Abercrombie, Joe. Red Country.

NY: Orbit, 2012.

It’s kind of hard to believe that The Blade Itself, Abercrombie’s first work of robust, “real world” fantasy, appeared less than six years ago. Now, with the sixth volume set in his uncomfortable, hardscrabble, magic-fueled but vey human world, he has become a highly-regarded fixture in the field with glowing reviews even from professional readers who don’t ordinarily venture into this kind of thing.

And it’s such a large world that each story can be set in a part of it we’ve never seen before, with mostly new characters and new kinds of problems to be solved. At the same time, many of the supporting cast will be people we’ve met and gotten to know earlier, and the axioms behind society and its interrelationships will remain the same — which means that if you’ve read all of his books since the beginning, you won’t have to have those things explained to you and Joe can get on with telling the story.

And this time the basic shape of things will be familiar to anyone who has ever watched western movies of the 1950s, especially The Searchers, . . . although John Wayne is notably absent. Roughly a decade has passed since the events of Best Served Cold. Shy South, a hard-bitten young woman whose name doesn’t fit her at all, is just trying to keep what had been the family farm going out in the Near Country, on the other side of Starikland, which is itself at the farthest western extent of the Union. She has the care of her much younger sister and brother and the help of her stepfather, Lamb, a huge, middle-aged Northman with a reputation for cowardice but whose scars make her wonder who he used to be. Shy has a checkered past herself, robbing travelers to make ends meet, but she’s trying to get past that now. Then she and Lamb come back from a crop-delivery run to town one day to find the farm burned, their hired man hanged, and the two younger children gone, kidnapped by unknown raiders. And they are determined to get them back, each for her and his own reasons, and that quest establishes the spine of the story.

It’s going to take them a long, hard time, though. They will have to cross the vast, empty plains on their way to the Far Country, led by Sweet, a legendary frontiersman who makes a living guiding wagon trains, and his business is booming now that gold has been discovered in the mountains on the edge of the Empire. Another old acquaintance — you certainly can’t call him a friend — who features largely is Nicomo Cosca, captain-general of a band of mercenaries of the absolutely worst sort, and whose only saving grace is that he’s not a hypocrite about what he wants. Cosca is aging badly and slipping into genuine evil as he declines, which is not good news for anyone. That leads Temple, a man of many careers who presently serves as Cosca’s lawyer, drawing up the mercenary company’s contracts, to finally abandon both caution and his employer, as a result of which he literally fetches up on the edge of the wagon train of which Shy is a part. His succeeding experiences will remake him as much as it does her. But the character who will change the most is old Lamb — or, rather, he will return to being the person he once was. A battered, agonized killer with nine fingers.

Abercrombie’s supporting players are never, ever cardboard. Even those who come and go in only a chapter or two are fully painted. (Who knows, those who survive may end up as protagonists in his next book.) The world in which they live and struggle — and everyone in Joe’s stories is a struggler — is so completely realized as to constitute a character in itself. There’s plenty of blood and lots of scars, but that’s the kind of world it is. I have a short list of “automatic” authors, those whose newest works I grab as soon as I know they’re available without even reading the reviews, and Abercrombie is now on it. Amazing, deeply and relentlessly involving stuff.

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