Red Country is a standalone within an already established fantasy universe. It MAY be possible to read without having read The First Law, Best Served Cold, and The Heroes, but there would be huge chunks of back story missing.
Abercrombie is my favorite of the new group of “gritty” fantasy authors, and has improved in each book. To enjoy his writing a reader will need to have a dark sense of humor, tolerance of a high body count, and be OK with the knowledge bad things happen to not just good people, but all people in this world. If this interests you, start reading The Blade Itself, then when you have caught up come back to this review.
While the First Law trilogy was a complete deconstruction of fantasy cliches, Red Country is a blend of Western trope deconstruction(as in the Wild West, Louis L’amour, and the movie Unforgiven) and a fantasy world slowly moving into the start of an industrial age. The basics of most westerns involve an early murder, abduction, or robbery, then a posse goes out to round up the bad guys, and justice is served! This is the blueprint the book follows, while twisting every piece of it. The posse includes as many bad guys as good, the ‘savages’ are people doing what they can to hold onto what they have, and women do more than stand around waiting for the cowboys to do everything. And if you know this author, you know the definition of justice being served may not be the same for every character.
One of my favorite aspects of this book was the subtle way that each chapter had a theme of sorts. Examples include a chapter that jumps between POV’s quickly, showing several minor characters thinking about what reasons they believe themselves to be the best man in the company, or a chapter in which several characters have something uniquely high stake on the line.
The book is humorous at times, fairly quick paced, and does a TON of fan service in bringing back old characters. While the plot is well contained, in a lot of ways it is obviously a wrap up of series-long story lines in preparation for the next trilogy.
This author’s earlier works have been criticized for the way women or portrayed(or in the case of First Law, not portrayed at all). I am the wrong person to discuss this in detail, but will point out that Abercrombie seems to be trying to improve on this. Including the main character there are multiple females who advance the plot, all with different lives, motivations, and various amount of ability to change their destination within a still patriarchal society.
Pros: Quick pacing, humor, a well done blend of genres(despite the lack of guns it really does feel like a western), more of what the authors fans already like.
Cons: A strange betrayal plot in the early going doesn’t pass the logic test, some characters did very little to advance the plot. The dark world view will certainly not be for every reader.
4 stars, a very enjoyable continuation of the series.