Last Argument of Kings (US, UK, Canada) is the closing argument of Joe Abercrombie’s answer to epic fantasy. Abercrombie embraces the cliché of fantasy, spins it around, turns it upside down, and covers it stinky, dark, sardonic wit – and then he surprised you. Not everyone believes he succeeds in these goals – often complaining that he still falls into same old traps – but I applaud his effort and the satiric success of it. In the Last Argument of Kings Abercrombie offers up more of the same from the previous two books and then adds some more with an ending that is simply brilliant.Uh...where to begin? In reading this opening paragraph I chose to put aside any associations with Abercrombie's works (I have read and reviewed all three of them in 2008) and instead tried to think of this from a person who might be totally unfamiliar with his work. While Ken obviously has the very difficult task of balancing out what to reveal (as this is the closing volume in a trilogy) and what to conceal from readers who may or may not have read the first two volumes, his first two sentences make declarations without providing anything in the way of substance to them.
"Answer to epic fantasy"? Is epic fantasy some sort of monolithic entity all of the sudden? "Embraces the clichés of fantasy"? What clichés? If there are clichés, are they universal in all types of fantasy and not just epic fantasy (presuming that there is a monolithism to epic fantasy, as may be inferred from Ken's opening sentence)? Leaving aside the noun/pronoun needing to agree ("them," not "it" in reference to said clichés), I still have no clue at all (mind you, I'm thinking of this as someone who may have read a small part of his work or had just heard of him for the first time, not as someone who's read the first two books twice and the reviewed third one once) as to what he's referring to here. Way too vague. Sometimes, you just have to come out and say something like this: "Abercrombie takes a standard trope of epic fantasy, that of a guiding, mysterious wizard and a traveling troupe of miscreants and misfits and he tweaks the formula, creating a story in which the guiding wizard may be malicious and the miscreant troupe may not have a touching, Hallmark-worthy bonding moment." It gives enough of a hint as to what Abercrombie is up to, without spelling it out in laborious detail. Sometimes, you just have to provide something in the way of detail.
Since Last Argument of Kings is the third book in a trilogy, I’ll be light on the plot summary. The epic quest of Book 2, Before They Are Hanged (US, Uk, Canada), is complete and our adventures have returned. The war in the north continues, yet does come to an end while the central city of Adua becomes embroiled in issues regarding succession of the monarchy and a threat of invasion. Interesting and surprising things await the characters we’ve come to love (or hate) through the series.
Although personally I would have preferred a bit more in the way of recapitulating the plots of the first two books (presuming that the target reading audience is someone who wants to know if the third book is as good as the two prior works that possibly were read by this hypothetical reader), it is a difficult choice to make and while I disagree with it, I can understand Ken's reasoning here. After all, how does one balance covering works that may not have been read by a potential reader with the need to establish what specifically worked/didn't work in the concluding volume? I spent over a month trying to figure that out before I wrote my review of this book last year, so I know it isn't something that's easily done.
The most enjoyable aspect of The First Law trilogy is the way that Abercrombie plays with the tropes of epic fantasy – he fully embraces them while adding a satiric bite and unexpected outcomes. In my review of Before They Are Hanged I mentioned that this had lost the novelty of The Blade Itself – but I must say that Abercrombie rounds things out wonderfully in Last Argument of Kings. As the trilogy ends, the reader is finally let in on a bit of what’s been going on behind the scenes – and the end is decidedly not typical for epic fantasy. For experienced readers of the genre – basically, people who are in on the joke – the end will likely be something of a breath of fresh air. I imagine those that aren’t in on the joke (or don’t find it all that amusing) will simply think it stinks – or at least that it is not particularly satisfying in the way that people generally want things to end. I found it inspired as the mixed emotions rebelled against one another.Again, I don't what to make of this "plays with the tropes of epic fantasy" without having a clear understanding of what Ken means here. Do agree on the loss of novelty in the second volume, however. As for the last half of this paragraph, it is again tied in to the difficult decision of what to include and what to withhold when reviewing a concluding volume to a multi-volume work. But it does sound a bit bland in a way, because there is nothing specific above that would give any smidgen of a hint of what this "joke" would be (I've read the book and I know it is in reference to how the character arcs unfold and how there isn't a nice, neat ending, but saying this is not by itself going to "spoil" anything. Sometimes, many reviewers are just too reluctant to delve into what it is that moved them in the first place about a story, with the end result being a review that is a bit too mushy in places).
Characterization remains a strong point – Inquisitor Glokta may be my favorite character in epic fantasy at the moment. The sardonic wit of his external and internal dialogue is priceless, while I can’t help but like this almost entirely unlikable person. Logen reveals his dark side and the Bloody Nine, Jezal grows as a character as he falls back to his roots, and that bastard Bayaz…. I was also pleased to find out that Abercrombie has indeed been keeping Ardee around for a reason – though her character is a little too witty and unconvincing.
While I would have considered using a quote here or there to support these assertions, at least there's something specific here being said about the characters and Ken's reactions to them. Just a little bit more explanation on the "whys" and I would have been satisfied, but this isn't bad at all. It would have made me want to read the third book if I hadn't already read it a year ago.
Series come to an end – and I’ve said before how it’s often a bitter-sweet kind of moment. With the Last Argument of Kings, Abercrombie seems to have poured on the bitter – which makes it all the more sweet. Abercrombie hasn’t been writing the standard epic fantasy trilogy – and the proof is in the ending. This series has overwhelmed many and under-whelmed more than few – but it something that fans of epic fantasy simply must read for themselves. 8.5/10
All in all, not a really "bad" review, but rather one that left me wishing that Ken had explored things more, as there just wasn't that "personal" connection between reviewer and book there that sometimes makes for a great review. Mind you, I myself have made just about all the mistakes that I note above, but hey, sometimes the point in critiquing another's review is to learn just what it is about your own that is lacking. Besides, diff'rent stroke, diff'rent folks, right? It's a review that'll work for many, even if it didn't work as well for me. Can't say he didn't engage the book, only that he didn't do it as well as perhaps some (me?) would have liked.
Now I hope others will do the same for mine...perhaps note how I quote too much on occasion, how I focus on theme to the detriment of plot/characterization analysis, and how I don't rip books to shreds as I perhaps ought to do, etc. Turnabout is fair play, no?