Red Country (2012) is the sixth novel taking place in the same universe Joe Abercrombie created with the fantasy trilogy The First Law. This is the third stand-alone installment and like the previous two books it contains a few familiar characters. The setting is new and takes place in a sort-of frontier region. Life is hard and brutal here and Abercrombie writes his most gritty story yet. There is plenty of nastiness. Not in the sense of horrific, but in the lowness of human behavior. There is little good to be found. Much gets twisted and selfishness plays a big role. Being unselfish is often a mistake, leading to complications and tragedy.
Red Country, in its essence, is a story about revenge, but very different than the similar themed Best Served Cold. The story is more straightforward and although Abercromie adds in several minor stories to spice things up and complicate matters it all remains rather low level. There is some humor and some nice character interaction, but none of these are really memorable. Abercrombie shows his usual skill but the story and the setting are simply too mundane and outside the center of real power to make something more of it. Abercrombie is aware of this and some of his characters show great realism toward their situation. It are these small details that make something more of this novel and something different than the usual fantasy fare.
Abercrombie only manages to get one character go through some serious development. He does this well, but for the story the character is more an anti-hero which stands to great contrast with the other characters who show more guts and attitude. Most of them remain fairly sketchy and we see far too little background to create an idea of what they are. The only exception are the old familiar characters. Abercrombie is well versed in their behavior and nature and they stand out amongst the crowd. I expect that many of these new character won’t be heard of again in future novels, if he writes more. And that’s a bit the downside to this novel. He wraps things up too nicely. Oh, there are a few minor threads that remain open, but the question remains if they are of real significance. It will really depend on it if Abercrombie decides to write another greater story in this universe.
In the end I cannot conclude that this novel is up to par with the other novels of the series. The previous novel, The Heroes, I saw as an interesting exercise in writing one big extended final so that it had something special despite not providing the greater satisfaction I had with the first four novels. I managed to mention some good things about Red Country, but it also contains weaknesses. It is a good novel and Abercrombie all the way, but it is not a great one. In a way it contains too many depressing elements and he does not manage to really develop his cast of characters as well as he did in The Heroes. I will still recommend it, but not highly. At least I know I can trust to buy an Abercrombie book without checking it out, because he at least won’t let you down.