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.

George RR Martin and how I learned to love Big Bang Theory

Warning: this post contains blatant name-dropping. Look carefully see if you can spot it.

My friend and colleague Jo had for months been urging me to watch the show Big Bang Theory. Phrases like, ‘You’ll love it,’ and ‘It’s just your kind of thing!’ were regularly doled out when I interrupted an office discussion about last night’s hilarious episode. Like many people, I get twitchy when people tell me that I’ll enjoy something. How can anyone possibly know me so well as to pre-empt my tastes? Am I not an enigma? A chameleon of the arts, listening to Mozart one minute and watching Phineas and Ferb the next?

Apparently not.

So, anyway after many months of this I eventually gave in. I was slumped in front of the TV one evening and an episode just happened to be on, so here goes…

And I hated it. Why was the audience in such paroxysms of laughter? They were howling as if this was the funniest thing ever written. I remained stony-faced, waiting for it to click, to suddenly reveal its magic to me.

Didn’t happen.

Then I stumbled across this clip with the laughter removed and that did it. I was convinced that it just wasn’t for me. Me and Big Bang Theory were never going to happen.

I reported this back to Jo and she looked at me as if I’d just burned down an orphanage. She still managed to work with me and was civil in my company, but I’m sure she felt that from that moment on I was damaged goods.

Some months went by and I was invited to dinner with George RR Martin (there it is!). We’d just published one of his early novels Armageddon Rag (available now in all good bookshops!) and while he was in town to promote something called Game of Thrones (never heard of it) he was kind enough to also promote our book.

As you might imagine, Mr Martin revealed himself to be an intelligent man of great taste… and he just loved Big Bang Theory.

How could this be? Two smart people whom I like and respect both fans of a show that leaves me cold. Is it me? Do I have some kind of comedy gene missing?

This was clearly a comedic identity crisis and I decided to give Big Bang another chance. This prompted some understandable howls of outrage from Jo, ‘So you’ll listen to George bloody RR Martin and not to me?’

Fortunately, E4 had at that moment decided to start showing TBBT from episode one and I jumped aboard hitting the series reminder button and mainlining up to 6 episodes a day.

And I like it. Actually I think I love it.

It’s not the best sitcom ever and it lacks the element of tragedy that the truly classic comedies have*, but bloody hell it’s a great way to decompress after a hard day’s work.

It’s a smart as a button, with a rapid pace and great characters. And that’s why it didn’t work when I tried watching it the first time: I was watching an episode from the third series and the audience was howling with laughter because they were anticipating the characters’ foibles. This is why certain sitcoms work so well: we cringe at the tension of George Costanza going in for a job interview because we know he’s going to screw it up, we wince at Ted Crilly’s latest scheme to escape Craggy Island because we know it’s never going to happen. It all comes down to character, not gags. Gags help, they’re often the things we remember, but they’re not why we come back to these shows again and again.

Big Bang Theory is currently at its zenith, but of course, it will have to go through the usual cycle that US sitcoms go through: we’ve already had the unlikeable character who divides the lovers, next will be an overload of celebrity cameos, then we’ll have the series where fans decide that it’s not as good as it used to be, then we’ll have a final series where it has nothing to lose and finds its funny bone again.

And until then I shall continue to enjoy it, but a quick word to the show’s producers: I know that’s not a laugh track, I know the show is filmed before a live audience, but I also know that you’re not above maybe enhancing the laughter to make a point. Calm it down a bit. Have the courage of your convictions. It’s a good show. Too much hysteria can be off-putting for this reserved Brit.

 

 

 

 

*And the best sitcoms are…

Steptoe and son

Fawlty Towers

Blackadder

Porridge

Dad’s Army

Father Ted

Seinfeld**

Curb Your Enthusiasm

Friends (very much series dependent)

Only Fools and Horses

Cheers

Frasier

Taxi

The IT Crowd

The Simpsons

And I’ve recently fallen in love with Community. Not sure if it’s a classic yet, but it has all the potential to be…

If I’ve missed any, then please feel free to set me straight!

**I know far too many people (mostly Brits) who tell me that they don’t get Seinfeld and don’t like the characters, but you’re wrong and one day I’ll sit you down and explain it to you.