- Series: First Law, book 3
- Genre: epic fantasy / grimdark
- My rating: 8.5/10
Last argument of kings starts out a bit rough, and it has to do with Abercrombie’s odd plotting. The third book finds us at a strange crossroads in the story, where the entire quest of the second book, Before They Are Hanged (2007), fizzled out to nothing. Our characters all find themselves back home and are like: “well, I guess that happened. What do we do now?”
And the answers to that question aren’t all that exciting at first. Jezal deals with the mercurial Ardee and is sent out to fight some off-screen rebellion which suddenly sneaked into the story. This is hardly as interesting as the two big wars in the north and south. Glokta blackmails Lords about casting votes, which is a lot less interesting than his work for the inquisition. In short, can we please go back to the interesting parts of the story, with plotting that matters?
Ah, but then the pieces click together and the novel truly starts! Long running plotlines that began two books back now finally reveal themselves. Jezal’s story moves to very interesting places and Bayaz is there with his machinations to direct it all. And Logen finally turns towards confrontations in the north that have been promised to us a long time ago. Abercrombie’s plotting now feels a lot less random. Now that not only the characters are strong and believable, but the story also makes me tense up, I feel totally involved.
I love the direction he took this story in. We get treated to brutal, nerve-wracking sieges that are documented in gory detail over multiple chapters. Jezal transforms from an arrogant weaselly mooncalf into a sympathetic guy who’s in way over his head. Just about every chapter is juicy, and as always, Abercrombie’s brilliant character voicing really shines, especially with all these hardened and mental people.
Once the story starts speeding up after the first quarter, the pace it maintains is exhilarating. I’m impressed with how much storytelling Abercrombie gets done in a fantasy novel of average size. What’s still strange though is his plotting. There are a couple of plotlines going on, but Abercrombie settles them so that this novel seems to contain three novellas that follow up on each other. Other writers would have the climaxes overlap, but here we have a series of build-ups and climaxes throughout the novel with lulls in between. The third part is essentially 300 pages of tightly-plotted mayhem. Very satisfying.
Looking back at the entire trilogy, I find that these books are not that much epic, but they are very gritty. They don’t deal in deep history, large casts and elaborate world-building. But they do deal in blood, emotions, interpersonal relationships and fights. Abercrombie’s writing has an immediacy to it and feels visceral, and he constructs all his chapters around the personalities of his cast, so we never lose sight of the main characters and their motivations. I find that many fantasy writers seem to forget to do this or simply don’t have Abercrombie’s skill in characterization.
The series was definitely worth sticking with. There is a sharp rise in quality throughout, making the first novel rather basic and the third one a standout work. The First Law series seems to inhabit an in-between land that takes the format of large, epic series of the past like David Eddings’ and Tad Williams’ work, and then upends some expectations, filling it with the nitty-gritty of sword-and-sorcery that is more reminiscent of Robert E. Howard and Michael Moorcock. Thus was the subgenre of grimdark born.