Last Argument Of Kings – by Joe Abercrombie

Last Argument Of Kings is the third and final novel of the already famous (or notorious) First Law trilogy – and while there are several other books set in the same universe, I think I have seen enough of it, at least for a while. But, before I move on to something else, here I am sharing my thoughts on this final installment of the series.

Title: Last Argument Of Kings

Author: Joe Abercrombie

Publisher: Gollancz

Publication Date: 20 March 2008

Genre: Fantasy – Grimdark

Length: 536 pages

Standalone or Series: Third book of the First Law trilogy

Synopsis: The world is, not surprisingly, torn apart by war and unrest, and our characters are all involved one way or another. Logen goes back to the North to finally settle his score with King Bethod; Glokta, as the old king is on his deathbed, is involved in yet another web of threats and machinations to influence the upcoming succession; Jezal has just decided that he’d rather settle for a peaceful life with the woman he has realised to love, however it looks like destiny (and the inescapable Bayaz) has other plans for him. As the Gurkish army finally attacks the capital of the Union, the secret purpose behind the war is finally revealed, alongside some mysterious character’s true colours.

Analysis: Last Argument Of Kings is stylitically consistent with the other works of the trilogy – so once again we have a third person narration, multiple points of view each with its special brand of cynicial snark, and of course Glokta licking and tonguing his empty gums.

Being the final part of a trilogy, this novel is where push come to shove, in the shape of a climax of ultraviolent battles, as well as with supposedly shocking reveals. I say “supposedly” not because they had been excessively foreshadowed by the previous novels or because they were by any means underwhelming, but because, once you know the drill, you can easily tell that anything vaguely resembling to a fantasy trope is going to be twisted in its monstrous and rotten counterpart – so it’s little surprise that Bayaz, who might have been mistaken for a wise mentor figure, is actually the vilest of them all, and that if Jezal, who had just matured to be a slightly less repugnant individual, is revealed to be royalty, he must be nothing but another pawn in a larger nefarious plan.

If anything, one bit I came to appreciate is the way the conclusion sheds a different light on some elements of worldbuilding that indeed had seemed to invoke more problematic tropes: because up to this point we could have got the impression that the Gurkish were some kind of uniformely evil nation, I mean what with their slavering, flesh-eating habits and all? And let’s face it, while Always Chaotic Evil civilizations don’t scream marvellous worldbuilding at their best, it’s even worse if they are made of Southern, dark-skinned people who devotely worship a prophet and have an entirely non-suspicious name (the Gurkish, really?). Admittedly, they didn’t stand out that much given the overwhelming bleakness of the setting, and the fact that Abercrombie was clearly playing cat and mouse with all sorts of old tropes, nonetheless a naive reader could have still seen the threatening Southern Empire as a special brand of evil.

However, once it’s revealed the real reason behind Khalul and Bayaz’s rivalry and the actual conduct of all the parties involved in the war – where the Gurkish prove of course capable of brutality, but also of unexpected mercy, and where Bayaz is more than willing to break any conceivable taboo in his quest for power – we understad that any previous impression was only due to our characters’ biased perspective. Instead, in the end we see that all people are somehow equal – at least to the extent that everyone really sucks. Which is still not great if you’re supposed to care about the outcome of their conflict, because it really doesn’t matter how it ends since no outcome seems preferable, but, well, it’s still better than having a Uniquely Evil Race, I guess.

Conclusions & Recommendations: Last Argument Of Kings is a very fitting conclusion to the trilogy and if you’ve made it up to this point you probably want to read it. As for me, despite all my criticism I must admit that Abercrombie is very good at his job and that the series does fullfil its goals; what he does is fully fledged, unmitigated grimdark, and that’s both his greatest achievement and the reason why I personally didn’t care too much for these books – because while I may enjoy unpleasant settings and characters, I would need at least the occasional speck of likability to get invested in the story. Anyway, whatever else I could say on the matter would be less about Abercrombie’s books, and more about the premises and the implications of grimdark more in general; a dedicated post is already in the works, so if you’re any curious just stick around a little longer.

Content Warning: Torture – Death – Violence – Gore – Rape – Epidemic

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