REVIEW: "Last Argument of Kings" -- So THAT'S why this series is grimdark...

Last Argument of Kings Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

And so the First Law trilogy comes to a close, full of sound and fury...

In Last Argument of Kings, Joe Abercrombie utterly hammers home the "low fantasy" aspect and themes of this series: people may have the capacity to change, to become better, but they often choose not to. Or the true assholes of the world force them down darker paths. No bleaker a vision of humanity than this, even wrapped around a truly pyrotechnic series of battles.

When we last saw our various POV characters in Before They Are Hanged, the Union was at war on two fronts, against Bethod the King of the Northmen, and the Empire of Gurkul in the south. Sand dan Glokta, Superior of the Inquisition, had just been recalled from the Byzantium-like city of Dagoska before it fell to Gurkish might, presumably with the entire population slaughtered or enslaved. The ersatz Fellowship-of-the-Ring company led by Byaz, the First of the Magi, had tried to find an object of dark powers, the Seed, and... failed. And so on.

Well, in Last Argument things get turned up to eleven. The Gurkish invade the Union proper, and start blowing things up with gunpowder bombs. The cannibalistic acolytes of Kalul, a traitor(?) to the Order of Magi, endowed with superhuman powers, descend on the city of Adua seeking Byaz's blood. Logen Ninefingers returns to the North to settle his score with Bethod, who has made deals with very dark powers indeed.

And it all goes to shit. To actually give details would be spoiler-riffic, because they contain what really makes this series special, and almost grotesquely grimdark.

When I first started reading The First Law books (well, listening to them, because the Audible versions are just so damn good in their own right) I imagined the world had an aesthetic similar to the Warhammer universe: namely, a baroque medieval sensibility with many long coats and high collars. The Abercrombie-authorized graphic novel (now sadly defunct) agrees with me somewhat on that score.

But the Warhammer universe is cartoonishly grim and dark, while the IN SPAAAACE version Warhammer 40,000 is that much more over-the-top. While I'm told that some of the fiction set in the WH40k universe contains some compelling stories and characters, that's not really the essence of 40k.

Not true with Abercrombie: characterization really is the essence of the First Law books. So when the shit hit the fan for our heroes, anti-heroes, anti-villains, and other point-of-view characters, I really felt the moral weight of those blows to their dignity and their realizations that the world was well and truly fucked. Not in a "this is the apocalypse" sense---though the near-thermonuclear climax of the siege of Adua certainly counts---but in a "boot stamping on a human face, forever" sense.

I listened to the Audible version as always, and Steven Pacey is so damn good as a narrator that I think he's actually killed my ability to read further Abercrombie books in print. Thankfully the stand-alone works are also Pacey read, and they're definitely on my list. Abercrombie's prose seems especially suited to being read aloud, and Pacey really is a delight. He adds a highly emotive, energetic, theatrical flair to the characters' voices that make them memorable, in a way that even someone as talented as Jim Dale didn't quite achieve. (I can remember Dale's McGonagall, and, weirdly enough, his Ron Weasley. Granted it's been years since I listened to the Harry Potter audiobooks, but I'm pretty sure I could identify most random snippets of First Law dialogue a year from now.)

Of course, it's made easier by Abercrombie's careful attention to mannerism and, for lack of a better word, catchphrases. To some extent it's reflective of the different characters' upbringings---folksy-barbaric for the Northmen, self-loathing for Glokta, wtf for Brother Longfoot, "sssssss" and "fucking Pinks" for Ferro---but now that I understand Abercrombie's vision for this world, I see that it's also yet one more way to emphasize the "people don't really change" theme. People repeat themselves.

The depiction of magic, too, was interesting. In The Blade Itself I thought the magic of this setting was sort of "Lord of the Rings"-esque, that is, potentially powerful, but rare and precious even for magical beings to employ. And certainly the actual "First Law" states as much: It is forbidden to touch the Other Side direct, to converse with devils... but in this world there simply are no laws for those who can seize enough power...

Overall, the First Law trilogy ended up being pitch-dark, full of character and more than a little humor, and thoroughly recommended.

And that's a fact.

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