Last Argument of Kings - Joe Abercrombie and so the excellent First Law trilogy concludes. this was a splendid experience and certainly a hearty one as well. many things to consider and many enjoyments to be had. a full meal! and quite a bitter feast at that.

and here is the Last Argument of the title, succinctly delivered by the ferocious sorceror Bayaz:
"Power makes all things right. That is my first law, and my last. That is the only law that I acknowledge."

this is a really marvelous series. bold in intent, clear in purpose, both a strikingly rigorous critique of the systems of power and a fun, fast-paced adventure that turns expectations around narrative & characterization upside down. it is not perfect; the most egregious fault is a certain shallowness in the dialogue - many lines read as if they are coming from a particularly snarky tv sitcom. i do not like. but that fault, and other minor ones, pales in comparison to all the positives of the trilogy.

the first book basically functions as a a prologue. indeed, in other books, the entirety of the action in that book would probably have been dispensed with in a chapter or two. but The Blade Itself sees the building of character and the constructing of a strong foundation for its overarching narrative as key to its design, and so The Blade Itself sticks in the memory as one of the most in-depth introductions to the action that i've experienced. a bold move; i like. the second book is where all the action is at. but man does Abercrombie fuck with reader expectations in Before They Are Hanged. there are two primary narrative threads in the second book: a Quest for a Band of Adventurers and the Defense of a City Under Siege. for such a contrastingly (to the first book) action-packed novel, the decisions of how to end these two adventures is rooted in the need to illustrate failure - so much so that the novel functions as a sardonic critique and attack on the use of Quests and City Sieges in fantasy. the Quest goes nowhere; nothing is gained and the whole thing is pointless. the Defense of a City fails; good people are slain, a city is taken, and then the 'hero' is rewarded for doing a good job in drawing out the Siege - his actual failure being preordained by his loathsome masters. truly a a kind of rough justice in terms of reader expectations for classic narrative pleasures; i like.

Last Argument is likewise determined to smack the reader upside the head with their own complacent desires. this happens in two distinct ways: (1) showing the true darkness at the heart of its sometimes rather loveable characters and (2) giving the novel's various narrative threads some of the bitterest versions of happy endings that i've experienced.

to the first goal, it is important to point out what Abercrombie did in the second book: he made his characters highly appealing. their courage & loyalty & cleverness are highlighted and they are given amusing character traits to make them charmingly down-to-earth. they grow and they do brave things and the novel shows that they can be better human beings, if given the opportunity. the third book is counting on the reader to remember those positive little bits - all the better to sting that reader when they are reminded of these characters' true natures. the only person who escapes unscathed is the most unloveable character of all - the savage and bloodthirsty Ferro, who is my own favorite character.

other characters do not make it out with their loveability intact. Logan the berserker barbarian's stomach-turning past is actually explored (with an emphasis on his various mindless atrocities) and, most importantly, we are given a scene where we witness Logan's terrifying alter ego do truly horrible things. my God, he cuts a child in half! he becomes distinctly un-loveable after that little bit. and the same goes for the rest: anti-heroes who Abercrombie set up to be surprisingly sympathetic are given their chance... not to shine, but to molder. Glokta tortures innocent people that he knows are innocent, simply because he is following orders. Jezal overindulges his tendency towards frustrating ditheriness. Ardee becomes a self-pitying, self-loathing lush. Black Dow, Frost, and Severard betray those who have given them trust. Quai is shown to be a foul imposter. and most stark at all, Bayaz the Eccentric Magician is shown to have the true colors of a classic megalomaniac, uncaring of who he hurts & kills, primarily interested in maintaining his authority, a liar and a bully and a murderer, contemptuous of all who do not share his goals, and willing to do literally anything to further those goals and gain more power. Bayaz the Eccentric Magician - the only character who seeks to truly protect a kingdom against the powers of darkness - turns out to be the darkest monster of them all. i like.

to the second goal... well, i don't want to do what i did above, and list the viciously ironic happy endings delivered on all the remaining characters. one example will suffice: a Happy Marriage for a king and his new bride. a happy ending where a lesbian is forced to pretend to be deliriously happy to bed her man night after night - or else her lover, a stalwart lady-in-waiting, will be tortured and killed. a happy ending where the naive new king is so pleased with his wife's change of heart that he never questions how that radical change of heart occurred. he finds her crying at the window each night after a session of lovemaking... well, it must be because she is homesick!

the cumulative effect of all of Abercrombie's bleakly sardonic decisions is one that gave me a hollow, depressed feeling. and yet i was thoroughly engaged and challenged by each of his decisions. i felt attacked; i felt like the rug was pulled out from under me; i felt as if all that i held to be important and meaningful were simply false constructs based on lazy thinking and a complacency with what i have automatically considered as "good", as "right". being challenged like that is a rare thing. i like.