Ever since I can remember I’ve been a lover of Westerns. From the big themes, big characters and big landscapes of John Ford, through the exaggerated sweat, filth and violence of Sergio Leone, to the used up gunmen and moral ambiguity of Clint Eastwood’s revisionist films. In fact I often site Unforgiven as doing expertly with the western what I try to do with fantasy – to present a modern, gritty, realistic take on a classic form, to perhaps say something about that form and the purposes it serves for audiences, but chiefly to present a great example of the form with all the entertainment value audiences expect.
When you ill-advisedly set out to write a trilogy of big books, finishing seems an impossible goal. You spare very little thought for what might come after. But shortly before finishing The First Law trilogy, I came to the horrifying realisation that if I was interested in writing as a career I might need to write another thirty or more books. I needed some ideas, and fast, and of course the best place to get them is to steal some that have already been successful. I wanted to write some tighter, more focused stories that continued in the same world but to some extent stood alone, and so I went to films for inspiration, and tried to work out what I liked about some of my favourites with the aim of combining my take on fantasy with some other styles of story. So BEST SERVED COLD (US | AUS) was my attempt to fuse fantasy with a gangster revenge story. The Heroes was my attempt to write a fantasy account of a single great battle. And RED COUNTRY (US | AUS) was my attempt to fuse fantasy and western.
Fantasy and westerns aren’t such obvious bedfellows as fantasy and revenge or fantasy and battles, mind you. The western is indivisibly tied to its time and place and in a way is a very strong spice for the reader, summoning up lots of powerful and specific visuals and expectations, one which has to be used with care. For me the essence of the western isn’t in the sixguns and the chaps, the stetsons and the canvas wagons, the saddles and saloons, though. It’s the wild frontier. It’s the place where civilisation and savagery mix, where the rule of law contends with the law of the jungle, where anything is possible. It’s about tough men and women pitted against an unforgiving wilderness. It’s about conflicted men and women struggling to find the right thing to do in a lawless country. And, yes, it’s about narrow-eyed stand-offs in windswept streets while coat-tails flap and terrified observers hold their breaths. In RED COUNTRY I tried to keep what was essential about the western while changing the trappings, if you like: staking out a wild frontier in a part of the First Law world where the first settlers are just beginning to seek out new opportunities in an untamed wilderness, and finding neither man nor nature especially welcoming. And, yes, there is a knife fight on the roof of a speeding wagon. Whatever could be wrong with that?”