It’s never easy to admit that you’re wrong. I was wrong about the rest of the First Law series – especially Before They Are Hanged. Those who read that review saw how I was overwhelmingly disappointed by the apparent lack of an ending. I felt that it was a lot of set up for little to no pay off.
Well, like I said: I was wrong.
My love for the complex characters drew me back to the series and…well…I’m glad I dove in. Below is my review for the amazing conclusion to the First Law series.
- Title: Last Argument of Kings
- Author: Joe Abercrombie
- Genre: Grimdark Fantasy
- Audio Book Reader: Steven Pacey
- Series: The First Law (Book 3)
- Publisher: Gollancz (UK), 2008
Warning: Major Spoilers! Trust me on this one. Rather skip the summary. I’ll try to omit the major things, but it won’t be easy.
“Ultima Ratio Regum (Last Argument of Kings)” – Inscribed on Louis XIV’s cannons.
With the journey to the Old Empire resulting in failure, Bayaz First of the Magi, Logen Nine Fingers, Ferro Maljinn, Jezal dan Luthar, and Malacus Quai (Bayaz’s apprentice) return to Adua. Their quest a failure, they decide to part company.
While their mission yielded nothing of value, none of the travelers are quite the same. Ferro and Logen – while still openly hostile towards each other – have softened to each other. Quai seems ever more dissatisfied with his master – who, in turn, seems perfectly at peace with their failure. It is Luthar that seems to have changed the most: the snooty noble brat gave way to someone who cares for beggars in the street. The change bothers him.
***START OF SPOILERS***
What hasn’t changed are his feelings for Ardee West. After a (less than PG) reunion, they rekindle their ‘romance’.
Logen return to the North. Ferro still seeks vengeance against the Gurkish. Bayaz…well…the first of the magi has plans of his own.
Soon after, Adua is thrown into turmoil when the king dies. With the heirs all back to the mud, it is up to the Closed Council to elect a new ruler. Enter Sand dan Glokta, the crippled superior of the Inquisition (and my favourite character). Under the orders of Arch Lector Sult, it is up to Glokta to secure votes in his own ‘special’ way.
Meanwhile in the North, the defected Northmen lead by the Dog Man along with the Union Army are still fighting Bethod’s forces. Times are tough and victories are small. Collem West (brother to Ardee) begins seeing the conflict as a lost cause – one that his getting to his mentor, Lord Marshal Burr. Dog Man is equally burdened when he is made chief of his little clan.
Back in Adua, the election of the new monarch is to be done in the Open Council. The assembled nobles have been persuaded and bribed to back one or the other candidate. But, before any votes can be tallied, Bayaz makes a surprise announcement: there is an heir to the throne. A bastard, no less, and he is in the chamber: Jezal dan Luthar. The mage’s explanation satisfies the nobles (he is a hero who travelled to the Old Empire, after all) and Jezal the First ascends to the throne without quite knowing how it happened.
This means the end of Jezal and Ardee’s rocky relationship – and many other problems beside. The several members of the Closed Council are unhappy, especially since Bayaz has such undue influence over the young king. Sult assigns Glokta to investigate the truth of Jezal’s claim to the crown – of course – but the cripple is soon dissuaded from doing so by the bankers, Valint & Balk. These are the bankers who saved him from losing Dagoska and to whom he owes a lot of money. They instruct him to investigate Sult instead.
Meanwhile, Logen reaches the North, reunites with his friends and takes the fight to Bethod with the Union’s help. West, now Lord Marshal (thanks to his friendship with the new king), stays good to his word and soon turns the tide. During these battles, we see what ‘The Bloody Nine’ is truly capable of – and it isn’t pretty. When Logen rages, he becomes an instrument of death – so much so that he even kills one of his friends. Eventually, Logen defeats Bethod’s champion (see top image) and throws the King of the North from the battlements.
All hail Logen Nine Fingers – King of the North.
Just as one conflict ends, another begins. Gurkish Empire attack! And they are heading straight for Adua, the capitol of the Union. It takes the combined strength of the Union Armies, the Northmen, Logen, West, Ferro, and Bayaz with the Seed (yes, that thing they travelled across the world to find and then failed…that – read the book) to fight off the horde and 100 Eaters. Bayaz breaks the First Law and uses the power of the other side to vanquish these demons.
In the end, the city lies in ruins, but the Gurkish are driven off. Logen returns North as king. Jezal comes to terms with his role and his wife. Ardee finds Glokta (yes) – he will raise her child as his own. Bayaz leaves on a mysterious mission, but puts Arch Lector Glokta in charge of managing the king (the old man turns out to be both Mr Valint and Mr Balk – great twist). Ferro – with her new connection with the world below – goes to wreak vengeance on the Gurkish Emperor. And West – along with many others in Adua – comes down with the wasting illness that follows in the wake of Seed.
A new era begins in the world of the First Law.
***END OF SPOILERS (BUT THERE MIGHT STILL BE A FEW – READ THE BOOK)***
This book (this series) taught me a lot about endings. The first two endings left me unsatisfied, but now I realize that I didn’t understand something fundamental. Each of these books is an Act in the larger scope of the First Law. The end of The Blade Itself and Before They Are Hanged weren’t endings at all. The Last Argument of Kings was a massively epic climax and conclusion to this massive story.
I love this book. I love it for so many reasons: the characters, the character development, the plot (yes, it was there all along), the twists, the subversion of epic fantasy tropes (this is the anti-LotR), and the fact that this story changes my understanding of what came before. For instance, I want to read it all again and keep a closer eye on young master Quai.
Beyond the mechanics, I simply enjoyed the book. It is infinitely quotable, but most of all, it was a joy following these character arcs. I don’t know when last I enjoyed a big fantasy book this much (I think it was the original A Game of Thrones way back before it was a thing). Abercrombie is a master at his craft – I stand in owe of you, sir.
Not many. In fact, this book erases the negatives I had with the previous two installments. As long as you see this book as a great, big ending, it cannot help but satisfy.
That being said, the next section might give you a clue to whether or not this book is for you.
Potentially Offensive Content
Oh boy. Where do you begin? This book is ultraviolent. The battles are bloody. The injuries are gory. The bodily functions are detailed. And the sexual encounters are not always consensual. This is Grim Dark fantasy to its utter extreme. Everything is gritty and slightly disturbing.
This – in my opinion – is not done to an indulgent extent. It always serves a purpose and does anything but glorify violence. I might be wrong here, but I felt that Abercrombie went out of his way to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ behavior. While every character is a bit of both, most have the introspection to feel the weight of a bad deed.
Oh, and, yes, of course, there is torture. A lot of torture. Glokta is an Inquisitor, after all. With every finger he chops or knee cap he breaks, he is reminded of his own pain and deformity. This doesn’t excuse it, of course – if anything it adds to the masterful complexity of his character.
I know this and the other elements I mention here will put certain readers off. You have been warned.
In previous reviews, I simply stated ‘the characters’. This is still true here – perhaps more than ever. But this time I’ll a ‘plot’ to the mix. While I believed that there was a distinct lack of one before, this novel proves me wrong in the best way possible.
There is a massively intricate plot – there always has been. We are not equipped with all the tools to realize this from the start. This is a major gamble, but man, did it pay off. Everything that seemed pointless before is highly important here. All the missing pieces are in these pages.
The novel will leave you wanting more, but not in an unsatisfactory way. I feel like my time was well spent and that I could read the entire trilogy again. When last did a book series do that for you?
It’s worth mentioning the characters again. Each of them are complex and morally grey. It’s hard to say who the ‘good guys’ are, but easy to say who your favorite is. By the end of the novel, you feel as if you ‘understand’ the characters and the choices they made – good and bad.
Final Review Score: 10/10 – Masterpiece!
Do you agree? Let me know in the comments.
The Last Word
I am keen to read more of Abercrombie’s work – I’ve become a massive fan during the course of this series.
What do you think? Have you read it? Please let me know in the comments.
Also, I’m open to recommendations for what to read next. I need something like this…
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