Last Argument of Kings, by Joe Abercrombie
Last Argument of Kings is the concluding part of Jo Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy (see my recent review of the second volume, Before They Are Hanged). Say one thing about Joe Abercrombie, say he puts a lot of twists and turns in the road, as the cast central characters continue their journeys of self-discovery, with varying degrees of ultimate success.
The list of shocks, revelations, and plot-twists is long, and if I was to describe any of them it would rather spoil the story. Abercrombie displays evidence of intricate plotting that nevertheless avoids being overcomplicated or hard to follow, and while some of the revelations are easy enough to see coming, you are still left wondering how something is going to be done, and when it will happen. Having brought Bayaz’s travelling party back to Adua at the conclusion of the second book, we open with two focuses: one on Adua, where Ferro, Logen and Luthar seek new purposes after the failure of their quest, and Glotka the crippled Inquisitor plays politics on behalf of his boss, the Arch-Lector Sult; the other in the North, where the Dogman and his Northmen are allied with the Union army against the forces of Bethod. Quickly, Logen rejoins his former comrades, and discovers that his determination to be a better man is going to be challenged by his own nature and his fearsome reputation as the Bloody-Nine.
As the book progresses, the action all converges on Adua and the story becomes a full-blown war novel, with all of the characters having their parts to play in the conflict. After the apocalyptic climax of the novel, Abercrombie takes plenty of time to follow the central characters and explore the situations they find themselves in. Sad to say, despite suggestions that the characters are on paths to some degree of redemption through their experiences and interactions with one another, by the end of the novel those chances seem to have been somewhat squandered. Ultimately, each character is a slave to their own nature and circumstances: Glotka is a sadist because of what was done to him; Logen and Ferro know only violence, and seem unwilling or unable to break the cycles or retribution in which they find themselves; the best man, West, endures perhaps the worst fate of all.
The recognition that traditional fantasy notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are restrictive and irrelevant has underpinned this series since the start, so we should perhaps not be surprised that few of the central characters end up happy. Most of them have made bad choices or pursued vain hopes at some point.
‘It ain’t ever simple, is it, as a man is just good or bad? Not even you. Not even Bethod. Not anybody.’
‘No.’ Logen sat and watched the flames moving. ‘No, it ain’t ever that simple. We all got our reasons. Good men and bad men. It’s all a matter of where you stand.’
If this all makes the book sound bleak and forbidding, then I should point out that this worldview is offset by a wry and knowing sense of humour, with the least likely character, cripple and torturer Sanda dan Glotka, providing the greatest number of smiles. Abercrombie shows he’s not afraid of making his readers laugh, and in one passage even appears to poke fun at the whole fantasy genre:
‘I’ve been trying to get through this damn book again.’ Ardee slapped at a heavy volume lying open, face down, on a chair.
‘The Fall of the Master Maker‘ muttered Glotka. ‘That rubbish? All magic and valour, no? I couldn’t get through the first one.’
‘I sympathise. I’m on to the third and it doesn’t get any easier. Too many damn wizards. I get them all mixed up with one another. It’s all battles and endless bloody journeys, here to there and back again. If I so much as glimpse another map I swear I’ll kill myself.’
Such levity actually highlights the aspects of the author’s approach to fantasy that make it so refreshing: we don’t need a huge cast list of characters to refer to, and we can manage just fine without a map (though so accustomed am I to the tradition of having maps that I admit to pining for one every once in a while). Coupled with his direct writing style and strong characterisation, and his willingness to throw in a bit more sex and swearing than genre fans are accustomed to, it’s not hard to see the reasons for his success.
The title of the book, Last Argument of Kings, is taken from inscriptions on the cannons of King Louis XIV of France. It’s highly appropriate – many of the characters in this book are familiar with the notion of violence as the last (or sometimes first) resort. I hope that readers will consider turning to Abercrombie’s books as very much a first resort, a great advert for what fantasy can be.