Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie
Last Argument of Kings is the third, final and best instalment in Joe Abercrombie’s enjoyably dark and twisted ‘First Law’ trilogy, although in many ways it feels like the beginning of a larger story. If all you want is plot resolution, there’s a huge amount left hanging, but it wraps up many of the arcs from the first two books beautifully and is overall a hugely satisfying and enjoyable conclusion. Endings are hard, and few completely nail them, but Last Argument of Kings really does.
Last Argument of Kings picks up just as Jezal, Logen, Ferro and Bayaz return to Adua after their failed journey to the Old Empire to recover The Seed in Before They Are Hanged. Logen makes his way back North, re-joining his old crew, now under the leadership of the Dogman, to ally with the Union (and Collem West) in their war against Bethod. Jezal’s epiphany after his scarring in the Old Empire has led him to seek a simple life of happiness with Ardee West, but the machinations of Bayaz leave him with a greater role to play. The murder of Prince Reynault has caused an election for the heir to the throne, and Sand dan Glokta uses his terrible skills to ensure the election of a candidate who is amenable to his master, Arch Lector Sult. With a war in the North, the threat of Gurkish attack and a fermenting peasant’s revolt, Adua and the Union is in an extremely precarious state.
After the wider focus of Before They Are Hanged, Last Argument of Kings is a much more focused and tightly structured book, with the lion’s share of the story taking place in Adua. Although I enjoyed seeing more of the world in the previous book, I did not enjoy how both the Old Empire and Dagoska storylines ended with a whimper. In many ways, they felt like time filling, but that is certainly not the case with this book. It’s a long book, but fast paced and compulsively readable. I enjoyed the first two books, but it’s Last Argument of Kings which has thoroughly cemented me as a Joe Abercrombie fan.
One thing that I really like about Abercrombie is his twistedly dark sense of humour, which crops up at the strangest moments. Don’t get me wrong, there aren’t any belly laughs, but it’s not uncommon for things so horrible to happen that the only way response is a grim chuckle. He switches over to tragedy well though, and the dialogue is naturalistic and strong. He’s improved hugely in action scenes. The scene in The Blade Itself where Logen and Ferro were chased by the Practicals of the Inquisition through Adua was pretty painful to read, but things improved in Before They Are Hanged and have reached epic status in Last Argument of Kings. Abercrombie’s writing has improved with each book, and it started in a pretty strong place to begin with!
Abercrombie has an interesting approach to characterisation. The only protagonist that could truly be called a good person is the Dogman, with each of his protagonists containing at least one massive flaw. Before They Are Hanged flirted with the idea of redeeming his awful characters. It suggested that the twisted Glokta may still have some humanity in him, that Jezal was capable of more than his pathetic selfishness, that Logen could stop killing in droves. Last Argument of Kings is less optimistic, and generally the characters fail to redeem themselves fully and revert to their own ways. All of the characters are aware that they are bad people, and seek to be better, but none of them are brave or strong enough to do it. Redemption is something which, if handled well (think Jaime Lannister), can be so fascinating, but if handled poorly can be confusing and unnatural (Thomas Covenant, or to an extent, Darth Vader). Abercrombie offers a sort of anti-redemption for his characters, that doesn’t take away from the complexity and nuance of their personalities, but refuses to give his readers a simple waving-away of his characters darker sides.
Last Argument of Kings is a brilliant ending to a series which I haven’t always been completely sure on. He’s announced a second trilogy, which I can’t wait for, but until then I have the three spin-offs set in the same world to tide me over.