Mark/Hobbit’s review: http://www.sffworld.com/brevoff/431.html
Say one thing about Joe Abercrombie, say he can spin an incredible tale. The story begun in the superb The Blade Itself comes to an inspired and jaw-dropping end in Last Argument of Kings. The comfort level Abercombie flirted with in the previous two volumes is just as tenuous here, both in terms of the surface-level similarities to genre standards as well as the predicaments in which he places his characters.
This review contains spoilers, reader beware…
The troupe of characters led by Bayaz in Before They Are Hanged is strewn apart here, with Jezal returning to Angland, Logen back amongst his Northmen, and Ferrp still hanging around Bayaz. I said of the previous volume that “the characters do give the novel its greatest flavor.” This is true of Last Argument of Kings as well. Perhaps the most flavorful character throughout these three books is Glokta, a man caught between masters, a shell of his former glorious self, and a man with a snide, humorous internal comment for everything he voices and observes. I get the sense that Abercrombie had the most fun writing the Glotka scenes, much like George R.R. Martin has voiced a similar affection for his own character of Tyrion.
By the time Last Argument really kicks into high gear, Bayaz is revealed to be more than just the most powerful wizard in the world. Many other writers have tackled or included the ‘crafty-wizard/advisor-pulling-the-strings’ archetype before, but most have made the character the enemy or a minion of the enemy. Bayaz still has that air about him, but Abercrombie makes Bayaz such a compelling character, such a plausible and believable character that you don’t want the “hero” to cast him aside or defeat him. In essence, one could say that Abercombie has made the ‘evil wizard/advisor’ into the hero of the piece. Though not exactly subtle in this regard, Abercrombie is able to nuance Bayaz’s plotting so effectively that you root for him. Or, at least, I found myself rooting for Bayaz.
What would a crafty scheming wizard be without a king to manipulate? Thus enters Jezal, the scarred, once-fop who now finds himself unwittingly wearing the King’s crown. Early in the novel, Jezal is still recovering from his harrowing journey with Bayaz, taking comfort in the arms, and bed, of Ardee West. Though she is his superior’s sister and Ardee and Jezal’s relationship is caustic, both realize they have great care, passion, and possibly love for each other. Unfortunately for them, when Jezal is crowned king, her reputation does not allow for their hoped-for union. Rather, Jezal marries a beautiful, yet cold woman who comes to hate him. The scenes depicting Jezal and his wife are some of the more intense and cringe-inducing scenes in the series.
These are just the three tentpole characters of the narrative, Abercrombie hasn’t forgotten the supporting cast from the previous volumes. The Dogman and others, Logen’s countrymen, shine to a greater extent in this volume and serve greatly as a mirror for Logen and his actions. Ardee’s brother, Colonel West, is in the trenches fighting the war and his viewpoint gives stark realism to a bloody war. Ferro the untamed warrior woman is emblematic of the harsh violence of Abercrombie’s world, but like most of his characters, Ferro has more below the surface as her importance to Bayaz becomes more evident.
It’s this synthesis of plot and character which pushes The First Law trilogy at the forefront of modern epic fantasy. Joe Abercrombie plays games with plot and expectation so deftly that even though I might have been able to predict what happens over the course of Last Argument of Kings, I was no less wowed and enthralled with how the plot and events transpired. No judgment is passed on Bayaz for being the eminence grise of events except by Bayaz himself. Does Glokta enjoy torturing people as a fetish, or does he truly seek the truth? Is Logen bloodthirsty or does he wish to escape the violence associated with The Bloody Nine? Is Jezal a coward or a hero? Abercrombie manages to keep the reader guessing with each character’s subsequent appearance in the narrative, and this game never runs its course. Down to the very last page, Abercrombie defies convention and does not give any pat endings – the world is a bitter and unsympathetic place with no signs of compassion. Things needs as they must and in a world where death puts the crown on a ruler, a whispered spell can obliterate a legion of enemies, and men are fighting a war, these needs are violent and harsh. Glimmers exist in the dark nihilistic world, but at times, isn’t that how real life feels? Say one thing about Joe Abercrombie, say he’s a exceptional writer.
© 2008 Rob H. Bedford