I’ve been marathoning my way through the First Law trilogy now for a while, and with each new chapter, falling more and more under Joe Abercrombie’s spell. And yet, I couldn’t have been more wrong in some of my comments that I made about the first and second books in the series. Not in their quality, and not in their strengths – the rich character building, the black sense of humor, the complex plotting. No, what I misjudged – and what punched me in the gut as Last Argument of Kings finished – was its sense of hope. Because while I thought that Abercrombie was presenting deeply flawed characters who were doing their best to be good people, and that those good people might be capable of redemption, it turned out he had a whole secondary game waiting for me in the shadows – one that left me pretty stunned by the end of the series.
In most ways, though, Last Argument of Kings continues the threads we’ve seen for the other books. The wars we’ve been setting up on both sides of the Aduan kingdom – that with Bethod to the north and the Gurkish to the south – finally break loose, in all of their horrific violence and cost. And as those wars play out, our various “heroes” (put in quotes because, as anyone who’s read these books knows, calling any of these men pure heroes is a stretch of the imagination) find themselves in positions of surprising power over the events unfolding. Logen Ninefingers – a.k.a., the “Bloody Nine” – reunites with his old group of men, and does his best to turn the tide in the North, while continuing his internal debate of whether he could ever undo the damage he’s done in his old life. Sand dan Glokta – cripple, torturer, cynic – finds himself torn between two very demanding masters, and with the power to quite possibly save the kingdom – or maybe destroy it. And Jezal dan Luthar finally realizes exactly why Bayuz, the First of the Magi, has been following him around for so long.
More than anything else, though, this is the book where we finally see Abercrombie’s full design, and just how elegantly he’s been putting all of this together. I’ve commented about the previous books that one of their joys is the sense that we’re not quite sure what the endgame is – just what, exactly, is the common thread of this trilogy? By the time Last Argument of Kings ends, you’ll realize exactly what’s going on, and see that what we’ve been watching play out has been far more controlled, manipulated, and shaped than what we expected. And our assumptions about our characters are going to take some serious blows.
What Abercrombie seems to be fascinated by, overall, is the blurred line between good and evil, and that’s something that gives the ending its brutal punch. Characters we like, and even admire, turn out to be something less than heroic. Cowardice turns out to have its benefits. The cruelest, in some ways, show themselves to be capable of the greatest kindnesses. And more than anything, the question of power and survival hang over everything. Exactly how far should we be willing to go in order to survive and succeed?
These are thorny questions, and Abercrombie doesn’t give us easy answers. Nor does he make the book an easy read, as he displays a Martin-like willingness to butcher and maim characters, to turn them on their heads, and make us question their motives. It’s a bravura performance by Abercrombie, and while the end can be a painful, heartbreaking read at points – one character’s fate, in particular, is truly awful in ways that I never dreamed of – I’m also floored by what he accomplished here. Each character developed, changed, evolved, and shaped over the course of the series in incredible ways, giving you a complexity and depth that many authors just dream of, and setting up moral shades of gray without ever betraying our assumptions. More than that, by the time you finish Last Argument of Kings, it becomes evident just what a grand scope Abercrombie was working on, and just how intricately structured the entire series has been from the beginning.
In short, it’s a fantasy trilogy that I absolutely loved. It’s darkly funny, shockingly violent, richly written, beautifully rendered, thoughtfully constructed, and brilliant. And I’m thrilled that there’s more stand-alone books to come – I don’t plan on waiting long to jump into them. If you like George R.R. Martin and haven’t read these, you’re missing out, plain and simple.