Review: LAST ARGUMENT OF KINGS by Joe Abercrombie

Publisher: Orbit Books
Page Count: 603
Release Date: March 20th, 2008
Series: THE FIRST LAW, Book 3
Rating: 4/5 Stars – Really Liked It

Warning: Possible light spoilers for earlier books in the series. You can read reviews for those books here: THE BLADE ITSELF, BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED

Last Argument of Kings

After a quest that largely ended in failure, Jezal, Logen, Ferro, Bayaz and company return home to Adua, to a country still struggling with war. Logen heads north to join the fight against King Bethod, a man who means to unite all the Northern Clans under his banner and extend his reach south. There he joins with West, Dogman, and his other former comrades to launch a daring initiative to end the war with Bethod once and for all. Meanwhile, Jezal finds himself the unexpected recipient of much praise and admiration for his supposed exploits on Bayaz’s quests, and is quickly promoted and thrown into responsibilities way over his head. Finally Glotka, recently returned home after the fall of Dagoska, has to contend with debts owed to two powerful groups, where crossing either could mean a slow, painful death. But the real test of character comes when an unexpected enemy arrives on Adua’s doorstep.

LAST ARGUMENT OF KINGS is an explosive finale that forces readers to really consider if any of these characters are actually “good.” A lot happens in this final book in the trilogy. I mean, A LOT. There’s two wars, a succession crisis, weddings, magi business, conspiracies, betrayals and more. And given the meandering (but compelling) nature of the plots of the first two books, it can be hard at times to see where this conclusion is going. But the series does have an ending in mind, and gets there in its own time. The first two-thirds of the book move at a steady pace, with enough twists and building momentum to keep you reading, but it’s the final two hundred pages that really sink their claws into you. Case in point, it took me a little over a week to read the first 400 pages; I finished the final 200 in a single day.

That’s because that finale takes all those meandering plot lines and brings them crashing together with great effect. It’s a day of battle that will make or break these characters, some of whom are defending a city, some of whom are desperately trying to accomplish their own goals while that city literally burns down around them. And when the dust settles, the future is even more uncertain the ever.

LAST ARGUMENT OF KINGS also showcases the most grimdark aspects of the series so far, largely due to the fact that Abercrombie makes you keenly aware that while you might be rooting for certain characters, they are pretty much all terrible people in their own ways. Logen’s past as a vicious murderer among his clansman gets even more light in this book; Glotka continues to walk the line of somehow being a sympathetic character who also tortures people; and Bayaz begins to make it crystal clear what sacrifices he deems acceptable to protect the kingdom. One of the few characters who comes through the muck “cleanest” in this book is West, but readers will remember his own past included a scene in the first book where he physically abused his sister Ardee.

And yet despite all these terrible characters and actions, we’re kept rooting for them because they’re TRYING. Logen knows he’ll never make up for his past, but he believes he’s got to try and be a better man. Glotka at the end of the day is just trying to survive. West has spent a large amount of time regretting his actions with his sister and trying to keep his troops safe (or at least, competently managed). And Jezal, poor, whiny, self-absorbed Jezal, begins to develop an actual conscience. Thrust into a position of responsibility part way through the book, Jezal grapples with how to be the leader he was never meant to be, fully acknowledging he is one of the least qualified men for the job. There’s a self-awareness many of these characters show that make the reader empathize with their position.

The one real quibble I have with the book is mostly a personal one. I struggle sometimes with series where the world is 90% grounded and “normal” and 10% “Oh hey, we just summoned a demon.” That’s been the case with the FIRST LAW books, which is a very low magic world. That magic becomes critically important during one of the (many) confrontations that happen in the final book, though I couldn’t help but feel it came out of nowhere. I fully acknowledge that the set-up was there from the first two books in the series, but it’s a bit jarring to go from magic being largely background lore bordering on myth, to then have someone blast a hole through a building. Then again, perhaps that’s the same jarring feeling the rest of the characters were going through as well!

LAST ARGUMENT OF KINGS and the rest of THE FIRST LAW series is well worth checking-out, particularly for readers who prioritize character. While the plots can purposefully sometimes go in circles, the characters are what keep you coming back. That includes the fact that the POV chapters have many rhythms that keep them distinct from the other chapters, ranging from Glotka’s internal snide commentary on situations, to Logen’s own cadence of thought. “Say one thing about [blank] , say that…” will become a resounding chorus in your head. These are the kinds of books you sink into for hours at a time, and I’m looking forward to doing so again as I continue to explore the standalones and follow-up trilogy that make up this universe.

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