Last Argument Of Kings: The First Law: Book Three: Book Three of the First Law (Gollancz S.F.)
by Joe Abercrombie
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780575077904
Date: 20 March 2008 List Price £12.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
The final title in Joe Abercrombie's exceptional fantasy series The First Law. Published by Gollancz, Last Argument of Kings brings to a close this phenomenal trilogy. Having covered the first two books in Joe Abercrombie's series The First Law, it would be churlish of me not to complete my own trilogy of reviews in tribute to this remarkable young writer, not least because this is a series that I wholeheartedly recommend. It's damn good stuff! My appraisal assumes that you're familiar with the series and its cast of clearly drawn cynics, cripples, drunks, miscreants and misfits -- if you're looking to start it with book three, you've problems I can't help you with, I'm afraid.
Having returned from their epic travels to the far ends of the known world, the band of wanderers led by Bayaz, the First of the Magi, returns to Adua following their apparently fruitless journey to find a political power vacuum in the making. The king is unlikely to last out the month and his natural heirs met their unfortunate fates in the previous book. The great and the not so good are obliged to elect themselves a new king and, not surprisingly, the fight is a dirty one, really very dirty indeed. And right at the centre is, of course, our old friend the limping, drooling, bitterly self-deprecating Superior Glokta, a master at behind-the-scenes machinations, bribes, bullyings and threats -- but a slave to masters of his own nonetheless.
I've mentioned before my thoughts on Glokta (see my reviews of The Blade Itself and Before They Are Hanged), but here in this final instalment, Abercrombie adds with the lightest and most deft of touches the final layers to this most brilliant character fresco. Glokta is a masterpiece of contradictions and paradoxes, a man so stretched by forces pulling him in all directions that it is a wonder he can keep his twisted shape at all. That he manages to remain sympathetic in the eyes of the reader is down to Abercrombie's superb handling of both character and story. That Glokta might just possibly find some redemption in this cruel world that he despises nearly as much as it appears to despise him is nothing short of genius on the author's part.
Logan Ninefingers returns to the North where at last he rejoins the comrades he'd lost just prior to our first meeting with him back in book one. In contrast to Glokta's closed view of the world, Logan -- a more bloodthirsty and dangerous character by far -- somehow retains a hopeful optimism throughout the course of the trilogy. This paradox powers much of The First Law, with Ninefingers' fearsome reputation as a bringer of death to everything he touches (a reputation we see often backed up by his actions) always rubbing up against his almost childlike notion that a man can change. Though his fate may be sealed by the end of this book, with many dying in the process, ultimately Abercrombie allows the reader to judge whether The Bloody Nine's litany is fulfilled or not.
Change does come to Jezal dan Luthar, however -- and it is far from anything he might have anticipated (though I confess, I saw it coming!). He is, perhaps, the character who journeys furthest in this trilogy. From the foppish layabout we first met, he ends up as much more -- both in status and character -- and his fate is, from our point of view, a balanced and justified one, not least in that Jezel confronts and admits the many mistakes he has made along the way. Bayaz, on the other hand, admits nothing yet is somehow responsible for all. It is just possible that the old fraud is exactly who he claims to be.
The individual stories of other lead characters -- Ferro, the fierce, friendless Southern woman, who can eat only a diet of dry vengeance; Ardee West, the lush depressive, and her brother, Colonel Collem West, perhaps the character here with the most integrity, but himself (in the way of Abercrombie's talent for duplicity within his characters) a man guilty of impulsive murder; Dogman and his crew of mercenaries, cold-hearted killers all, yet also men with extraordinary philosophical insights into the human condition -- all reach their conclusions in this final book of the trilogy.
At the end of Last Argument of Kings, and indeed when looking at the whole First Law trilogy, I find I am left with a feeling of profound satisfaction -- something that is rare when dealing with fantasy trilogies. So often the promise of that first book is unfulfilled by what follows. Not so here. My satisfaction is matched only by admiration for Abercrombie. This story, which started off so brilliantly, has gotten better and better with each instalment. Structurally, each book works both individually and as part of the longer story arc. For any writer to produce work of this quality is superb -- that this sequence marks a debut is all the more remarkable.
The First Law is, I strongly believe, a seminal work of modern fantasy. It is a benchmark sequence that should be regarded as an example of all that is truly great in today's genre fiction. It stands way above the vast majority of the marketplace, tainted as so many fantasy works are with the lofty and portentous myth cycles bequeathed to us by Tolkien. Instead, Abercombie's work reflects today's harsher world within its pages. This is fantasy come of age, a tale for a modern generation, a story for the selfish -- for a harder, more self-aware audience, for people who live in today's litigious, cynical, unforgiving society. You know who you are!
Very highly recommended.