In my last review, I said that Amaranthe Lokdon seemed like an attempt to create a fantasy lead who had personality traits we more commonly think of as feminine than masculine, and lacking some of the traits we think of as masculine which are present in most fantasy protagonists. I realised I probably should have articulated this idea more, as it’s dangerous territory to start talking about masculine and feminine traits. I don’t think any quality of a person’s character – whether they’re fictional or not – depends on their gender. What there is is cultural association of certain qualities with gender, and while I think it’s bad, I think a work which highlights the qualities we devalue that are associated with women, and shows those qualities as a strength rather than a weakness, is a good thing. It would be better if we associated no qualities at all, but well, we’re not there yet. Something to work towards, but also not the reality. I found Amaranthe a positive character in that regard. Leadership is often characterised by making hard decisions, and so we tend to think leaders have to be able to not focus on caring about the wellbeing of every individual when it’s necessary to make a decision for the greater good, and for some reason this ability is expected more in men than women. We’re now running into the problem that a lot of modern leaders are seen as disengaged, willing to write off any number of groups who face discrimination because it’s expedient to do so. We’ve devalued caring to the point where it’s often seen as a liability in a leader, and we associate women with caring and judge women less capable of leadership. There’s probably a whole essay worth of material on the subject of expectations of mothering instincts and leadership, but that’s not what I’m looking to write about.
What I’m trying to say is that since fantasy protagonists are more often thrust into positions of leadership where that kind of emotionless decision-making might be required, we’ve seen a lot of male characters. The female characters we do see often have that quality of expediency, ruthlessness, whatever you feel like calling it. The reason I liked Amaranthe is that that wasn’t a part of her character. Amaranthe struggled with making the hard decisions, choices that would lead to people dying, even when those choices were necessary. She spent more time than most fantasy characters thinking about her supporting character’s emotional well-being. I liked it a lot. And that’s why I’ve chosen Red Country by Joe Abercrombie for my second review, mostly because it’s a contrast to the Emperor’s Edge series. I don’t want to inadvertently advance the argument that female characters who are ruthless decision-makers are somehow invalid as female characters, that they have been artificially masculinised, because that’s just not true. That trait, and the dozens of other traits that make a good leader or a good fantasy character, are not male traits. Case in point; Shy South.
Red Country is the sixth book by Joe Abercrombie, and since his breakout series, First Law, he’s made a name for himself with the grubbiness of his settings; the brutality, the coarseness, the intensely grey morals. I don’t generally like using the following words to describe books because I think they’re overused: gritty, grim, and visceral. But you’re almost compelled to when you talk about a Joe Abercrombie book. Every character is to some extent an asshole. Everyone is wrong, everyone ends up killing people almost indiscriminately because it’s almost unavoidable. He’s also very, very good at writing his characters with all the complexities and flaws of real people. His characters aren’t all assholes because they’re indiscriminate murderers and rapists with no morals, but because they’re consumed with mundane flaws, indulging their own selfish desires and their petty jealousies. They don’t WANT to kill everyone who gets in their way, but well, if they’re in the way…you get the idea. It wouldn’t have surprised me to find writing that features this sort of brutality to come with no female characters at all and I’ve read a lot of low fantasy which has no female characters, probably because male writers and male readers don’t think women are feasible in a book that’s all about brutal violence. But all of Abercrombie’s books have come with female perspective characters, and all of them stand alongside his male characters as entirely appropriate to the story, to me at least.
In First Law, it was Ferro Maljinn, an ex-slave on a quest to bloodily slaughter every member of the civilisation that enslaved and murdered her family. In Best Served Cold it’s Monza Murcatto, who starts the book by being betrayed by the lord she has loyally served because her popularity and military skill is a threat to his power, and again, she cuts a bloody path to revenge. Although unlike Ferro, she is only aiming to kill a handful of people, not an entire civilisation. Both characters are great, but I chose not to write about those books because while both of them are great, I feel like First Law and Best Served Cold are both the story of someone else. For First Law, despite the five or so different perspectives it covers, I really think it’s Logen Ninefinger’s story. He was the breakout character in the authors breakout series. In Best Served Cold, Monza’s story is more central, but I think Caul Shivers is closer to being the focus. The Heroes is a little different, not so much a character story as it is a story about the brutality of war. I quite liked the female perspective here, that of Finree dan Brock, because unlike Ferro and Monza, she wasn’t so focused on getting her way through force of arms and sheer willpower, instead she was represented as a consummate politician, constantly maneuvering to enhance her husband’s status, and thus her own. Outwardly she would seem like a typically powerless female character, except that she ends up enduring more and getting what she wants with more success than most male characters. I probably could have happily written extensively about Finree and what she represents for this, but I enjoyed Red Country more, and I think Shy is a more interesting character than Finree.
Finally, I get to talk about Shy. Red Country opens with Shy taking her farm’s crop to market in a nearby town, accompanied by a farm-hand/surrogate father called Lamb who is immensely strong, but as Shy puts it, “some kind of coward.” People who read Abercrombie’s books in chronological order will note the number of fingers Lamb has pretty quickly. I loved Shy’s character almost instantly. She’s unapologetically abrasive, getting in everyone’s face and calling it how she sees it with no concern for social nicety, and especially no concern for a woman’s place in the western-style frontier setting. As the story moves forward, we learn that in her youth, Shy fled the boredom and toil of working on a farm to become a bandit, carving a fairly bloody reputation for herself (of course) before retiring from the life after an innocent girl was hung in her place due to a passing similarity. When Shy and Lamb return to their farm with the money from their sale, they find it burned out and her younger siblings (who she is a parent to after her mother’s death) have been taken by slavers. They immediately set out in pursuit, eventually joining a caravan headed to a Deadwood-style frontier town where the children are being taken. The way Shy is written is perfect. As I said, she’s confrontational and abrasive, but only because she doesn’t have any tolerance for people who aren’t getting on with what needs doing. Unlike Ferro or Monza, she’s not the presented as incredible with a sword, a genius tactician, or some incredible warrior. But she’s no stranger to violence and bulls through most of the violence thrown her way through sheer determination. And it’s noted many times, and highlighted by events, that Shy isn’t what’s expected of women in this universe. There’s a great scene about halfway through which comments on this directly which I’ll put below.
This scene is from a throwaway perspective, one of the women in the caravan with Shy, Luline Buckhorn, who is a part of a large group of women as they all stand in a circle, taking turns letting each other urinate while the rest provide a human wall so that the male members of the caravan can’t see them pee. As she stands in the circle she reflects bitterly on a woman’s lot:
Sometimes she hated her husband, with his grinding ignorance of her struggles, and his chafing assumptions of what was woman’s work and what was man’s. Like knocking in a fence-post then getting drunk was real labour, but minding a crowd of children all day and night was fun to feel grateful for.
Did it never occur to him that she might want to ride, and feel the fresh wind, and smile at the wide-open country, and rope cattle, and consider the route, and speak up in the meetings while he trudged beside the wagon and changed the shitty wrappings of their youngest, and shouted at the next three in line to stop shouting, and had his nipples chewed raw every hour or two while still being expected to have a good dinner ready and do the wifely duties every bloody night, sore or not, tired or not?
She’s reflecting on how the Far Country, this frontier, is a leveler, as all the women in the party whether she’s a prostitute, a farmer’s wife like herself, or a noblewoman like the lady beside her are all forced to ‘make water’ in the circle of women, hidden from the prying eyes of the men. Then Shy enters the scene:
“Will you look at that?” murmured Lady Inglestad. Shy South had swung down from her saddle not a dozen strides from the column and was squatting in the long grass in the shadow of her horse making a spatter, reins in her teeth and trousers around her ankles, the side of her pale arse plain to see. “Incredible,” someone muttered. She pulled her trousers up and gave a friendly wave, then closed her belt, spat the reins into her hand and was straight back in the saddle. The whole business had taken no time at all, and had been done exactly when and how she wanted. Luline Buckhorn frowned around at the outward facing circle of women, changing over so that one of the whores could take her turn above the bucket. “There a reason we can’t do the same?” she muttered. Lady Inglestad turned an iron frown upon her. “There most certainly is!” They watched Shy South ride off, shouting something to Sweet about closing the wagons up. “Although, at present, I must confess it eludes me.”
That scene pretty much says it all about how Shy deals with any expectations placed on her by her gender. Shy breaks all those expectations because of her driving need for independence. Shy wants to be the only person who has any say in what Shy does, and if anyone says otherwise she’ll probably laugh in their face. And if someone tried to force her to do otherwise, they’ll probably get stabbed. If you’re still reading at this point, well first of all thanks a lot. I know this is already really damn long and I don’t think I’m even halfway yet. But you’ve also probably picked up that I’m a huge fan of this character. That’s because Shy’s independence isn’t a simple personality trait that says “strong character” or “strong woman.” Her independence is characterised as both her greatest strength and her greatest weakness. Yes, nobody dictates to her, but she is also virtually alone in the world except for a taciturn old man who barely talks because she pushes away anyone who gets too close. She’s abrasive because she’s opinionated, but also as a defense against anyone who looks to penetrate into the places she might be emotionally vulnerable.
Red Country is most definitely Shy’s story, and while the first half of the book spends time setting her up as I’ve described above, her character growth is tied up with the introduction of another character into her life; Temple. Temple is an ex-mercenary, actually a mercenary’s lawyer, who fled because he was sick of his own moral cowardice, and then his lack of any kind of competence sees him thrown into a raging river and washing up near Shy’s caravan. While no one else in the caravan is willing to take in the dying man because their resources are already paid, and only people who pay their way can join the caravan, Shy fronts the money for him and saves his life. Once he’s nursed back to health, she tells him she basically owns him until his debt is paid. It’s the first time Temple has been forced to front up to a responsibility placed upon him; every other time life has thrown a challenge his way he’s fled. This means he’s a man of many talents because at various points in his life he’s been a priest, a carpenter, a lawyer, all sorts of things, but while he’s been competent at them, he’s never actually invested himself in anything. Basically, Temple is a shyster, through and through, and Shy recognises this instantly. And she scorns him mercilessly for it, showing up his weakness at every turn and constantly expecting him to run from his debt to her. But as the story progresses they get closer, with Temple surprising her (and himself) by sticking at something for the first time in his life, and also threatening her by slowly getting closer to her.
Eventually they arrive in Crease, the Deadwood-esque town I mentioned earlier. Here Temple manages to hire out as a lawyer and pay off his debt to Shy instantly, and they’re both surprised to realise they regret there’s nothing tying them together anymore, and Temple surprises them both by not leaving, but taking a job as a carpenter and doing it well, and with pride. This leads to this books sex scene, which almost every Abercrombie book (not sure if The Heroes does) has. In First Law, Ferro and Logen are kindred spirits, supremely deadly and emotionally damaged to the point of emptiness. They fuck because they’re thrown together and have nothing better to do. They both get something out of it, but then part ways with little to no emotional strain. Monza sleeps with Caul Shivers, and while their relationship is more emotionally fulfilling, that too fizzles out very quickly. This time there’s some emotional fallout as they’re both bitter, and end up virtually hating one another. When Shy and Temple sleep together though, there’s meaning to it. For Temple, he’s found something worth caring more about than his own skin for the first time. For Shy, she’s finally opened up and let someone in, let herself be vulnerable to someone for the first time. They’re also both raging drunk at the time. Sex in Abercrombie books, as I mentioned before, is as visceral as everything else in his books. Here’s part of the scene, which starts with a dance while we’re still with Temple’s perspective:
“Never thought you’d be a dancer,” he shouted in her ear, “Too hard for it.”
“Never thought you’d be one,” her breath hot against his cheek, “Too soft.”
Then things progress quickly, and we transition to Shy:
Bloody hell things were spinning by then. She was fumbling in her trousers for the key and laughing and then she was fumbling in his trousers and they were up against the wall and kissing again her mouth full of his breath and his tongue and her hair then the door was banging open and the two of them tumbling through and across the dim-lit floorboards. She crawled on top of him and they were grunting away, room reeling, and she felt the burn of sick at the back of her throat but swallowed it and didn’t much care as it tasted no worse than the first time and Temple seemed to be a long way from complaining or probably even noticing either. He was too busy struggling with the buttons on her shirt and couldn’t have been making harder work of it if they’d been the size of pinheads.
She realised the door was open still and kicked out at it but judged the distance all wrong and kicked a hole in the plaster beside the frame instead, started laughing again. Got the door shuddering shut with the next kick and he had her shirt open now and was kissing at her chest which felt all right actually if a bit ticklish, her own body looking all pale and strange to her and she was wondering when was the last time she did anything like this and deciding it was way too long. Then he’d stopped and staring down in the darkness, eyes just a pair of glimmers.
“Are we doing the right thing?” he asked, so comic serious for a moment she wanted to laugh again.
“How the fuck should I know? Get your trousers off.”
She was trying to wriggle free of her own but still had her boots on and was getting more and more tangled, knew she should’ve taken the boots off first but it was a bit late now and she grunted and kicked and her belt thrashed about like a snake cut in half, her knife flopping off the end of it and clattering against the wall, until she got one boot off and one trouser-leg and that seemed good enough for the purpose.
There’s more, but I’m not going to transcribe a whole chapter and you probably don’t want to read it. I liked this scene based on the writing alone. The use of run-on sentences with no punctuation does a good job of getting across the feeling of being drunk as you read, and it doesn’t romanticise the sex even though it’s actually fairly emotionally significant for both characters. This is well in keeping with my own experience of sex as something which is as ridiculous and fumbling as often as it is romantic and magical. But I’m really happy the actual sex takes place from Shy’s perspective. By writing the scene from her perspective, Abercrombie avoids objectifying Shy with long descriptions of her body as Temple looks at her, and we don’t have to rely on his interpretation of her actions to know that everything happening is consenting. This is sex that I don’t think would satisfy much in terms of titillating a male reader. Instead this scene seems more about the journey both characters have travelled to get to this point, and the emotional release for Shy who has been holding herself closed and pushing everyone away for the entirety of the book. It also makes the seriousness that sex gets treated in both fiction and reality seem silly against the fumbling mess we’re presented with. The complete lack of romance is entirely suitable to Shy who has no time for anything as useless as romance, and having Shy being the one fumbling with her belt and catching her knife on the bed frame while Temple worries about the implications is a nice touch.
I think it’s important when a female character is sexualised in a fantasy novel that it adds to them in some way. If a female character is present only as a part of a male character’s journey, and especially if they and the sex itself is seen only from the male character’s perspective, the female characters are there as a part of an exclusively male fantasy. By this, I don’t mean that all sex in a fantasy novel has to be from a female perspective, and can only be positive and consenting. I enjoyed the Deed of Paksennarion novels by Elizabeth Moon, and the female perspective character in that series goes through a rape, which is most definitely not positive. But that rape isn’t viewed through a male lens, with male assumptions about what it means, but happens exclusively through a female character and its impacts are felt for a long time. The way Red Country shows sex for Shy is as the physical act being a bit farcical, but the emotional revelation of the experience being more significant because of the person she is. That’s what all fantasy novels should aim for when they include sex; not smut for smut’s sake, not because it makes the character feel good or because it makes the character seem more well-rounded if they have a love interest, but because sex is a natural part of the journey the character is experiencing. And it shouldn’t reduce the woman’s role in the act to that of a prop. It’s not inherently bad to have a male-focused fantasy but we have a lot of that now, thank you. We need fantasy and sex in fantasy to start to be equalised, and I think that’s what this novel does. The sex is part of Shy’s growth from someone who is strong, but isolated, into someone who is strong and content with the things that strength has won her by the end of the novel.
At this point in the novel there’s a fair way to go, including Shy being kidnapped and sort of half-escaping, half-being rescued, but mostly it’s all blood and action working up to a final conclusion. I won’t spoil it entirely, except to say that Shy lives through it. What makes Red Country my favourite Abercrombie novel, and one of my favourite fantasy novels maybe ever (let’s say top 10) is how multi-faceted Shy is. She’s strong and vulnerable at the same time, physically competent and emotionally driven, but struggles sometimes with social interaction. She feels guilt for her past and slowly grows to accept it. She finds meaning in a relationship, but she finds it on her own terms and in her own time. As I said when discussing Amaranthe in my last post, there are a lot of ways to write a good woman, but if you want a woman who steps into a world of male power and male privilege and makes that fucker her own, Shy South is how you do it. I loved every second of it. Abercrombie is a fantastic character author and I highly recommend reading all his books if this review has you interested, but it’s not mandatory to the understanding of Red Country that you do. Just a lot of the characters present have history in the previous installments, which all take place in the same universe, and it enhances the journey a little for you if you know what those events in their past are. And if you’re STILL reading at this point, thanks for reading the whole thing.