Saturday, 26 September 2015

Review: 'Last Argument of Kings' by Joe Abercrombie


 


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 deathbed, 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...



 I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Logen Ninefingers and Sand dan Glokta are two of my favourite fictional characters ever, and re-reading the third instalment of the First Law trilogy has firmly cemented my opinion. Glokta’s sardonic internal monologues are a continual source of entertainment, and he continues to shine as a despicable yet pitiable anti-hero; while Logen’s increasingly difficult struggle against his own nature provides a sympathetic and captivating counterpoint to Glokta’s dry wit. Almost as enthralling are Jezal dan Luthar and Major West, each of whom are interesting, sympathetic and likeable in different ways; and of course let’s not forget the jewel that is Ardee West. As always the dialogue is superb, totally engaging and frequently funny, and Abercrombie has an incredible knack of conveying a huge amount of character information through just one or two lines of conversation.
 
So, as far as characters go, Last Argument of Kings is almost faultless. But is the plot up to scratch? I said in my reviews of The Blade Itself and Before They Are Hanged that, although entertaining, both books were considerably lacking in action. Not so with Last Argument. Here, everything set up during the first two books finally – finally! – comes to a head. In short: stuff happens. And it’s awesome.
 
Gone is the endless travelling; gone is the continual bickering between characters. We’re no longer being prepared for huge events: we’re being thrust into the centre of them. Goodbye setup, hello payoff! Last Argument is full to the brim with spectacular set pieces, bloody battles and malevolent magic, not to mention a plot twist or three. Having read the book before, albeit several years ago, I was able to fully appreciate the way the final events were set up: the pacing is outstanding, and if anything I enjoyed the twists even more because this time I was able to spot all the little clues and hints leading up to them.
 
I’ve said before that Abercrombie is a master at pulling the rug out from beneath us, and has frequently shown a fondness for manipulating characters and events in ways that totally shock (and sometimes outrage) his readers; Last Argument is the first, and perhaps finest, example of his skill at doing this. Readers of the First Law trilogy will have known from the beginning that none of the protagonists are squeaky-clean (far from it!); in fact, pretty much every single character we meet is highly flawed in some way or another. However, we as readers like to believe that we know exactly who is a ‘goodie’ and who is a ‘baddie’ . . . and this is the point where Abercrombie kicks us where it really hurts. Last Argument makes it agonisingly obvious that the characters we all know, and love, and root for . . . are actually rather despicable. And vice versa: those characters we love to hate may indeed be better human beings than those we previously identified with the most. In short, our heroic protagonists are, in fact, pitiful wretches, with one or two who could accurately be labelled as villains.
 
Last Argument is where Abercrombie really begins to show his (rather gloomy) fascination with the futility of attempting to change one’s nature, a theme continued in Best Served Cold. It makes for a truly engaging and captivating read – as long as you’re not too bothered about happy endings, of course. Abercrombie characteristically ensures that not everyone gets what they deserve: he rewards the ruthless, screws over the virtuous, and even sends a fair few unlucky ones back to the mud.
 
Revisiting the original First Law trilogy has been insanely enjoyable. I actually felt kind of sad as I neared the end of this Last Argument re-read – as though I was saying farewell to old friends, despite knowing that a few of them reappear in later books. Abercrombie's latest project is a collection of short stories set in the world of First Law, which is bound to be completely awesome, and I already can't wait to be reacquainted with some of my old favourites.
5/5

1 comment:

  1. Great review! I thought first two books were each very good, but Last Argument of Kings completely blew, not just the earlier books out of the water, but so many other book I've ever read too.

    Too much happened for me to comment on, but you mentioned my two favorite things I learned from this novel: First, that I no longer have any idea as to what makes a character "good" or "bad" or if there even is such a thing; Second, sometimes life sucks and bad stuff happens for no reason - because you don't always get what you deserve. (I believe Ardee has a nice quote at the end of the book about that too)

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