I finished Last Argument of Kings a few weeks back, and I’m still not quite sure what I think of it.
To sort of sneak up on it unawares, I’ll talk around it for a while, with a few Western references, so apologies if you’re not into cowboy films. Minor (sort of, not terrible I hope) spoilers may follow…
So you have “classic” westerns, say the Lone Ranger: a sound, morally upright, heroic, white hat wearing hero, doing battle against injustice, never shooting to kill. Then you have films like Leone’s spaghetti westerns, of which my favourite is probably For A Few Dollars More. The morality is more complex, everything is much grittier, much more violent, but, broadly, you’re still rooting for your heroes against villains (though it’s harder to tell them apart).
The first two books of Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, The Blade Itself and Before They Are Hanged, are like For A Few Dollars More compared to the Lone Ranger of more traditional fantasy. They’re gritty, violent and morally complex; they use a lot of common elements, but twist them into something new, so although you’ve got wizards, and kingdoms at war, and a quest, the key characters are a fop, a crippled torturer and a couple of psychos instead of a lantern-jawed farmhand, a jovial beer-swilling warrior and a sneaky thief with heart of gold (only stole from the rich and all that, bonus points if it’s a feisty teenage orphan/runaway). There’s a barbarian, but rather than a Schwarzenegger-as-Conan type, Logen is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s character in Unforgiven, older and weary, and Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter, living with the notoriety his actions have brought.
Last Argument of Kings carries on where the first two left off (weird, that, for the third book in a trilogy), with lashings more war, torture, stabbing and humour (mostly black). It serves up further twists on fantasy clichés, particularly a lovely take on the mysterious orphan finding his True Heritage, but if the first two books had kicked down the door of The Shed Of Fantasy Tropes, leaving it battered but standing, Last Argument of Kings lobs a grenade through the window. One thread you can normally cling to in stories is that main characters are heroes, The Good Guys, and they fight, and beat, The Bad Guys, whether it’s in a simple, Lone Ranger, white hat-wearing way, or a more complex blood-soaked scenario where one side are only good on a relative scale as they’re killing the really, really bad guys, and a lot of people get caught up in the middle. The first two books of The First Law, that’s pretty much the case. None of the main characters are saints by any freakish definition, but when the other side are cannibalistic devil-worshippers, you know who you’re rooting for (hint: it’s not the ones that snack on the odd leg here and there).
By the end of Last Argument of Kings, though, there is no winning, no vanquishing of great evil. There is no Greater Good. There isn’t even “Well At Least They’re Not As Bad As…” There are surprisingly few deaths in the key characters; if the Good Guys don’t win outright, another sure fire way of wrapping everything up is to kill everyone off in a massive shoot-out (c.f. The Wild Bunch), but Abercrombie doesn’t do that either (not least because it’s harder to do a shoot-out with bows, and stab-outs don’t seem to have caught on so much). It’s quite an unsatisfying finish in some ways; although some strands are tied up, many are (quite deliberately) left dangling. It’s challenging, thought provoking, not something you put down and wander away from whistling, and that’s why I’m still not sure what I think about it. Which is a good thing. I think. Probably.