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Book Review: Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie

* Genre: Epic Fantasy
* ISBN: 1591026903
* ISBN-13: 9781591026907
* Format: Paperback, 448pp
* Publisher: Prometheus Books
* Pub. Date: September 01, 2008
* Series: The First Law Trilogy, #3
* Author Website
* Author Blog

Don’t tell anyone, but Last Argument of Kings is already available for sale at Amazon, a whole month early.

Have you ever felt that sometimes a hero is just too heroic? As if everything seems to go their way, and that even their obstacles rapidly become beneficial with the wave of a wand or the death of a minor villain? Joe Abercrombie feels your frustration. His award-nominated First Law trilogy is a darkly humorous reality check on all epic fantasy. The final volume, Last Argument of Kings, makes clear that the First Law trilogy is a modern, pragmatic tale, not a starry-eyed heroic adventure.

Last Argument of Kings concludes the stories of Glokta, Logen, Jezal, Bayaz, Colonel West, Dogman, and others in just the way it should have been. Far from being the hero conquers all tale of most Tolkienesque fantasy, Last Argument of Kings is a satirical look at the cyclical nature of politics, and the pragmatic nature of all true heroes.

The story picks up where Before They are Hanged left off. Jezal, Bayaz and Logen have returned from their quest, much the worse for wear. Logen immediately takes off for the North and Angland, still seeking revenge against he self-styled “King of the North” Bethod. West is already there, and in dire straits trying to keep the army together against the implacable foe as his Lord Marshal gets more and more ill. Dogman is at West’s side, but is conflicted about the role of leadership he finds himself in. Jezal returns a hero, even though his mission had failed, and grand political events are sweeping him up, carrying to heights of power he could never have dreamed. And poor, crippled Sand dan Glokta, finds himself between a rock and a hard place, what is called in the Bible “serving two masters” with the attendant results thereof. And of course, the religious and evil fanatic empire of the Gurkish is amassing its forces to send against them all. Bayaz continues to be enigmatic, little help to anyone but Jezal.

Then, of course, all hell breaks loose.

Abercrombie continues to look deeply at characters and his writing style reflects that. Most of the story is written in dialogue, and setting is given a cursory onceover, but only enough to give the reader an idea of the look of a room, or the layout of a city. It is Shakespearean in its sparseness. Readers who dislike lots of dialogue with little description should steer clear. However, if you enjoy a bit of satire about fantasy, as well as the nature of man, this will be for you.

Last Argument of Kings is a satirical novel. In the first two books of the First Law trilogy, readers got a sense of Abercrombie’s black humor. It was as if Abercrombie smirks knowingly at the silliness of life. Last Argument of Kings brings that twisted sense of humor out of mere jokes and elevates it into a satire of humanity. Heroes are found in unlikely places, and the greatest of them are those who do what need to be done, no matter how gruesome. Those other characters that were supposed to be heroes, that presented with all the necessary character traits, exuding 100th level charisma, wind up cowards, with only sporadic heroism at best. All of the events, all of the triumphs and failures, end up being part of a never ending cycle, a result of the machinations of a few men of power. Abercrombie’s novel has a parallel in the very work of literature from which this blog takes its name. The Book of Ecclesiastes claims that “all of life is but vanity and grasping for the wind”. Abercrombie has managed to see the humor in this, and subsequently weave it into a three part fantasy series.

For readers who dislike coarse language, bloody violence, and sex in their novels, this one is most definitely not for you. Abercrombie’s book is something like HBO’s The Wire in a fantasy setting. It manages to see deep into the depravity of man and laugh at it, but does nothing to hide it.

Last Argument of Kings manages to close and complete the story well. Although in places it seems that Abercrombie is feeling forced to wrap up some loose ends due to having many plot threads, the majority of the story concludes tightly and neatly, even if it isn’t quite the ending most readers will be looking for. Much like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby Abercrombie has broken with the tradition of ending his fiction wholly hopeful note. That is unique in the epic fantasy setting in which this story is based. There is hope, yes, but in the grand scheme of things, this novel eloquently points out some of the futility of our striving.

With the few caveats above, I recommend reading this novel. It is unique in the epic fantasy subgenre, and has only a few comparisons within the broader realm of Speculative Fiction, and most of those are short stories. This alone makes it worth reading, though don’t expect to come away from Last Argument of Kings on an emotional high. Joe Abercrombie deserves the accolades he has given, and in recognition of a singular achievement in epic fantasy, I think he deserves the all elusive ten out of ten stars. However, in keeping with Abercrombie’s own sense of humor and the theme of the novels, he will find that is meaningless, as I never rate any books I review. Hence, those ten out of ten stars are naught but vanity, just another worthless part of the endless cycle of human history.