Book Review: Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie

Genre: Fantasy
Pub Date:
2008
Publisher:
Gollancz, an imprint of Orion Publishing Group
Length:
536 pages
Paperback:
£12.99

Publisher’s Synopsis

The end is coming.

Logen Ninefingers might only have one more fight in him but its going to be a big one. Battle rages across the North, the King of the Northmen still stands firm, and there’s only one man who can stop him. His oldest friend, and his oldest enemy. Its past time for the Bloody-Nine to come home.

https://firstlaw.fandom.com/wiki/Last_Argument_of_Kings

Back in January 2017, I wrote a review of The Blade Itself. I ‘won’ it in a book swap. Little did I know that it would be the beginning of a three-year journey for me into the world of Logan Ninefingers and his motley band of Northmen.

What to say about a trilogy that got mixed reviews and a massive following that led to a well visited wiki Fandom, that I was, on and off, submerged into for three years?

Say one thing for Joe Abercrombie – he writes amazing characters.

Logan Ninefingers is Still alive. Continues fighting, and is drawn into, not only personal conflict in the North, but the greatest battle in the Union. Last Argument of Kings finds him questioning himself more and more – is he a good man, or an evil man? Is he fit to lead his band, or best serving as a follower? Should he allow his barbarian, mindless, other self; The Bloody Nine, to take control in battle, or give up and welcome death?

Ninefingers has been our prime MC throughout the trilogy; as it is him who begins the first book and ends the third, and as he matures, so his view on his own lifestyle is called into question – can a man so steeped in blood and violence opt for a peaceful life – does he even deserve it?

Abercrombie has given us a (anti)hero who could easily have been a pedestrian D&D style character, but despite what some critics say, I do believe he develops. He may not stop fighting, but he lets us know, via internal dialogue, that he wishes the whole bloody affair over and done with. His is a cerebral development; strangely, given that he’s a mercenary, a killer – a murderer. I say it’s cerebral because Ninefingers thinks about what he has done and how he came to be where he is. He thinks about how it might be if he changed, and realises that because he has so much history of violence and a reputation for it, then the chances are pretty slim. This is a melancholic chapter in his, and the reader’s, journey.

Related image
Logan Ninefingers.
Image from
comicvine.gamespot.com

Jezel Dan Luther returns to Adua, his home city. Physically scarred from his journey to the West (Book II: Before They Are Hanged). He is still a young man with dreams to match, yet changed by his experiences. He is a little less brash, a lot less selfish – and in for a terrible time. He thinks to marry the woman he loves; Ardee West. He thinks to settle down into some well-paid post of Captain. Jezel, unlike Ninefingers, gets little chance to think, he must do as he is told; because of the position he finds himself thrust into. His choices become shockingly limited; despite his new-found role, and he can only react to situations. Jezel does his damnedest to be a decent man and feels thwarted at every turn. In the first book, I reacted to Jezel as, I’m sure Abercrombie meant me to, with contempt. He was a superficial, selfish little shit. In this final book, I desperately wanted it all to work out for him.

Image result for jezal dan luther
Jezel Dan Luther.
Image from GeeklyInc

Superior of the Inquisition, Sand Dan Glokta, is still in the secrets trade. We still get that oppositional internal dialogue when he speaks with others; A shame to leave such lovely company…but when duty calls. He thinks after a short interview with Arch Lector Sult. Glokta probably changes least of all. This could be attributed to the fact that a man so crippled and steeped in politics and up to his elbows in others blood and bile hardly has much choice. He cannot run; literally, he would not be able to hide for sure, and he knows that at any point his bloated corpse might end up floating down the river. But Glokta still held my interest, why? Simply because he sticks to what he knows best, which is staying alive. There are, however, two very touching scenes. One involves his old fencing friend from his youth, Collem West, the other involves West’s sister, Ardee. It is interesting to watch Glokta in the face of helplessness, he always expects the worst outcome – but for two instances, he hopes, not for himself, but for Collem and Ardee.

I have to admit to having a lump in my throat when Glokta encounters his old friend who has been struck down with a hideous disease.

Of course there are many, many other characters who deserve mention – The Last of the Magi; Bayez, The Dogman, Black Dow, Ferro Maljinn, Severard, but I couldn’t do them all justice in a simple blog post.

There are few men with more blood on their hands than me.

Logan Ninefingers knows all about fighting and death, and there is a tonne of it in this book. The battles are hideously well written. The fight on Crummock i’Phail’s hill fort is astonishingly violent and immersive. It was like being behind the wobbly wooden barricade with them, as they waited in the dawn mist watching Bethod’s army waiting to move. Fingers, limbs, heads, every possible body part is pierced and sliced and skewed and bludgeoned. How on earth Abercrombie found so many words and phrases to describe death in battle is beyond me. It isn’t a huge cinematic blockbuster of a war, it’s one of those horrible localised battles; sure there’s hundreds of men involved, but we are exposed to the horror of hand-to-hand fighting, the smells and the grunting, the feel of steel sliding on bone. We see our ‘hero’, Logan Ninefingers do a truly horrible thing. In previous books we have seen skirmishes and battles, we have seen blood and guts, but this battle is truly mayhem. How can the reader possibly relate to the character after committing such an atrocious act? But here’s the thing, I did!

The final battle in Adua is equally violent, with a dash of Bayez’ magic thrown in for good measure. Sometimes, battles in films and books can be so expansive, so huge that we cannot really get a feel for what is going on. Abercrombie gives us snapshots of the city through the eyes of each character as he, or she, struggles to survive. This way we see what it is like to be a refugee from one’s own home, the starving peasant, the soldier who actually is scared, ruination where once stood beauty.

It’s bleak. It’s dark. It’s depressing. And so it should be. War is no fun for anyone; even those who signed up for it in the first place – because it is fucking dangerous, and we can feel this in the people fleeing, in Jezel’s desperation to lend a hand, in Ninefingers mad rush into a row of pikemen, in West’s hasty assault with his cavalry and infantrymen. And I was totally engaged.

I have read reviews that said the writing is ‘clunky’. I have read that people found it boring, or everyone dies (everyone doesn’t die by the way). I thought the writing was succinct, none of that Tolkeinesque, flowery stuff, just your good, solid writing that I feel fits the style of narrative. I still like that Abercrombie kept the chapters as seen from different points of view, and the internal dialogue is wonderful. It isn’t fantastic writing – but then again, I’m not sure what that means – a thoroughly academic command of the written word AND the ability to create an amazing story AND engaging characters AND…whatever else?

But it’s a fantastic tale well told.

Boring? Boring?! I can’t imagine what they were reading. This is not a boring book. It keeps the pace of the previous two, action, violence and intrigue, interspersed with quieter moments to alter the pace. Abercrombie manages to avoid clichés very well, the whole thing could easily have tipped into another fighting fantasy book with swords and sorcery and blah, blah, blah. It doesn’t. I’ve picked up loads of books in the fantasy genre and then tossed them aside after a couple of chapters (and that was being generous in some instances).

Not to spoil it, but everyone doesn’t die. Some do – I’m not saying who – some survive in the same way they always have; by their wits or by violence, and some survive because they bend with the times.

We don’t always get what we want – could be the moral of the story (if there has to be one). Or, be careful what you wish for, you might get it!

You see, like real life, sometimes good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. Is there a ‘happy ending’? I’m not sure, but I was not expecting that.

I always have a little sad moment when I complete a book, and this was no exception. I’m going to miss drinking wine with Ardee, struggling down dank staircases with Glokta, and wrestling with my conscience with Logan Ninefingers. I’m not sure I can leave it all behind, I might have to go after other titles by Joe Abercrombie – and that for me is what makes a good, if not great, storyteller.

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Cover of first volume of The First Law comic book covering The Blade Itself.
Image from GeeklyInc

I’m giving Last Argument of Kings (and The First Law trilogy)

5 stars

The Joy of Book Swaps

Currently reading/read it. Book review – The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie.

So, I just finished reading the above title; ‘The Blade Itself’ by Joe Abercrombie, #1 in the trilogy The First Law. I obtained the book via my writers club annual book swap, an idea I introduced when I joined, after having run a one off many years ago, when I worked for a well-known book sellers.

What you do: find a bunch of like-minded bookish types, oddities like yourself helps, but if pushed, colleagues will do. You select a book that you have enjoyed reading, something that you wouldn’t mind sharing with someone else. You know when you meet people and one of you says, “Did you see the latest (–fill in the gap–) last night?” or “Catch that Superman/Batman/Catwoman/Froglegged Bee Keeper Man movie?” How often do people say, “Hey! Read any good Philip Pullman recently?” generally NOT!

Sorry, I digress. So, you get your well-thumbed copy of whatever you have enjoyed. You wrap it in plain paper. Everyone else in your nerdy group does the same. The disguised books are put into a box (or whatever) and then you all take one out – no not your own idiot! You read that already, look at the wrapping paper! You take it home, unwrap it and hey presto! You have a new title to read, free!

Now here comes the good bit. Initially you might go, “Ugh! What the —-! I’m not going to read that!” and fling it aside. But hold on there just give it a go, you might be pleasantly surprised. I haven’t had a dud yet ; which leads me to the current title.

I opened my grubby brown paper package and first off I went, “Ugh!” I hated (and still am very unsure of) the cover. If I saw it in a book shop, I would definitely ignore it; dull, brown, with a clichéd, surly, tangle-haired ‘thug’ on the front. then the person who had dropped it into the swap box informed me, it is the first of three. Really? Did I want to spend my time reading this, well-thumbed…The End…that’s how it begins, oh, okay…four pages in and…I quite like this, I think. When I was introduced to the second character, the writing had changed gear. This was a vastly different individual to the first, physically, mentally, emotionally; and the writing matches it. Some reviews I read revealed readers were divided, many thought the writing ‘clunky’. I think it suits the format perfectly. Abercrombie has altered, only enough, the feel of the writing to represent the different characters point of view, as much as writing the POV itself.

Its a fighting/fantasy world, where men are men and women are thin, pale and decorative (except for the odd one or two!) The initial protagonist has a slightly crappy name – Logan, hmm, too much like ‘Logan’s Run’ or Logan the Wolverine I think, but, beyond that, he’s not 2D, as some of the other characters believe him to be. Logen Ninefingers is an infamous warrior with a bloody past. He has plans to settle a blood feud with Bethod, the  King of the Northmen. He spends a lot of time, for a hulking brute saying, “Still alive.” There’s more to him than meets the eye. Then there’s Inquisitor Glokta, a cripple, a former fencing champion, now a torturer extraordinaire. A truly brilliant creation, you have to love him – no really, just wait and see…we get a lot of Glokta’s internal thoughts, in italics, running alongside his conversations and can’t help but admire the ability to keep two trains of thought going, an obeisance in his expression, whilst wanting to vomit all over the person he may be speaking to. Finally, Captain Jezal dan Luthar; in the words of Glokta, “…an arse…”  he is also a nobleman and would-be fencing champion. He is vain, shallow, selfish and self-obsessed, one wonders why the important bald chap who arrives in the Agriont needs him.

I love how Abercrombie weaves the separate lives across the landscape. There are multiple protagonists in this tale, along the lines of Game of Thrones, but what each of them wants becomes unclear, which I liked. How they will succeed in their initial task is unknown, I will have to read #2 – and I will. Definitely. I think it is hard in these times of Game of Thrones on TV, fantasy ‘heroes’ on the big screen, to get a book in this genre noticed. Fantasy writing is a massive market, with hundreds, possibly thousands of would-be-authors of the style out there. Abercrombie has grabbed my attention, and that’s a rare thing these days.

So, for the New Year, go and run a book swap, you may find a hero wrapped up in that package!

P.S: other covers are available.

P.P.S: apparently, there’s a graphic novel series too!