Monday, April 7, 2014

Red Country by Joe Abercrombie

I was fortunate enough to pick up Red Country in hardcover at Half Price Books not that long ago for a cover price of $12.99, but it was during one of their many sales so I think my final price on it was well under $10. Not bad considering the hardcover at Amazon is just under $20 and the kindle version is just under $10.

I've enjoyed Joe Abercrombie's previous works. I like how he takes certain assumptions of the genre, like the 'good wise ancient wizard' and turns it on its head. I like how certain characters wind up threading through the different books in different capacities. Having read the others in the series, of which this book is the next chronologically, I was looking forward to seeing what he did here.

I've heard the book described as a fantasy western. To a point, that's a good description. We have frontier towns. In many fantasy settings, those in and of themselves are not that unusual. Anyone who has played the beloved Keep on the Borderlands knows that it's a staple of the genre.

There are a native people whose technology doesn't quite match that of the 'civilized' nations. Again, this is old hat if you will with fantasy games. One of the most famous characters in fantasy literature, Conan, for example, comes from such a people and others like Kull, make their way into kings.

Outlaws and grudges abound. Anyone who knows about westerns knows that grudges especially are a popular bit from that lore, some of them going back generation upon generation. Looking at other parts of the world though where tribalism is the main standard, it's not necessarily a western only element.

Then we have the setting itself; the great plains. Now this is an element I don't see get a lot of airplay in many other genres. The flooding, the difficulty of survival out in the open? The vast night skies? Those are Western for sure and haven't been co-oped by many other genres.

More important than that though, is the gold rush. The West, with a capital W, came about in many ways due to the unslakable thirst of people for 'easy' money. This leads to those dangerous frontier towns and to many a dangerous situation. The drama Deadwood is perhaps one of my favorite shows in terms of playing out characters and factions against one another.

While those elements are present though, they are minor as opposed to the main quest of Shy and her step father, Lamb. They are not seeking treasure. They are not bounty hunters. They are not lawmen. They are not settlers.

They are seeking Shy's younger brother and sister who have been kidnapped and so must follow those who've taken them into 'The Red Country'.

Joe does a solid job of making this an easy to read book. There are numerous characters that are dragged together by circumstance who might otherwise never have met and it's good to see some of the old friends, like Lamb, even if they are never called by their... 'proper' name. Which to me is a bit of a waste. Whenever someone recognizes 'Lamb', well, it doesn't tend to end well for them.

If you're looking for a rousing action packed fantasy, Red Country by Joe Abercrombie hits that nail on the head fairly easily. I'll be talking about some specific plot points and spoilers below, so for those who wish no spoilers, read no further.

We have the old hero coming out of retirement for one last big showdown. In many instances, I think people would like to compare 'Lamb' here to say, Clint Eastwood's character from Unforgiven. That to me is a very false comparison which I'll discuss when I get to spoilers. The old hero though? It's also a classic of the genre. We have, what I'd consider the 'modern' version of this archetype thanks to David Gemmell and his classic Legend, as well as others like Kell from the Clockwork Vampire Chronicles.

One of the nice things though, is that Joe Abercrombie doesn't blather about how old, weak, and ineffectual Lamb is while then going on to describe how dangerous he is. No, when the initial switch happens at the start of the novel, Lamb goes from one entity altogether to another with few complaints about the aches and weariness he faces. For this, I'm grateful. As I've mentioned before, there is no use bemoaning how crippled up the characters are if in every single action sequence they act like none of that matters.

For other archetypes, we have Sweet, who is in many ways, a ranger, a frontiersman who leads people back and forth between the old civilized world to the new world. Sweet's role is that of scout, of reader of weather, of outdoor survivalist. His skills in dealing with the natives and knowing what their moods are, are all things that rangers would traditionally handle.

I mentioned up thread that I wouldn't compare Lamb, aka the Bloody Nine, to William Munny because it takes WIlliam a long time to get into gear. William can't shoot at first. He's a 'real' family man. He is unsure about the mission. He's doing it for money for his family, but for money. He's not going out to save them from slavery. He also suffers a sever beating initially and it isn't till later on in the movie where his 'real' persona clicks.

Lamb? Not quite so much. As soon as Lamb see what's happened to the farm, his dead friend, and the missing children? It's on.

And that's great. But it's what makes Lamb the Bloody Nine and a killer right off the bat, not like William Munny who has to gradually assume that form.

In terms of role playing games? I like the Dragon People. Not because they are the 'Noble Savage', but because they bring children in from outside their bloodline because they are all sterile. In a role playing game, this would be a fantastic background element to showcase different races raised together. For example, need a reason why dwarves, elves, and half orcs are all part of one group? They are all part of the 'Village' so to speak.

The idea of the book itself could easily make a role playing session of three in and of itself. Players could either have their relatives or family members captured and taken for slavery purposes, or players, most of whom are damned lone wolves to begin with or would relish at the though of those damned NPCs being slain, could be hired by other NPCs to find and bring back their family members with the reward dependent on how many NPC's are returned alive and unharmed.

Sidetracks could happen such as that of the duel, where the players are pitted against another group of adventurers of similar powers and abilities. They could be hired to perform this task, could be 'tricked' into it by being called out say, by the other group that wants to make a quick name for itself out in the frontier town.

The environment can play against the characters as well. The threat of storms showing up from no where and creating flash flood situations, lack of shelter, the heat, and of course, the native hazards such as snakes and other inhabitants of the plains should be on the character's minds.

For those thinking about staying in the long term, outside of the whole prospect of building a town or joining an already existing one, there is always the prospect of mining but then the characters have to deal with the natives who are already there. Natives who may have their own gods and goals.

A way to make it more uncomfortable for the players? Give the natives some means or measure that the players need that the players initially don't know how to use. Some type of ritual or item that requires specialized training. Will the players throw away such a tool in exchange for some quick easy treasure? Red Country has one answer, players in a long term campaign may have another.

Red Country has a lot of potential adventure seeds and tons of quirky characters that a Dungeon Master could easily yank out and place into any frontier town like The Keep on the Borderlands.