Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Logen Ninefingers and Sand dan Glokta are two of my favourite fictional characters ever, and re-reading the third instalment of the First Law trilogy has firmly cemented my opinion. Glokta’s sardonic internal monologues are a continual source of entertainment, and he continues to shine as a despicable yet pitiable anti-hero; while Logen’s increasingly difficult struggle against his own nature provides a sympathetic and captivating counterpoint to Glokta’s dry wit. Almost as enthralling are Jezal dan Luthar and Major West, each of whom are interesting, sympathetic and likeable in different ways; and of course let’s not forget the jewel that is Ardee West. As always the dialogue is superb, totally engaging and frequently funny, and Abercrombie has an incredible knack of conveying a huge amount of character information through just one or two lines of conversation.
So, as far as characters go, Last Argument of Kings is almost faultless. But is the plot up to scratch? I said in my reviews of The Blade Itself and Before They Are Hanged that, although entertaining, both books were considerably lacking in action. Not so with Last Argument. Here, everything set up during the first two books finally – finally! – comes to a head. In short: stuff happens. And it’s awesome.
Gone is the endless travelling; gone is the continual bickering between characters. We’re no longer being prepared for huge events: we’re being thrust into the centre of them. Goodbye setup, hello payoff! Last Argument is full to the brim with spectacular set pieces, bloody battles and malevolent magic, not to mention a plot twist or three. Having read the book before, albeit several years ago, I was able to fully appreciate the way the final events were set up: the pacing is outstanding, and if anything I enjoyed the twists even more because this time I was able to spot all the little clues and hints leading up to them.
I’ve said before that Abercrombie is a master at pulling the rug out from beneath us, and has frequently shown a fondness for manipulating characters and events in ways that totally shock (and sometimes outrage) his readers; Last Argument of Kings is the first, and perhaps finest, example of his skill at doing this. Readers of the First Law trilogy will have known from the beginning that none of the protagonists are squeaky-clean (far from it!); in fact, pretty much every single character we meet is highly flawed in some way or another. However, we as readers like to believe that we know exactly who is a ‘goodie’ and who is a ‘baddie’ . . . and this is the point where Abercrombie kicks us where it really hurts. Last Argument of Kings makes it agonisingly obvious that the characters we all know, and love, and root for . . . are actually rather despicable. And vice versa: those characters we love to hate may indeed be better human beings than those we previously identified with the most. In short, our heroic protagonists are, in fact, pitiful wretches, with one or two who could accurately be labelled as villains.
Revisiting the original First Law trilogy has been insanely enjoyable. I actually felt kind of sad as I neared the end of this Last Argument of Kings re-read – as though I was saying farewell to old friends, despite knowing that a few of them reappear in later books. Abercrombie characteristically ensures that not everyone gets what they deserve: he rewards the ruthless, screws over the virtuous, and even sends a fair few unlucky ones back to the mud. Last Argument is where Abercrombie really begins to show his (rather gloomy) fascination with the futility of attempting to change one’s nature -a theme continued in Best Served Cold – and it makes for a truly engaging and captivating read . . . as long as you’re not too bothered about happy endings, of course.