Books: Last Argument of Kings

In Brief:  The final book in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy brings main characters Logen, Jezal, Glotka, Ferro, and Bayaz full circle amidst grim warfare, invasions, political machinations, and ancient magic.

Pros:  This is Joe Abercrombie, who has the knack for great characterization, realistic action, effective plotting, and occasional dark humor.  Many of the showdowns hinted at in the first two books (internal and external) come to pass.

Cons:  To quote the overused coach-speak cliche:  “They are who we thought they are.”  And in the end, this may not be enough.

Review: Last Argument of Kings begins with the lead-up to the election among the nobles of the Union to choose a new king.  Inspector Glotka and the Inquisition, attempting to secure votes for the candidate of their choosing, proceed along a course of threats, bribes, and blackmail as they vie for power.

The scenario is familiar, having been setup towards the end of Before They Are Hanged, the previous book. So too we follow the splitting of the wizard Bayaz’s ‘anti-fellowship’, who, having failed in their quest to recover the powerful artifact called the Seed, now find themselves sucked into plot arcs the author has skillfully molded throughout the series.

Logen Ninefingers heads north to help the Union in their war against his old commander, Bethold, King of the Northmen.  There he meets up with Colonel West, who is about to receive a battlefield promotion, and eventually, the Dogman and the other Named Men who hold him in such fear and respect.

Captain Jezal dan Luthar takes his leave in the capitol and quickly seeks out Ardee, the woman who became his lodestone while on the quest.  Of course Ardee is her own woman (and also a burgeoning alcoholic), so the reunion isn’t as picturesque as Jezal would have hoped.  He also finds himself unexpectedly swept up in the politics of succession.

Ferro seems adrift, hanging around for reasons she can’t understand.  Her brief romance with Logen ends as abruptly and awkwardly as it began.  Of course Bayaz has something to do with that, as he does with nearly all the important events unfolding in the Union.  Soon we see the invasion of the Ghurkish from the south, and Ferro once again has enemies to fight.  Bayaz himself quickly re-establishes himself at the center of the Small Council as they proceed to search for their new king.  He also prepares to face the Ghurkish and the undead warriors of the Wizard-Priest, Khalul.

Amidst these plot points limps Glotka, attempting to gather intelligence for his master, the head of the Inquisition, even as the Union totters on the brink of collapse.  Glotka is the true center of the story (at least in the Union) as he tortures and blackmails his way to answers, which lead to more questions.  He interacts with most of the other main characters and finds that several chits taken out in the previous two books are about to be collected upon.

There are showdowns a-plenty.  And betrayals.  And unexpected turns.  Abercrombie has earned a reputation as a very skilled writer who emphasizes grit, realism, and characterization.  All of that is very much in evidence here, as we move seamlessly through the big movements of the final chapter.  It’s a pleasure to read, until you’re about two-thirds through, when moments of denouement start to accumulate, and you realize the thematic message:  none of it seems to matter.  The struggle is fruitless.  No one has really changed.

This turned out to be pretty depressing.  Now Abercrombie has made no bones about his Sword and Sorcery chops:  he’s firmly in the Robert E. Howard/Michael Moorcock camp as opposed to Tolkien.  No good over evil here.  Plenty of moral ambiguity.  And that’s cool.  It’s a welcome approach.  Certainly we’re no fans of the Hollywood ending every time, we certainly don’t advocate pandering to your audience or your characters.

But here the author seems to purposely take it the opposite direction.  At every turn, main characters don’t change or evolve or fall hapless victim to the events.  Logen?  Berserking murderous bastard to the end.  Jezal? Shallow coward.  Glotka?  Paranoid and heartless.  And Bayaz turns out to be the worst of the lot.

Yes, the Heroic Journey has maimed a generation of storytellers.  Blame George Lucas if you like.  But don’t you want to see some development in your main characters?  Don’t you want to see them accept and or embrace at least a few of the lessons, learn from their trials?  Wouldn’t you prefer for at least one of these bastards to do a little something on the road to redemption.  George R.R. Martin and Steven Erikson – these authors famously wallow in the dirt and grime and realism, but they also provide certain characters a little redemption, a little triumph here and there.

I know I was hoping for just a little of this.  Not expecting much, because that would be against the style and tone of the series.  But in the end Abercrombie rigidly enforces the ‘Back to the Mud’ philosophy the Northmen so embody.  For me this just wasn’t enough.

Bottom Line:  If you’ve read the first two books in the series, you will have to finish with Last Argument of Kings.  It’s expertly done in many respects; the fact that the author riled me up is testament to his skill and how much affection I developed for some of his characters.  At the same time, I found myself disappointed in the end and unsure when or if I’ll seek out his other books.

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