Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country is bloody… (spoiler free review)

I remember getting an email from my colleague Simon Spanton some years ago. It was a simple message, ‘You’ll like this.’ Attached to the email was a file with the first few chapters of a book he wanted to buy for Gollancz called The Blade Itself. I opened the attachment and started to read.

He wasn’t wrong; the combination of black humour, violence and dental torture appealed to me very much. I wanted to read more and I’m happy to say that when we published The Blade Itself it was something of a hit (that was a golden summer for Gollancz debuts, also published were The Lies of Locke Lamora and Stormcaller – all belters).

I’m also happy to say that I’ve got to know Joe Abercrombie a bit over the years and should declare that before ploughing into this review of this latest THE RED COUNTRY. I’ll also do my best to keep this as spoiler-free as possible, but if you’d rather go in cold, then come back when you’ve read the book.

When Joe announced that his next book would be a Western, but still set in the same world as his previous books, I was excited and slightly worried. The Western genre is incredibly tricky to pull off, especially in literature. Even in the movies, you could count the really good Westerns of the last 20 years on one hand (Unforgiven, Assassination of Jesse James… and… er… that might be it).

But what Joe understands is that Westerns aren’t about Sheriffs, or shootouts, or John bloody Wayne, they’re about the frontier. The farthest reaches of civilisation where lawlessness is the norm, where the regular rules don’t apply and death is ever-present. And what he’s done is take some of his most interesting and complex characters, drop them at the very edge of his world, and let the chaos unfold.

There are some new characters; Shy is a woman with an outlaw past trying to reform her life on a farm. She’s one part Calamity Jane (the Deadwood version) and one part Marion Ravenwood (the Raiders version).

Temple is a classic Abercrombie coward; he wants to be a good man, he promises that next time he’ll make a stand, but every time he caves in and takes the easy option.

Lamb is Shy’s stepfather – described as ‘some kind of coward’, he too steps away from any kind of confrontation, and would rather be alone working in the fields than raise his fists.

And there are some old favourites, not least Nicomo Cosca, here playing a combination of Richard Harris in Unforgiven and General Custer. He even has his own biographer, scribbling his every utterance for posterity.

Oh, and of you watch the book’s teaser trailer you might just see something significant…

Did you see it? The fingers? Count ’em… Nine!

Shy’s little brother and sister are stolen and she and Lamb follow their trail to get them back. And as they’re led further and further west, you realise that this will be no breakneck chase. This story unfolds like The Searchers and their quest will continue through blistering desert heat, driving rain and deep snow. They will encounter so much bloody violence that Joe gives Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian a run for its money for gallons of claret spilt. And, as always with Joe’s books, villains reveal themselves to complex individuals, the heroes of their own stories, and our heroes will make choices that are questionable at best.

Joe has clearly been watching a lot of Deadwood, a lot of classic Spaghetti Westerns, a lot of Eastwood, and he’s been reading a lot of Elmore Leonard’s Western stories. This could have been a mess and, if you read Joe’s blog, you’ll know that this has been hard work for him. But it’s a terrific read, a picaresque journey through a dying wasteland and a world about to change. The action is intense, but you never get lost in the mayhem, the story is complex, but it’s a joy to read, and the ending will leave you wanting more.

Saddle-up and enjoy the ride.

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Pixar’s Brave… or playing it safe?

Just returned from enjoying Pixar’s Brave. An entertaining movie, if – oddly for Pixar – an entirely predictable one. The story lacked suspense or surprise, and got by on the charm of its characters and the stunning locations.

This movie was to represent many firsts for Pixar: first period piece, first female protagonist and first female director. But then about a year prior to release it was quietly announced that director Brenda Chapman was no longer working on the project (though she still retains a co-director credit). This is not an unusual move for Pixar. Ratatouille suffered a similar setback with the original director Jan Pinkava being replaced by Brad Bird, but it is perhaps more notable that in this case a woman was replaced by a man.

In a recent piece in the New York Times, Chapman speaks for the first time of the heartbreak of being removed from Brave, and wonders how women can gain more positions of power in Hollywood. Pixar, for all its genius over the years, is starting to come across as a bit of a boys’ club, with no women whatsoever on the famed brain trust and one too many movies about Cars. Surely there must be a some women in the organisation who can add a few x chromosome into the brain trust mix?

I doubt the truth of what really happened will come out anytime soon, and it’s a fact of life that directors and writers are often fired from movie projects, particularly in the perilous world of animation where Directors’ Guild and WGA rules don’t seem to apply. But I wonder if Brenda Chapman’s more personal version of Brave might not have felt so pat, might not have been so obvious? Might it not, for all its flaws, have been more interesting?

Co-writing with a director

I’m on hols in sunny Spain, relaxing at my in-laws’ place halfway up a mountain in the middle of nowhere, the perfect place to work on script revisions between important sessions of poolside vegging…

It’s essential to have somewhere quiet to work…

I’m currently working on a project with director Jon Wright. We’re on a deadline to deliver our latest draft by the end of the month and we’re swapping revisions while I’m out here. This is nothing unusual; this script has been written in locations as varied as the Royal Festival Hall, the Sundance Festival, a friend’s flat in Whitstable, and assorted trains from Waterloo. We’ll write together, one of us pacing as the other types, or solo, swapping rewrites over email.

More recently, as the script nears the final furlong, the rewrites have become more focused. I’ll often open Jon’s latest Final Draft file to find it in 150% mega-large print as he scrutinizes the script line-by-line, and this perfectly illustrates the advantage of co-writing with a director. Jon is the guy who has to make this work. He’s the one who’ll be standing there on location with the day’s pages, surrounded by an eager cast and crew, each with a million questions for him, and if he has a script that doesn’t work then he’s stuck, and that’s no fun when the clock’s ticking and each second represents a fistful of dollars.

So he will take some of my more fanciful stuff and give it a reality-check, turning something that looks cool on the page into something that can actually be shot. The running gag while writing this has been me turning in an awesome action sequence and then reassuring Jon that it’ll be a doddle to film. He somehow resists the urge to thump me and we then work together on knocking it into shape, breaking it down into set-ups, and trimming the dialogue down as far as it will go.

I love co-writing. Movie-making is a collaborative process and any screenwriter who wails about actors and directors changing their script should perhaps consider writing novels instead. But more than anything I would recommend writing with an experienced director; it’s an incredible learning curve, rooted in the realities of day-to-day film-making. If you get the chance take it!

PS. Bear in mind that Jon has been writing this during the post-production and release of his latest film GRABBERS. It has a wicked script by the mighty Kevin Lehane and is on release in Ireland on Aug 10th, at Frightfest later this month and in the UK later this year.

Check out the trailer…