One of the great things about the Western is how easily it can adapted to different sorts of stories. Westerns include all stories taking place in the American West, which can be comedies with cowboys, musicals, mysteries, domestic dramas, or ultraviolent Spaghetti Westerns. But you can take the ideals behind the Western – a lawless frontier, the clash of civilization and wilderness, the cruelty of man – and plop that in any sort of story. You want a story set in the wild frontier of Australia in the 1880s? That’s probably a Western and it’s also probably The Proposition. What about a crime story set in the modern day with plenty of long shots of characters standing around in the desert squinting at each other? Well, that sums up Breaking Bad pretty well (it even has a character named Tuco!). What if you want to have swords instead of guns and a European setting instead of a North American one? Well, you can easily make a Fantasy Western, which other authors have already done. Some of the scenes in this season’s Game of Thrones have a Western Feel to them, with the Hound and Arya being a more belligerent version of Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross from True Grit. Throw revolvers and a Western saloon into the ‘every fucking chicken in this room’ scene from the first episode and it would be at home in a Clint Eastwood movie.
But no book demonstrates the malleability of the Western better than Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country. It’s a stand-alone book taking place in the same universe of Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, which is a kind of revisionist fantasy about how brutal a medieval fantasy world would be. You don’t need to read the First Law books to enjoy Red Country, but it helps with the identity of a particular character. Anyway, Abercrombie put tons of nods to classic and modern Western plots in Red Country, throwing them into a fantasy setting and approaching them with the same critical modern eye as he did with medieval elements. Basically, this Western is as tough, brutal, and insightful as any other, even though it has swords instead of revolvers.
Red Country plays like a Greatest Hits of Westerns. It starts out like The Searchers – in a lawless frontier adjoining the large fantasy kingdom of the trilogy, a former outlaw named Shy South finds her mother’s homestead destroyed and her two younger siblings kidnapped by a gang of slavers. She and a drifter who became her mother’s servant, a big, cowardly fellow named Lamb, go after the kids to rescue them. Soon, they join up with a wagon train riding West and the story becomes Red River, a journey with dangers from nature and the natives, a mix of Indians and Celts called the Ghosts. The wagon train brings them to a wild frontier town, and Red Country becomes Deadwood or a Fistful of Dollars, with two feuding gangs and saloon-based crime bosses. A gang of mercenaries arrive and become involved in the search to rescue the children, which takes Shy and Lamb up into the mountains. The resulting battle feels like the massacre of Indian depicted in Little Big Man, and leads to a brutal showdown that has to be a nod to the climax of The Wild Bunch. Through it all, Lamb realizes that he needs to put his peaceful ways aside and fall back into becoming a monstrous killer – a fantasy synthesis of Unforgiven. There’s even a writer following around the leader of the mercenaries like the dime novelist in that great revisionist Western, and a similar message about the lies behind every legend.
It may seem like Abercrombie’s being derivative with this remix of Westerns, but putting them all in a Fantasy setting, along with the way he combines them, makes them fresh. Furthermore, Abercrombie brings the kind of social commentary that all the great Westerns do. The finale of the story involves a crude gunpowder weapon being used. Gunpowder shows that modernization is coming to this fantasy world, just as civilization is coming to the West. Of course, the mercenaries who use it are a brutal, violent, greedy, and generally nasty group of killers. Along with the forces of government, they show that civilization is just as bad as the lawless frontier, but is cloaked with false civility. The corrupt robber baron villains and ruthless capitalism of many Westerns – and of American Western history – are cast from the same mold.
Great characters, a Deadwood-esque sense of humor, and plenty of brutal frontier violence make Red Country well worth picking up. It scratches the Revisionist Fantasy and Revisionist Western itch and does both genres proud, earning it a place on my list of favorite Westerns.