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Red Country by Joe Abercrombie
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Many folks aren't comfortable without moral clarity. In a world in which tragedy and sadness are cruel, random, and all too common occurrences, I can understand. The escapist appeal of fantasy literature, of course, is that it should transport you away from this vale of tears into magical realms where heroes are heroic, princesses are plucky yet marriagable, adventures are thrilling, animals occasionally talk, and dark lords are dark and can be relied upon to lose at the end. Readers who who prefer that fantasy template don't take too kindly to Joe Abercrombie, who creates worlds all too like our own, blackened by war and economic oppression, peopled by slick opportunists and rogues on the make.

But the thing about the real world is, people try. Acts of evil and cowardice dominate the news. Acts of charity and nobility get unnoticed or, at best, a tiny mention in some "human interest" report before fading into history. But they are out there. And they exist in Abercrombie's world, too, though, as in our own, they often get buried in the noise.

People call Abercrombie a cynical writer. I just think he's a man without illusions. In Red Country, everyone is convinced they are doing what's right, especially the worst of the lot. We find ourselves curling our lips at his heroes while, at the same time, identifying to one degree or another with them. And when his villains are introduced after chapters and chapters of being discussed in hushed whispers, sometimes they present a surprisingly sympathetic figure. Then there are those characters who are neither hero nor villain, just regular folks swept up in events and doing the best they can. Here is Joe Abercrombie's storytelling wizardry: that when the dust settles, you still come away fairly confident you've rooted for, and hissed against, the right people.

In Red Country, several quests dovetail into one. The book's first line of dialogue sets the stage: "Gold makes men mad." Shy and her adoptive father, Lamb, a hulk of a man despite his name, return to their farm to discover arson, murder, and the family's two smallest chidren stolen. Setting off after the culprits, they join a fellowship of travelers heading west to the mountain town of Crease, where a gold rush (already tapped out, but everyone still believes they'll be the exception) is underway.

Crease is also the destination of the Company of the Gracious Hand, a disgraceful band of mercenaries hired by the Union to ferret out Rebels and their sympathizers. Led by Nicomo Cosca, an aging dandy with delusions of grandeur, the company steers north when the greedy Cosca learns of a band of child-snatchers, trading in ancient gold, who are headed into the mountains. Cosca's "legal advisor," a young man named Temple with a blemish or three in his own past, deserts, disgusted by both the mercenaries' excess and his own cowardice in abetting it. He finds himself fished out of a river by Shy, and ends up accompanying the fellowship.

Shy wants her baby brother and sister back. Cosca wants gold and glory. Temple isn't sure what he wants, and is so demoralized by his ability to ruin whatever good comes his way that he looks forward to very little. He knows he doesn't want to keep being the same Temple, but he doesn't know how to change. Of all the book's characters, Temple is, if nothing else, the one who makes the best effort to change. This is in contrast to Lamb, who begins the book as a changed man, but reverts to the berserker ways of his past as events in the story unfold.

Cosca may well be Abercrombie's most memorable character. He represents all that is laughable and petty about narcisstic men whose talents only rarely rise to their ambitions, and Abercrombie pours every drop of his trademark gallows humor into him, giving Cosca some of the funniest scenes and lines he has written to date. Say this for Abercrombie: he has a gift for wit in the face of humanity at its worst that you don't often see in George R.R. Martin. Cosca's charm lies partly in the way he's so deluded about how deluded he is. He can rationalize practically anything, and prides himself on what he is sure is his realistic outlook on life. His reaction to Temple's desertion is not anger, but increased respect. Temple looked out for himself first, the trait that Temple comes to realize is his deepest shame. Pompously, Cosca pontificates on the unfairness of life and the inevitability of disappointment. Yet his sense of entitlement throws him into a rage when it looks as if his dreams of wealth and victory could be thwarted.

Can anyone change? Can people build something good out of the rubble others leave behind? Abercrombie thinks so, and you see it happening here. The lawless and filthy mining town of Crease appears to have a future as a center of industry. And individual characters, while marked by their experience, will heal in their own ways and move forward. Look past the brutality and ugliness on the surface to see the hope beneath, and you'll have an appreciation for the deeply human fantasies of Joe Abercrombie.