No one gets what they deserve; you have to be realistic.
I’m going to admit, first off, that there were many, many reasons why I might have disliked this book, but Abercrombie works magic with words in a combination of amazing voice, strong character, and a conclusion that both binds up the events of the previous two books, and leaves the ending open enough for the reader to be plagued with maddeningly entertaining questions. In short, I loved Last Argument of Kings, the final book in The First Law trilogy, and like most entertaining and engaging fantasy series, my biggest complaint is leaving the characters behind. Until I jump into Abercrombie’s other books, that is.
To quickly outline the plot before I dive into what I loved and didn’t love about the book, it’s split roughly into three: the succession struggle for the throne of the Union, the continuing and conclusion of the war against Bethod in the North, and the invasion of the Gurkish army into the Union. These three events carry a lot of weight, and make the book feel at times as though it is three separate books.
In my opinion, the first is the weakest point. Despite a great deal of political maneuvering and intrigue, none of it matters as the game is fixed, and all the planning and plotting that means anything is done behind the curtain. It renders the actions of the characters who are actually halfway interesting futile and pointless, and sort of takes the wind out of the sails of the narrative when the reader is finally allowed to see what has happened. That said, the events in Adua do have their moments, though I absolutely enjoyed certain characters more than others.
I went into the book knowing that this was the end. The last book in the trilogy. Anyone could die. Everyone could die. I had to steel myself against the possibility that any or all of my favorite characters might not live to the end of the book. Good thing I did.
Things That I Loved
– The dissolving of the final threads of Logen and Ferro’s relationship. (Is it bad that I was still hoping they’d make it, even when Logen returned to the North?) Anyway, I loved it because the narrative promises the reader that they don’t get a happily ever after together and damnit, it keeps that promise. That they remain absolutely abrasive toward each other until it’s too late (though arguably it was too late in the previous book) was a delicious conclusion to their romantic involvement.
– Jezal’s (short lived) humanitarianism. The biggest disappointment of this book is that for all the advancements in character that Jezal makes, he doesn’t get to keep any of them. Or rather, he gets to keep them, but not use them. Much like a liberal arts education, he gets a figurative gold star for the achievement, but can’t actually do anything with it. Every effort he makes to be a decent human being is frustrated by Bayaz, though I do still applaud his effort. Jezal is unfortunately one of many the tragic characters in this book.
– The continuing theme of failed relationships with Jezal and Ardee. I would have been upset with the progression of their romantic subplot if Abercrombie didn’t write relationships so realistically. Jezal returns to Adua with a false image of Ardee in his mind, which throws their relationship onto the rocks almost immediately when reality bites him in the ass. Of course, he does almost manage to salvage things, but see the above point for reasons why this relationship ultimately crashes and burns.
– Glokta’s threats to Jezal. The awkward triangle of Jezal, Ardee, and Glokta that was begun in the first book has been the source of a few of my crooked grins.
– Logen rejoining the Northmen and the terribly sore thumb he makes among them. I was waiting for this event from the first chapter of the first book, and I wasn’t disappointed. I can’t say that I’ve been disappointed with any of Logen’s arc. He’s an amazing character. Like Jezal, he returns with hopes higher than reality, and doesn’t take much time to realize the extent of his mistake. The painfully ironic warm welcome that Tul Duru gives him just makes the reunion that much more bitter sweet.
– Logen and Black Dow and the words and looks they exchange. This bit in particular:
Logen spoke right over him, staring Dow in the face with his corpse’s eyes all the long while. “I thought when I gave you the last lesson that you’d never need another. But I guess some folk have short memories.” He came in even closer, so close that their faces were almost touching. “Well? You need a learning boy?”
I got shivers reading this.
– Crommock-i-Phail, his three children and all of the crazy he brings with him. I loved everything about him and his narrative. Isern in particular had me smiling. Crommock’s brand of insanity is refreshing when thrust upon characters who, up until they’re forced to join forces with him, are all feral and rabid in their own way.
– Jezal’s temper tantrum when naming West the new Lord Marshal, and the absolutely brilliant way West brings Poulder and Kroy to heel.
– The fact that you can practically see the ground fall out from under the feet of Arch Lector Sult. And almost no other character deserves it more.
– That Nicomo Cosca is still present in the story.
– Ferro roughing up Severard. I think I like it any time Ferro fights, but the merciless way she deals with people one on one is especially pleasing.
– Ferro roughing up Glokta. It was too funny to contain the giggles.
– Shivers, and the multiple high roads he takes. Makes me wish he’d been a more prominent character. Oh well.
– The long siege of the High Places. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Abercrombie can write battles damn well.
– Logen and Bethod’s conversation at Carleon. Logen drops hints all throughout the series but here you have the first real proofs that, though Logen is a main character in the trilogy and does genuinely seem to want to change, those leopard spots are rather suspiciously in the hue of an antagonist.
– Jezal’s dealing with the Countess Shalere. Lots of characters in the book needed a good smack in the mouth, but few other blows were as satisfying as this one.
– Dogman, Grim, and Dow sneaking into Carleon and subsequently killing Caurib the witch. It was a bit of comic relief at a point in the story that is steadily taking a turn for the dark(er).
– The duel between Logen and The Feared. It’s pretty obvious what the outcome is going to be from the start, but it was a pretty cool fight nonetheless, and West’s involvement in it made it that much sweeter.
– The fact that Crummock knows exactly who killed his son, and I can’t decide if he is in fact is crazy, or really, really shrewd.
– When all hell breaks loose with the Hundred Word and Bayaz’s magic mixing. It’s absolute chaos and the book sets this tone very well.
– Glokta’s proposal to Ardee. So. Perfect. In every way.
– Glokta’s ultimatum to Terez. I think I should have been offended, but I loved it, possibly because I hated Terez that much, and felt anything bad she that happened was coming to her. Also, I just really love Glokta as a character.
– The final exchange between Dow and Logen which brings the whole story back to the beginning again. I love it when a series can come full circle. It gives the whole thing a feel of finality, even when there are things left unsaid. Very satisfying.
Things That I Did Not Love So Much
– Bayaz. There are almost too many unsavory things about him to list. Abercrombie did an amazing job of masking the true villains of The First Law until his final book, and Bayaz is undoubtedly one of them. There are two reasons why Bayaz ended up down here. The first is just his character in general. He is manipulative, arrogant, murderous, deceitful, vain, and possibly mentally unbalanced. What sets him apart from the other characters in the series who share one or more of these traits is that he is entirely unapologetic, and cares nothing for the lives he ruins, and the people who die under the guise of ‘the greater good of the Union’. The other characters in the book might be fooled, but the reader can see plainly that all of Bayaz’s actions are designed to benefit Bayaz himself and no one else. What a dick.
Secondly, all of Bayaz’s scheming happens off scene, and the reader learns of it only by the consequences that come of it. The result is that the world changing events that Bayaz instigates appear to the reader as rushed, almost a deus ex machina. The convenient peasant uprising, Jezal’s crowning, the real murderer of the Gurkish ambassador, even the Quai/Tolomei reveal at the end felt like it was thrown in to tie up loose ends, rather than having been deeply entwined in the story from the beginning. I’m not sure the big surprise was worth all the deliberate masking of the real events. Bayaz was such a comparatively small personality in the series that I assigned no real weight to him, and the eventual discovery that he is perhaps the ugliest character of them all left me a bit cold.
– In connection with Bayaz, Sulfur. He was just a slimy character all around, which is saying something considering the rest of the characters in the trilogy. Again, much of his actions are done off screen, so the reader grows very little attachment to him, or real understanding of his purpose aside from being one of Bayaz’s willing tools.
– Terez. Just another character who never really grew on me until the end, but even then, it was more the actions of other characters that made her scenes enjoyable. I kind of felt that, without much cultural or character back story, her reactions to Jezal were over the top. If it was Abercrombie’s intention to make a wholly unlikable character and then punish her for being wholly unlikable, then mission accomplished, I suppose.
– I’m not sure if I can count this as something I disliked, but I’m desperately curious about the spirits Logen keeps talking to. I can only hope it’s explained somewhere in an extended universe book. There’s so much rich culture and magic in this world that I want to dig into.
My final thought on Last Argument of Kings is to say that the book redeems itself of its occasional plodding and off screen plotting with these two quotes:
That would have been the clever thing to do. That would have been the realistic thing. But it was just the way that Logen’s father had always said…
He’d never been that realistic.
“No one gets what they deserve.”
In the first, Logen’s trademark line is proven false, and throws into question all his other worldviews and motivations. Black Dow puts it best when he says, “…you love to play the good man, don’t you? Do you know what’s worse than a villain? A villain who thinks he’s a hero.”
Throughout the whole trilogy, the reader is sympathetic to Logen’s struggle. We cheer for him because he is in the protagonist role, but by the end of the series we can see it clearly: Logen is a villain. He is a villain as surely as Bethod is, and Bayaz, and Mamun, and all the others. When we consider that Logen isn’t all that realistic after all, then perhaps he isn’t all that ignorant of his actions as the Bloody Nine, either. Despite knowing the terrible, destructive power he possesses, he continues to put himself in situations where it will, without a doubt express itself. Not only that, in some scenes he appears to enjoy the fear and respect his name holds. At the very least, he does little to down-play his name, even when his closest council advises it.
In the end what we have is a violent, repressive man with selective memory disorder, or perhaps even multiple personality disorder who, despite knowing he is a danger to those around him, continues to place himself in situations that will lead to violent, fatal outcomes. He is a clear danger to society, with a child’s mentality and even if he isn’t wholly guilty of willful evil, he is at least guilty of wickedness through neglect and selfishness. Whether or not he can successfully justify his actions to himself is irrelevant. Every man is the hero of his own story, and in the end, rather than face justice, Logen again runs away.
Which leads to the second quote: No one in the story gets what they deserve. Logen (presumably) gets away, without having to answer for the deaths of Tul Duru, Grim, Crummock’s boy, or any of the other scores the rest of the Northmen have against him; Bayaz remains a puppeteer in the shadows, and likewise takes no accountability for the death and destruction he has wrought. What’s worse, he leaves with all his enemies and detractors destroyed, and with an incredible, new power at his fingertips; Glokta, who arguably deserves to be punished for the lives he has ruined in the torture of the innocent not only is given the boon of Ardee, but has his life spared by Rews and goes on to watch his old boss be tortured at the hands of the one who should have killed him; Collem West, probably the only character in the trilogy who deserves a reward for his dedication to the Union and its wars is instead infected with the magical wasting disease and is likely promised a painful death; Ferro is used and exploited throughout the book and is given insanity at the end; and Jezal has all the rightfully earned charisma and strength ripped out of him by both Bayaz and Terez, leaving him as nothing but a cowering pawn under the thumb of an evil wizard.
No one gets what they deserve, and you know, that’s about as true to life as a fantasy book can get.