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Last Argument of Kings (First Law 3) (Bk. 3) (original 2008; edition 2009)

by Joe Abercrombie

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Member:enikra
Title:Last Argument of Kings (First Law 3) (Bk. 3)
Authors:Joe Abercrombie
Info:Gollancz (2009), Paperback, 704 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***1/2
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Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie (2008)

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It is difficult to give a decent review of Last Argument of Kings, final volume of the First Law trilogy, without some spoilers. So I'm going to split the review into two parts, firstly about the general style and then about the story, with a warning when the spoilers are due.

On the whole, Abercrombie's writing is pretty good – vivid description, good character voicing and development, excellent plotting. Sometimes it reads as though it's short of a final edit; my personal bugbear was how much all the characters 'grimaced'. I was grimacing every time that word came up. I don't know if I just noticed these flaws more in the second and third books, or whether the first was more polished and then the others where slightly rushed. What he really excels at is tone. There's a plethora of darker fantasy out there, gritty realism introduced into fantastical settings – I reckon people influenced by reading [a:Robert E. Howard|66700|Robert E. Howard|http://photo.goodreads.com/authors/1210954603p2/66700.jpg] – where the combat is bloody and dangerous, characters swear in the kind of situations when real people tend to (not made up curses of the “by the teeth of Karvik!” sort, either). A lot of that sort of fantasy, even the good stuff like [a:KJ Parker|240708|K.J. Parker|http://www.goodreads.com/images/nophoto/nophoto-F-50x66.jpg] and [a:China Mieville], tends to be a bit on the humourless side. Abercrombie has a deft hand with tone, creating real tension and then relieving it with humour without descending into farce or any danger of becoming 'comic fantasy'. With several of the main characters we get a third person view (hearing?) of their inner monologues, which helps us get to know them through their foibles and self doubts but with which he also does a nice little trick. Each of these characters has little repetitive phrases that recur sporadically – Logen Ninefingers muttering “still alive” after every fight, Glokta asking himself “why do I do this?” or musing on the possibility of being found floating in the docks. This would be an easy tool to overuse, and become extremely annoying, but used sparingly it helps to cement the character voices as well as the plot structure, as leit motifs which both mirror past events and foreshadow future ones. The fight scenes are satisfyingly bloody, although I think he overdoes this somewhat. While not all the fights are described in detail, a few more could have been glossed over. Because Abercrombie has to keep finding different ways to describe the splatter of blood and the mutilation of body parts, it does become a little strained by the end and somewhat overshadows the feelings of the characters involved in the violence, which earlier on took precedence. Perhaps four stars is a little generous, but I think they are deserved for ambition and achievement.

Now, on to the review of the story and the inevitable spoilers.

Any genre of fiction has its themes and tropes, its styles and conventions, with which most of the readership are familiar. [a:Terry Pratchett|1654|Terry Pratchett|http://photo.goodreads.com/authors/1235562205p2/1654.jpg]'s early Discworld novels are a classic example of an author taking these conventions and twisting them for effects both comedic and social commentary. If you read Pratchett without knowing these tropes you're missing half the jokes. It's like reading the Dilbert cartoons without having worked in an office.

In heroic fantasy two of the big conventions are the mighty-thewed hero – often a Northern barbarian, usually smarter than he's given credit for, sometimes prone to berserk battle rages – and the centuries- or millennia-old wizard who watches over the world trying to steer civilisation and/or thwart the machinations of his dark adversary, often by use of pet heroes. In The First Law trilogy we have Logen Ninefingers, most feared warrior in the North, and Bayaz, First of the Magi. It is the riffs that Abercrombie plays with these conventions are what really makes these books worth reading.

Logen is a trouble magnet. We first meet him barely surviving a fight which leads to him falling from a cliff (the common trait of heroes in any genre is a huge amount of luck, both good and bad). We find that he is considered the most dangerous man in the North, but seeing him in a series of fights we wonder whether this is just luck. He is tough and capable, but seems no more so than his erstwhile companions, a group of other Northern 'named men', fighters who have made their names in battle. Until, at the end of the first book, we see Logen in his berserk rage, an unstoppable killing machine who recognises neither friend nor foe, just targets to be slain. And Abercrombie makes this interesting by introducing a touch of reality. Logen knows what he is. He has been fighting and killing for too many years and is sick of it. Not only does he know that he has killed companions in the blood heat of battle, he looks around and sees that everyone is either terrified of him or bears him hatred and blood feud, or both. But war is all he has known and, as someone remarks, the better you get at killing the less use you are for anything else. Logen makes the resolution to try and be a better man, but his only use is as a warrior, a killer.

Bayaz is a wizard more in the mould of [a:David Eddings|8732|David Eddings|http://photo.goodreads.com/authors/1223870462p2/8732.jpg]' Belgareth than of Gandalf. In appearance, a hale and hearty individual of late middle years, grey haired but solid and no nonsense, he doesn't mind becoming involved and getting his hands dirty. We only meet him going on for half way through the first volume, and at first his role seems more that of a facilitator than a protagonist, although the clues are there from the start that it is otherwise. Bayaz is more than a thousand years old, once favoured student of the creator of magic, and now first in the art. He was responsible for founding the Union, the kingdom which is central to much of the action and politics of the books. Bayaz is undoubtedly wise and powerful, and certainly appears benign in comparison to what we learn of his arch-nemesis, who controls the Gurkish Empire, a southern desert-based nation and main rival of the Union, by posing as the prophet of their god and controls a cadre of warrior magicians who gain their power by eating human flesh.

It is only in the second half of the final book that we learn just how involved Bayaz is, although the clues were there. From the start, he has orchestrated everything. While he takes credit for helping win the war which is the focus of The Last Argument of Kings, he deliberately planned it to draw out his enemy. And that is the point. The sorcerer is not concerned with the well being of people or the advancement of civilisation, but in proving himself the most powerful magician of all time and demonstrating that power to his nemesis and exercising it for his own ends. When Luthar, a shallow, self-centred military officer who Bayaz has manipulated onto the throne of the Union tells the wizard how much he hates him, Bayaz laughs. “I couldn't care less what you think. You people live so briefly and die so quickly it isn't worth bothering with. You are insects.”

Throughout the trilogy there is movement toward redemption. Logen trying to leave a life of violence behind him. Luthar realising he has lived a life of privilege and selfishness and changing his ways. Glokta, once a dashing cavalry officer who was broken in the torture chambers of the Gurkish Empire and is now chief torturer for the Inquisition, constantly questions both the morality and the point of what he does. Although in the end there is no redemption, which is a necessarily bleak outcome, it feels as though this is only due to the imposition from above, that things would have worked out better were it not for the malevolent, all powerful force that has its own agenda and to whom humans and indeed nations are simply pawns.
( )
  Pezski | Jun 8, 2017 |
Joe Abercrombie has created a very complex world. The books just get better and better. I loved the way the characters developed. ( )
  nx74defiant | Apr 30, 2017 |
We pick back up a couple of months after the events of Before They Are Hanged (The First Law: Book Two), Bayaz and crew have returned to the city of Adua after their failed quest, Sand dan Glokta is a Superior of Adua and carrying out his duties - both for the country and for his boss, the Arch Lector, West and the Northmen are in the North fighting against Bethod. The king is about to die, and both crown princes are dead, and the nobles are trying their best to outbid each other in both favours and blackmail so that they can seize the throne. As if the kingdom doesn't have enough troubles, the war with the Gurkish is about to come to a head.

All the plotlines set up in the last couple of books converge and get resolved - the wars with the North and the Gurkish, the succession, Bayaz's plans. In a way, they're resolved neatly, but not in the way you'd expect from a work of fantasy. No one in Abercrombie's world is particularly nice, but almost everyone turns out to be nastier than you might expect - and yes, that's possible. Although, the character arcs are certainly plausible and realistic, it's still sad.

This book is certainly well crafted, but it's not one that I particularly enjoyed reading. After the negativity in Before They Are Hanged (The First Law: Book Two), I was waiting for the other shoe to drop and the characters that Abercrombie had spent the last two books building up get some measure of redemption, for all the blood and gore to pay off, but as Abercombie keeps repeating - "no one gets what they deserve." There are a lot of battles, every characters gets put through hell, everything in sight is destroyed, but there's no reprieve in sight.

Writers can choose to focus on how miserable the world is, or they can try to find inspiration in unlikely sources, which is what most fantasy does. Abercrombie chose the former, and it feels like he got swept up in his desire to write a gritty and realistic world that he forgot to make it likeable - it's merely depressing. It makes me retroactively dislike the other two books for making a promise they didn't deliver on, but no one gets what they deserve and that includes me, apparently.

I would write about the plot and the ending of the characters, but it doesn't seem like it matters. It hardly feels like the end of a trilogy, it just seems like a few more moves have occurred in the game of chess that Bayaz and Khalul are playing. Indeed, Abercrombie has continued to write books that will hopefully end in some sort of resolution - there are three more books set in this world and a forthcoming trilogy. I don't think I want to be along for the ride, though.

I struggled to decide how many stars to give this book - it's very well done, but I didn't enjoy it. Readers that are not bothered by futility would probably like this series, though (fans of George R.R. Martin, I'm looking at you.) ( )
  kgodey | Apr 11, 2017 |
This book was every bit as excellent as I expected it to be.

Joe Abercrombie's skill as an author cannot be overstated. The plot moves swiftly, the language is clean, yada yada. He's a great author.

What I enjoyed most about Last Argument of Kings was the characters. Joe Abercrombie writes "grey" characters like no-one else. Is Logen Ninefingers a good man forced into fight after fight, or is he really a homicidal maniac? Is Sand dan Glockta a good man in a bad position, or is he a sociopath?

Just as you think you've got it worked out, Abercrombie has his characters do something that shakes your certainty; this is not fantasy where the characters have the luxury of easy decisions, and they then have to live with the consequences. War is not glorious: it is messy and tragic. Good people die along with the bad. Nobody, as Glockta says, gets what they deserve in life.

Abercrombie also has a master's touch when it comes to poisoning chalices. I don't think anybody ends up with an untainted chalice, although some of the poisons are pretty subtle. The closest, though, is Glockta himself. I was really, really happy about the way that turned out.

This book could be adequately subtitled: Be careful what you ask for: you might just get it. ( )
  T_K_Elliott | Mar 12, 2017 |
So many mixed feelings on this book and I will try to address this without delving into spoilers. The writing is top-notch. The tension is intense throughout every plot--each character is at risk, and the stakes are high. That said, the end left me frustrated. Mind you, I know the genre is grimdark. I didn't expect happy endings. Even so, I wish the ending hadn't kept dragging on, because the longer it went, the less I liked it. It came back to a simple fact: most of the characters didn't change through the course of the trilogy (the major exceptions to this being Ardee and Jezal). There was no enlightenment, no growth. This contradicts how most books--heck, even 1000-word flash fiction stories--usually develop a character arc, and it left me without a sense of satisfaction at the end.

That said, I am still mightily impressed with Abercrombie, and I will look for more of this books. This trilogy was still a great read overall, even if the very end wasn't quite what I wanted. ( )
  ladycato | Oct 24, 2016 |
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Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge.—Paul Gauguin
Last Argument of Kings—Inscribed on his cannons by Louis XIV
Does the devil know he is a devil?—Elizabeth Madox Roberts
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For the Four Readers

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Superior Glokta stood in the hall, and waited. He stretched his twisted neck out to one side and then to the other, hearing the familiar clicks, feeling the familiar cords of pain stretching out through the tangled muscles between his shoulder-blades. Why do I do it, when it always hurts me? Why must we test the pain? Tongue the ulcer, rub the blister, pick the scab?
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0575084162, Paperback)

The end is coming. Logen Ninefingers might only have one more fight in him ' but it's going to be a big one. Battle rages across the North, the King of the Northmen still stands firm, and there's only one man who can stop him. His oldest friend, and his oldest enemy. It's past time for the Bloody-Nine to come home. With too many masters and too little time, Superior Glokta is fighting a different kind of war. A secret struggle in which no-one is safe, and no-one can be trusted. His days with a sword are far behind him. It's a good thing blackmail, threats and torture still work well enough. Jezal dan Luthar has decided that winning glory is far too painful, and turned his back on soldiering for a simple life with the woman he loves. But love can be painful too, and glory has a nasty habit of creeping up on a man when he least expects it. While the King of the Union lies on his deathbead, the peasants revolt and the nobles scramble to steal his crown. No-one believes that the shadow of war is falling across the very heart of the Union. The First of the Magi has a plan to save the world, as he always does. But there are risks. There is no risk more terrible, after all, than to break the First Law ...

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:00 -0400)

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The King of the Union lies on his deathbed, the peasants revolt, and the nobles scramble to steal his crown. No one believes that the shadow of war is about to fall across the heart of the Union. Only the First of the Magi can save the world, but there are risks.… (more)

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