BOOK REVIEW Last Argument of Kings
Author: Joe Abercrombie
512 pages • £12.99 (trade paperback)
You should always end with the best. Wow them in the final act, make the last chorus a belter, build to a climax and get them on their feet applauding when the curtain falls. Last Argument of Kings is the textbook example of this theory in practice.
The third in Joe Abercrombie’s debut fantasy series, The First Law, reveals everything a finale should: conveys some answers, ties together the loose ends from various plot strands, knocks over pieces painstakingly set up in the preceding stories, and in the aftermath delivers character development that surprises as well as delights. This series was always a swords-and-sorcery sequence that rejected the overwrought tropes of Tolkienesque myth-building in favour of wry dialogue and tough, interweaving plotlines. Although it’s never a comedy, the author’s tongue lurks inside his cheek as he re-energises the fantasy staples. At one point in this third volume, feisty beauty Ardee West utters the cheekiest line of all when she puts down a legend she’s been reading: “I’m onto the third [book] and it doesn’t get any easier. Too many damn wizards… It’s all battles and endless bloody journeys, here to there and back again. If I so much as glimpse another map I swear I’ll kill myself.” One assumes that’s a sentiment shared by Abercrombie: not once in this saga have we been forced to look at a drawing or read any made-up elfin script.
Despite encompassing a wide geographical span, Last Argument of Kings has a very well-defined sense of place, as focussed as any cop thriller. And although this third novel features hairy battles aplenty – including the brilliant, noisy destruction of by-now-familiar settings – they do not overshadow the individual tales of our leading protagonists.
Those guys – Luthar, Glokta, Logen, Ardee’s brother and the rest – all find themselves being thrust into the spotlight and attaining unexpected glory, although not without daunting challenges. The conflict threatened since the beginning is finally revealed in all its gritty clamour and there are plenty of gory treacheries and sudden about-turn moments.
Plot strands established in earlier books rocket away and take us in amusing – and tragic – directions. Jezal dan Luthar in particular has evolved over the three books from a smug waster in the mould of George McDonald Fraser’s Victorian antihero Harry Flashman to the closest Last Argument of Kings has to a courtly hero. A mystical McGuffin is somehow found and deployed with a little too much ease, and a villain or two meet overly speedy ends, but almost every character gets a fitting final act, with several of those treading different paths coming together at last with common goals.
The over-the-top bloodshed remains, as do the gallows humour and the shifting of registers that Abercrombie has skilfully employed in each novel, so that every chapter feels as though it comes from the internalised thoughts of a different character.
The world of the book occasionally feels a little too adjacent to our own reality: the northern woodland realm is called Angland; the southern dark-skinned invaders are the Gurkish – aren’t those just typos? The ebullient hill and mountain barbarians seem to have Celtic forebears. But any clumsiness on the macro scale diminishes as this book zooms down to the cliché-free level of individuals.
Last Argument of Kings signs off the trilogy on a high, interspersing breathless skirmishes with thriller-like moments; it seemingly ends some way before the last page, but then we enjoy an accomplished culmination which delivers enough answers and resolutions for us to feel satisfied. It builds to a tense final act which fulfils every facet of the phrase, “Leave them wanting more.”