The Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie
Published by Gollancz, March 2008
ISBN: 9780575077898 (Hardback); 978-0575077904 (Trade)
670 pages (ARC Copy received); 544 pages in published format.
Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit
These days it’s a bit of a cliché to talk of fantasy trilogies - the type has become closely associated with many of the predictables in the genre, often seemingly stamped out with mechanical precision. Multitudes of characters, broad canvas, plot pattern following the oft-used Lord of the Rings method of ‘problem-conflict-resolution’ – you probably know what I mean.
With such familiarity it can be difficult to create something new, yet also draws on those original tropes. However Joe’s latest, the last in the First Law trilogy, manages to achieve something quite special. Not only does it manage to take a lot of those tired old genre chestnuts and make them into something new, but it also provides the end to a series that, in my opinion, has reached and then exceeded the potential shown in the first book in the series (The Blade Itself.)
As you might expect in the last book of a trilogy, Book 3 resolves many of the threads left untied in the earlier books. At the beginning, Bayaz, Jezal, Ferro and Logen Ninefingers have returned to Adua after their journey in Book 2. Bayaz, the First of the Magi, takes his position in the Union Open Council. Ferro continues her search for vengeance against the Gurkish. Logen Ninefingers goes North to join Colonel West, Dogman and the rest of his gang in fighting Bethod, the King of the Northmen.
Meanwhile in Adua, Superior Glokta continues his grisly work but finds he has to deal with not only the political machinations of the country but also to survive in an increasingly complicated web of torture and blackmail, when the King is killed and an unlikely replacement is found.
Things then become interesting. Sieges ensue, invasions begin and the breaking of the First Rule, by which world order is maintained, becomes ever more likely.
In my review of Book 1, I said, ‘There are situations set up and conflicts unresolved by the end of the book, which no doubt will be dealt with in the later books.’ It is clear that by Book 3 that my hope has been repaid in spades. For Book 3, not only being a bigger more ambitious and more complex book, is where those plot lines and seemingly obscure inconsistencies come together.
All of this, of course, is cemented together by an engaging group of characters, where even the heroes are flawed and the bad guys are redeemable. This can sometimes lead to an army of un-memorable characters in a lesser book. Though there is a broader scale this time around, Joe has (in my opinion wisely) stuck to showing actions mainly through the smaller group of main characters in the series, thus allowing the reader to make sense of events, even when the characters do not.
Though characterisation has been one of the trilogy’s strengths, by this third book the characterisation has evolved to create memorable characters, paradoxically in a variety of shades of grey. Though these characters have become memorable in earlier books, the characters here grow up, flesh out and have become engaging and more realistic. For me, this is exemplified by Jezal in particular, whose growth as a character is most perceptible here, though to say why might just spoil elements of the book. I could also say the same about Glokta and Collem West. Perhaps the most conspicuous development of the book however is that it is in this book that we finally see Bayaz’s true potential.
What this third book does most impressively, and more than the previous books, is develop the broader conflicts. It takes two and a half books to get there, but the battle scenes between the men of the North and the Union are full on in their head-splitting, eye-popping and limb-severing. Covered in viscera and gore, the scenes are some of the most impressive (not to say stomach-turning) I’ve ever read in the genre, up there with James Barclay’s and Steven Erikson’s nastier moments. This reads like a darker, gorier version of the Battle at Minas Tirith. Nasty, brutal, horrifying. And, on a smaller scale yet no less impressive, the full-blown arrival of Logen’s alter-ego, the Bloody-Nine, is also terrifying to see. The lines between hero and villain here are definitely blurred.
To counterbalance this gore is Joe’s trademark humour. Glokta is there with his usual cynical worldview; there are scenes between other characters, such as Jezal that also balance this tale, as too the aforementioned grim, graveyard humour of the compatriots in battle.
Joe’s determination through this series to do something new has been commented on in earlier reviews. Therefore it may not therefore be much of a surprise to find that, like the books before this, just when you think that things are resolved, the tale is not. Many of the key events being built up in the earlier books are resolved in the first half of the book. Despite this, the tale that unfolds in the rest of the book keeps the reader engaged wanting to know what happens next.
As Joe has done in the past, just when you get to the ending and you think you’ve worked it out, you haven’t. Though most of the main plotlines are resolved in the end, there are elements that could be written of in later books, should Joe wish to do so. Not everyone survives; not everyone lives happily ever after, though some receive relief from unexpected quarters.
For those jaded by the genre’s predictability, yet hopeful about revisiting the elements that encouraged them to read Fantasy in the first place, this might be the series. A trilogy that justifies being a trilogy, produced in three years. (Note that: a book a year.)
Lou Anders of PYR Books once claimed that Joe could be mentioned (albeit quietly) alongside George RR Martin. After this, I can only agree. For those who have stuck the course, this trilogy shows an amazing development and progression, not only in scope but also in writing style. And the man’s only three books into what, I hope, will be a lengthy publishing career. How do you top this?
Recommended very highly.
Book One review (reviewed by me) HERE
Book Two review (reviewed by Rob) HERE. Juzzza's review HERE.
Mark Yon / Hobbit, March 2008
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