I’ve read some dark stuff in my life, but I believe that Last Argument of Kings is the bleakest, most brutal book I’ve read, ever. Joe Abercrombie undoubtedly earned his title as the King of Grimdark. If it wasn’t for the humor Abercrombie had been deftly layering into the story since The Blade Itself, I don’t know that I could’ve finished this final installment. I joked with my fellow Novel Notions bloggers that I felt like I needed to bathe in kittens and rainbows when I read the last pages, and that honestly wasn’t far from the truth. I started half a dozen or more books in the aftermath of this book, only to put them down again because they weren’t bright enough. I finally settled on rereading a Nora Roberts trilogy that I’ve read over and over since my teenage years. Nora’s charming descriptions of Ireland could not be further removed from the Union and the North as Abercrombie detailed them.
“I have learned all kinds of things from my many mistakes. The one thing I never learn is to stop making them.”
If Before They Are Hanged was a study in character development, in how people can grow dramatically in the face of adversity, Last Argument of Kings was a demonstration of how quickly those developments can be thrown by the wayside and how easily characters can slip back into old habits. People who had genuinely changed found that those changes weren’t strongly rooted enough to sustain. It felt like the plot was propelled almost entirely by one betrayal after another. I didn’t expect a happy ending, I really didn’t. I mean, you have to be realistic about these things, after all. But I didn’t expect to hate nearly everything about the ending, either. A scant few characters found themselves in a decent place as the book drew to a close, and even those endings were heavily tempered with disappointment.
“If you want to be a new man you have to stay in new places, and do new things, with people who never knew you before. If you go back to the same old ways, what else can you be but the same old person?
Abercrombie also succeeded in crafting perhaps the single evilest character I’ve ever experienced. The full extent of said evil was shocking to me, as it was in no way apparent when the character was first introduced. Their callousness in regards to the value of human life was appalling, though it’s a trait that I should’ve anticipated as I look back. Even though I was shocked by this revelation, I had to respect how elaborate and well executed their plan was. There was one character who managed to surprise me with their decency, but I’ll refrain from naming them.
“People would far rather be handed an easy lie than search for a difficult truth, especially if it suits their own purposes.”
There were a couple of chapters that, though blood soaked, exhibited some amazing technique from the author. A duel scene, which is possibly the best such scene I’ve ever read, managed to be horrifying in content and almost breathtakingly beautiful at the same time. The language used was incredibly impressive and demonstrated that Abercrombie is not only a gifted storyteller, but a phenomenal craftsman. I was also highly impressed with a chapter entitled “Sacrifices.” Almost every perspective character was present in this single chapter, and Abercrombie made an artistic decision that I found delightful. Whatever line ended one perspective was also the opening line of the next perspective. It was a fun and thoughtful addition that I appreciated immensely.
“Rules are for children. This is war, and in war the only crime is to lose.”
While this book was painful to read, I have incredible respect for what Abercrombie managed to do in the First Law trilogy. It might’ve been brutal, but it was engaging and suspenseful and, even when I was disappointed in the characters’ decisions, I still cared about them. That’s a difficult balance to strike, and Abercrombie did it was great finesse. There were also an impressive amount of surprises, though few of them were happy. I’ve heard that his standalone novels set in the same world aren’t quite as bleak. I very much look forward to reading these, though I’ll be giving myself a breather before approaching them.
“Round and round in circles we go, clutching at successes we never grasp, endlessly tripping over the same old failures. Truly, life is the misery we endure between disappointments.”
Oddly enough, I believe that the First Law trilogy is now among my favorite fantasy series I’ve read. But, unlike others in this category, I’m not sure it’s a trilogy I’ll be rereading, as most of the other series among my favorites have been or will be. I loved the characters and would definitely like to revisit them, but I don’t know if this last book in particular is one I could stomach a second time. While Last Argument of Kings was written and executed brilliantly, the difficulty I had in reading it kept me from giving it the full 5 stars I know it deserves. If you consider yourself a fan of the grimdark subgenre but have somehow never read this trilogy, that’s an oversight that undoubtedly needs to be remedied. But if you struggle with darker fiction, you might want to steer clear of the First Law. You’ve been warned.
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