Monday, February 02, 2009

Last Argument of Kings, by Joe Abercrombie

Last Argument of Kings
Joe Abercrombie
Pyr: 2008

With his concluding volume in The First Law trilogy, Joe Abercrombie brings his major characters back together in Adua once again, if only to give them a moment to regroup before Abercrombie spins them all off in unexpected ways. After the failure of a months long quest to distant ends of the known world, Bayaz returns to Adua with Logen Ninefingers, Jezal Luthar, Ferro, and a couple of other far less important characters. The quest was to find some mystical artifact called “The Seed”, though nobody other than Bayaz seemed to have a clue as to what that might be.

No sooner do they arrive back in Adua that Bayaz begins some sort of game with Jezal dan Luthar’s future, publically proclaiming Jezal to be a hero and a great warrior despite the fact that Jezal is nothing more than a young man only just starting to mature into a better man. Logen Ninefingers, known as the Bloody Nine, rejoins the group of Northmen fighting alongside the Union against the invading army of Bethod’s Northmen. Logen has been escaping his reputation on Bayaz’s quest, but back among men who have reason to hate and fear him Logen’s homecoming can be nothing more than an epic battle. The crippled Superior Glotka continues to serve Arch Lector Sult as Inquisitor and Torturer, and the return of Bayaz and company is about to upset the balance in Adua even as the Open Council prepares to elect a new King.

That’s just the part that came before, the set up for the story. Prologue, if you will. There is only a brief pause before Abercrombie gives each of the major characters everything they thought they might have wanted. Except, everything each character might have imagined turns out nothing like they would have expected.

This is where Abercrombie excels, in creating characters the reader can care enough about that when Abercrombie brings the pain and the nasty, the reader can’t help but be fully engaged. Make no mistake, Abercrombie brings the pain and the nasty. Abercrombie excels at pain and nasty and Last Argument of Kings is chock full of pain and nasty. This is Abercrombie’s wheelhouse.

Several things are done very well here. The first, and most obvious is the battle sequences in the north. The general fighting sequences are done well, but the blood-lusts of the Bloody Nine are something else, and how Abercrombie describes both the fighting and the blood-lust is exceptional. It is not that the reader feels as if he (or she) is there in the battle, but we can feel it and almost see the madness. Almost.

The second thing done very well is even when describing the unbelievable (Jezal’s ascension, for example), Abercrombie somehow makes the character development realistic. Sure, Glotka never really changes, but Jezal does and while there is a hint of a the farmboy-fantasy development to Jezal, it is not at all the same. Abercrombie twists even that convention of the genre, playing with it and then playing it false. All is not as it seems and Jezal does the best he can with it, but Jezal is not Belgarion of Riva. This is not the average ascension. Abercrombie makes even this work. The rest of the characters…well…they’re men and women grown. They don’t change so much as adapt and play out their natures. Logen attempts to develop, but circumstances forces him to what he knows best. Glotka just gets by, delightfully nasty as he is.

The only thing in Last Argument of Kings that feels almost false is something that comes across as a villain’s cliché speech explaining the reasons why. The speech itself doesn’t play well, but what follows is excellent. On one hand, there is no clear answer if the speechmaker is a villain. He may just be a puppetmaster with no clear cut good or evil. On the other hand, even if it is a false note played by Abercrombie, it is only one false note followed by awesomely brutal destruction.

That’s the key in this novel and the entire series, it is brutal. Bad things happen to good people and many of the “bad guys” really don’t get what they deserve. Late in the novel Glotka says “I don’t deserve this”, but the only answer given him is “No one gets what they deserve.” Last Argument of Kings is not about the righteous. In Abercrombie’s world none are righteous. Nobody gets what they deserve, except perhaps, the reader. The reader deserves the brutality told in such an entertaining way. It’s nasty, but that’s why we read Abercrombie, for the pain and the nasty and the humor laced through all of it.

For all the ramble of this review, I’m not sure I’ve truly covered what I wanted to cover or done Last Argument of Kings justice. The deal is, this is a damn fine book and one of the best conclusions to a trilogy I have had the pleasure to read. The last chapter, “The Beginning”, is fitting since the trilogy opened with a chapter titled “The End”. The events in “The Beginning” mirror those of “The End”, suggesting that we are only jumping into the middle of a larger story, that there is neither beginning nor end, not for these characters (or anyone else). Even now I ramble. Rather than prolong this, a simple “Well done, Mr. Abercrombie” and a “thank you” will have to suffice. The First Law is one hell of a ride and one that doesn’t relent from start to finish. It’s a damn fine novel.

Previous Reviews
The Blade Itself
Before They Are Hanged


ThRiNiDiR said...

Watch out. Larry's hatchet approaches! ...nah, just kidding :)

Enjoyed reading your review Joe.

Larry Nolen said...

Nah, Joe's mostly safe...for now ;) Although that last paragraph was a bit flat, come and think of it... :P

Joe said...

Flat!?! Oh, sir, no. The tire fell off the axle and I drove home on the rim.