Epic fantasy generally takes as its jumping off point medieval Europe – castles, armies, pre-industrial technology and largely pastoral, feudal societies. We have The Lord of the Rings to thank for that. It spawned endless "secondary world" fantasies and gave rise to the now-odious cover blurb "comparable to Tolkien at his best". Then along came George R R Martin's Game of Thrones, which took the familiar and hackneyed epic fantasy tropes and gave them a twist that was both contemporary in its mores and Shakespearean in its scope.
Now there's a new kid in town. Joe Abercrombie's Red Country rides in, covered in blood and plains dust, to stake its claim to Martin's crown.
And what a game-changer it is. This is not the epic fantasy of your fathers. Abercrombie has attempted something quite audacious – he's essentially written a Western in the style of one from Clint Eastwood's classic period, but set it in an epic fantasy world. And, darn, if he doesn't pull it off.
Red Country takes place in the same world as Abercrombie's well-received First Law trilogy, and his breakthrough hit The Heroes, but it's a stand-alone novel that is easily accessible for first-timers.
Out on the edges of his First Law world, life is tough. Shy South is a young woman with a past, which she's put behind her to farm on the plains of the Near Country. But when bandits burn her homestead and take off with her young brother and sister, South has to hit the trail with her cowardly stepfather Lamb – who has his own secrets, of course.
South's quest is a suitably epic one, and she and Lamb fall in with a rag-tag company of pioneers spurred on by the siren call of a gold rush in the distant Far Country mountains. Abercrombie packs in the action, and throws into the mix a Napoleonesque soldier of fortune, the mysterious Ghosts (for which read Native Americans) and a grim frontier town you can almost smell.
The Heroes was essentially epic fantasy recast as a war story. If that was Abercrombie's The Naked and the Dead, then Red Country is his Blood Meridian, and there's certainly a touch of Cormac McCarthy about his spare prose and tight, economical dialogue. It's testament to his skill that Red Country reads like neither a Western nor a fantasy novel, but something new, fresh and exciting – exactly what a genre still worshipping at the altar of J R R Tolkien needs.