I was looking forward to this third installment in The First Law trilogy, for the book would answer a lot of questions about the author. Chief among those was whether or not he could bring this tale to a satisfying end. As the last volume of a series, Last Argument of Kings would also permit us to discover what Abercrombie is made of.
One of the most important lessons Joe Abercrombie teaches us with Last Argument of Kings (as well as The Blade Itself and Before They Are Hanged, of course) is that you can still tell a compelling story by limiting yourself to an honest-to-God trilogy. Though authors such as Robin Hobb and Jaqueline Carey have been doing it for years, the epic fantasy subgenre is filled with multi-volume doorstopper sagas. I'm a huge fan of several of those series, that goes without saying, yet I feel that too many of them drag and are prolonged pointlessly. Abercrombie's detractors will be quick to point out that he relies on a more or less simple and somewhat linear plot, that his storylines are not as convoluted as those of works by Jordan, Martin, or Erikson. Be that as it may, a gifted storyteller can still pack a powerful punch, and what appears to be "simple" plotlines at face value may turn out to echo with a lot more depth than first envisioned.
Forced to work within the confines of a trilogy means that Abercrombie had no choice but to write a tighter story. And although The First Law is nowhere near as complex as The Malazan Book of the Fallen or The Prince of Nothing, the author nevertheless has a startling number of surprises up his sleeve. What I probably enjoy the most about Joe Abercrombie is the way he utilizes a panoply of fantasy tropes to create false expectations in his readers, only to misdirect us using our own assumptions as the story progresses.
The First of the Magi, Logen, Ferro and Jezal are back in Adua. But all is not well in the capital of the Union. As the king lies on his deathbed, the nobles are scrambling and plotting to determine who will wear the crown next. The peasants revolt, and the war in the north is not yet won. As Ninefingers heads back to his homeland to face the King of the North, Glokta is being blackmailed and manipulated, and his life appears to be in danger. Moreover, he discovers that a new threat could destroy the Union during these turbulent times. Bayaz plans to save the world, but in so doing he could end up breaking the First Law. . .
The narrative is written in the same snarky style and tone which made the first two volumes so much fun to read. The pace is good, though the rhythm drags a little in the middle of the novel, only to quicken again soon afterward.
Abercrombie's biggest shortcoming, in my opinion at least, is his minimalist approach to worldbuilding. Indeed, The First Law lacks those "layers" and "textures" which make other fantasy works living and breathing creations.
Hence, it comes as no surprise that characterization remains Abercrombie's bread and butter. As I mentioned, the author has quite a few surprises in store for his readers, so expect more than a few unanticipated twists and turns along the way. Once again, though Glokta remains my favorite character, I felt that the Northmen carries this book. Dogman and his merry crew of misfits play a major role in this final installment. Jezal's storyline, though it ends in unexpected fashion, was too Eddings-like for my taste. However, I really enjoyed how things came full circle for Logen, who is likely the most interesting character of the trilogy. Ferro remains the most mysterious character, and the somewhat "to be continued" end to her plotline hints at a possible sequel in the future.
Last Argument of Kings is an excellent conclusion to what turned out to be a very entertaining series. And by demonstrating that he can close the show with a bang, Joe Abercrombie now holds the pole position as far as "the bright new voices of the fantasy genre" are concerned. Writers such as Patrick Rothfuss, Scott Lynch, Brian Ruckley and Brandon Sanderson must now prove that they can do likewise.
I'm looking forward to reading many more Joe Abercrombie novels in the future.:-)
The final verdict: 8/10