If you haven’t read the first book of the trilogy, you can read my review of Book Review: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie instead.
Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Round and round in circles we go, clutching at successes we never grasp, endlessly tripping over the same old failures. Truly, life is the misery we endure between disappointments.
With Last Argument of Kings, Lord Grimdark, also known as Joe Abercrombie, concludes his First Law trilogy which follows a broken man, a vengeful woman, a powerful magus and a northern savage. It all started with Logen Ninefingers barely escaping an attack by manlike beasts, the Shanka, making it out “still alive”. That night he sits by his fire and summons the spirits that he has always been able to call upon, which tell him that Bayaz, the first of the Magi, is looking for him. When Logen answers the call and meets with Bayaz, they make their way to the capital in Adua to help with preparations against the self-proclaimed King of the Northmen, Bethod. A threat that, at the time, seemed otherworldly and extremely dangerous. In Adua we meet the other two protagonists of the story. Jezan dan Luthar, an arrogant young man who thinks himself better than everybody. He is training to become this year’s fencing champion though he is not willing to put in the effort for it. But the most intense and memorable character, partly due to his great resemblance to Tyrion Lannister, is Sand dan Glokta, a man who used to be a boy like Jezal, carefree, arrogant, incredibly handsome and talented, before he was taken by the Gurkish and tortured to disfigurement. He is cursed to live in terror of staircases, limping his way around the corridors of the dungeons of the Inquisition, asking his questions, torturing people for a living.
The plot is set, the people are dancing. When Ferro Maljin enters the scene, the pawns start moving around the chess. Ferro’s past will never allow her to forget. Her life as a slave and the constant threat of the Gurkish in her wake have left her no room for forgiveness or trust. But Ferro carries Devil-Blood in her veins, and when Bayaz offers her the chance at revenge that she has always dreamed of, she reluctantly agrees to follow him to a quest to find the seed.
Before They Are Hanged follows this group of individuals into a quest that turns out to be fruitless. In fact, one would be right to wonder as to why should Abercrombie spend the time, putting out into the world yet another book about a group of people on a dangerous quest to the end of the world. Had it not been for the changing dynamics and the fluctuating relationships among the individuals, paralleling Glokta’s troubles in Dagoska as the desperately needed saviour of the city, the second book would turn out to be problematic and completely pointless. Thankfully, what Abercrombie lacks in laying a plot he makes up for building strong characters. Bayaz et al. make their way back to Adua, some of them disappointed to have wasted their time, others relieved to be back alive.
We make our way, through blood and gritted teeth, to Last Argument of Kings. The King and both heirs to the throne are dead, and Glokta finds himself between opposing forces. On one hand, Arch Lector Sult commands Glokta to manipulate his way to the throne and spy on Bayaz while the bankers Valint & Balk demand of Glokta to seize investigation on Bayaz and the Prince’s death. Glokta is truly playing a dangerous game, balancing the wishes of merciless and powerful masters. As ever, the internal monologues that only Glokta shares directly with the reader, serves as a mediator to his character. Three books in though, and Glokta’s thoughts still primarily revolve around his sorry, crippled state.
Who is that man? That ruined shell? That shambling corpse? Can you even call it a face? So twisted and so lined, so etced with pain. What is this loathsome, pitiable species? Oh, if there is a God, protect me from this thing!
The mere repetitive nature of Glokta’s thoughts instills in the reader that he is, indeed, a pitiable, ruined man, in exactly the same way as you know that the cooking stove is burning hot because your mom has told you time and again that you shouldn’t touch it, but you have never actually felt how it is to do so. It is only through glimpses of Glokta’s state as an external observator that the reader truly experiences him as a repulsive man deeply affected by his lost control over his body.
‘Ah,’ he grunted. He tried, ever so gently, to turn his ankle round, to work his knee. The pain instantly grew far worse. ‘Barnam!’ He dragged the sheet to one side and the familiar stink of ordure rose up to his nostrils. Nothing like the stench of your own dung to usher in a productive morning.
Abercrombie can write a scene that feels complete, carefully paced to advance quickly from the sweet calmness of waking up to the horror of shame and self-degradation, so it is a pity that he does not use this strategy throughout the book instead of Glokta’s internal dialogue that, after a while, becomes a reassuring – yes, Glokta is still crippled – but mundane noise in the background. Interestingly enough, being so close to Glokta’s mind, I could not help but feel sympathy for him and, maybe unconsciously, seeing him as an ultimately good person, something he is definitely not, for he has done and continues to do unspeakable things without a hint of remorse.
In Last Argument of Kings, once more, Abercrombie shows his weaknesses in building a strong plot. In The Blade Itself, the Northmen are largely presented as a fearsome enemy. The resolution to the whole Bethod ordeal that comes with the third book falls flat and is, frankly, oddly anticlimactic. It becomes obvious that the author had his main plot lurking in the background for the past two books and brings it forth in the expense of the running plotlines that the reader had been following so far. Thankfully, Abercrombie has a knack for writing characters with personality. And in this third book we see them changing again, ironically, back to where they started from.
Logen was initially presented as a northern savage. Killing people was his business and he was damn good at it. The Bloody-Nine they called him and people trembled to think of his brutal nature. Despite all that, Logen was a man with humour and decency, and the author had me wondering what all this business with the Bloody-Nine is about? Until he showed us exactly what it is about. Yes, the Bloody-Nine is a force that comes from nowhere and takes over Logen’s body and mind in a show of immense power and brutality that can be stopped by literally no one. Still, Logen travels with Bayaz, shows intimacy with Ferro and becomes a mentor to Jezal the prick. The Bloody-Nine has been momentarily forgotten. Last Argument of Kings dives deep into the grimdark territory with Logen, as the excuse of his alter ego is gone and the consequences of dealing with the Bloody-Nine become the unforgiving reality. Through it all, Logen struggles with thoughts of whether he is a good man, and while you would have probably answered “yes” in Before They Are Hanged, you might not do so now.
The Bloody-Nine. The most feared man in the North. A man who’d walked all his days in a circle of blood. A man who’d done nothing in all his life but evil. And all the while he’d looked at the sky and shrugged his shoulders. Blamed whoever was nearest, and told himself he’d had no choices.
As for Jezal dan Luthar, his fate will come as a surprise to many. From his humbling injury during the expedition with Bayaz, Logen and Ferro, to his happy return to Adua right into Ardee’s bed and her irresistible charms, his journey is far from over as Bayaz, the master of puppets plays his hand. Schemes, plotting and secrets unravel, along with the Magus’ true self, and lead to an unexpected finale that leaves you wanting more. More of these broken characters, more of these twisted, evil men.
Last Argument of Kings marks the end of The First Law trilogy, but fans of Abercrombie have nothing to worry about. The trilogy expands with a series of standalone novels in the same universe, starting with the highly praised Best Served Cold. Lord Grimdark has also dipped his toes in the YA realm with The Shattered Sea trilogy which I am soon to dive into. Joe Abercrombie has proven himself to be a capable storyteller in the fantastical realm, but maybe more importantly, a fast writer, and one cannot complain to an author who manages to put out one book each year, a possibility that others – ahem, George R. R. Martin, ahem – do not seem to consider.
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