-mouthed, somewhat obnoxious version of Martin Pawley (seriously.. see the Searchers if you never have, it’s excellent.. and kind of a shocker for John Wayne fans).
Lamb and Shy track some of the kidnappers to a border town, where a fracas ensues that results in the emergence of the long buried “Bloody Nine” character.. the berserk inner demon that sometimes possesses Logen in a fight. In the brutal ensuing slaughter they learn enough to find out whom they are pursuing and what direction they need to go in. They also catch the attention of Dab Sweet, famous old time frontiersman with his laconic companion, Crying Rock, a Ghost woman.
Lamb and Shy happen to be going the same direction as Dab Sweet, so they sign on to a “Fellowship” (wagon train) and accompany them in a journey to the Far Country.
So the plot becomes something between the old 50s TV show Wagon Train and the old 50s movie The Searchers, complete with Indian Raids, bad weather, dust and assorted trials and tribulations, many of them deadly. In parallel with Shy and Lamb’s narrative (told through Shy’s eyes) is the story of Temple, a feckless type who might have been a very minor character in previous stories (I can’t recall), but now has ended up playing a far grander role as the notary and lawyer for infamous mercenary Niccomo Costca as his company also travels into the Far Country, employed by the Inquisition to find rebel strongholds. Temple is the other POV character (aside from the usual character asides, which Abercrombie delights in). He is stricken with conscience as Costca’s men commit atrocity after atrocity, and finally has enough. The understated redemption of Temple’s character is handled well. Abercrombie doesn’t make him a perfect hero during the course of the story– he just becomes a better person. That rang true for me.
I don’t like revealing much more of the plot– suffice to say they all intersect, travelling into the Far Country, and many things of great import happen, introducing new characters and re-introducing us to a surprising number of older ones, including Caul Shivers and Glamma Golden. The plot resolves to everyone’s satisfaction, although not without a great cost as some of the older characters are killed off.
You might have picked up on the thinly disguised Western theme. Yup, it IS that obvious. I can’t say as I was put off by it.. the First Law universe has the same gritty feel to it as a Western so it wasn’t a thematic stretch for Abercrombie.
Overall it was a great read, and I tore through it like I tear through the author’s work usually. My only complaint was the constant forced jabs between Shy South and Dab Sweet– just to prove they respect each other. It seemed forced. My other complaint was the constant philosophizing the older characters do during the course of the book. Every other page, one of the oldsters makes some cryptic comment about time catching up to him, there being nobody around to inject levity into the conversation except, perhaps, Temple. THis is a standard trope of Joe Abercrombie.. prosing on about time catching up with a character, how his knees hurt on cold mornings, and how there is no glory in war. We’ve read this before. Despite that minor nit I found myself enjoying this book very much. Perhaps not as much as THE HEROES but it’s a book that a fantasy fan will tear through in point-blimfark.
* I have not read the most current trilogy that Joe Abercrombie is currently working on (starting with HALF A KING) but I believe it doesn’t take place in the First Law world. I hope Joe continues to transport us to that setting.