So That’s Why They Call it Grimdark: Joe Abercrombie – Last Argument of Kings

Finishing series is so satisfying that I thought I’d get right on it again in 2021. Picking this chunky tome led to some serious review delay but was also so much fun that I can’t begrudge Abercrombie any of his 670 pages. I said I’d read this book soon after the second book but that was one of those book blogger lies that we like to tell ourselves. 🙂
It’s been 6 years since I read Before They Are Hanged. But I guess better late than never, right? Especially when the ending is such a bombastic, fun thrill-ride!

by Joe Abercrombie

Published: Gollancz, 2008
Paperback: 670 pages
Series: The First Law #3
My rating: 7.75/10

Opening line: Superior Glokta stood in the hall, and waited. 

The end is coming.

Logen Ninefingers might only have one more fight in him – but it’s 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. It’s past time for the Bloody-Nine to come home.
With too many masters and too little time, Superior Glokta is fighting a different kind of war. A secret struggle in which no-one is safe, and no-one can be trusted. His days with a sword are far behind him. It’s a good thing blackmail, threats and torture still work well enough.
Jezal dan Luthar has decided that winning glory is far too painful, and turned his back on soldiering for a simple life with the woman he loves. But love can be painful too, and glory has a nasty habit of creeping up on a man when he least expects it.
While the King of the Union lies on his deathbead, the peasants revolt and the nobles scramble to steal his crown. No-one believes that the shadow of war is falling across the very heart of the Union. The First of the Magi has a plan to save the world, as he always does. But there are risks. There is no risk more terrible, after all, than to break the First Law…

If you’ve read the first two books in the First Law Trilogy, you already know that Joe Abercrombie is great at writing characters but not so great when it comes to plot. The second book especially was about a quest that led to… nothing. Sure, you could argue that he was using fantasy tropes and turning them on their head but it’s also not very satisfying for a reader to follow a group of misfits on a Super Important Quest and then return home empty-handed. Which is exactly what happened and which is also where this final book picks up again.

Any lack of plot in the first two books (at least concerning some of the story lines) is gone now. Whether you follow Collem West, Dogman and his crew, Sand dan Glokta (oh, how I love Glokta!), Logen Ninefingers, Jezal dan Luthar, or Ferro Maljinn – they each have stories that clearly move forward and even have some spectecular exciting action sequences. Obviously, I can’t spoil any of them but while some are more epic than others, you can expect Big Things to happen for each of our main and secondary characters.

Which leads me, yet again, to my favorite part about this book and this series and Joe Abercrombie’s writing. His characters, while certainly not always lovable, are so life-like and believable that it’s honestly just fun hanging out with them even if they end up doing nothing (like in book 2 for example). The way he flawlessly changes voice and style creates this atmosphere that comes with each character. Logen’s repeated phrase “Say one thing about Logen Ninefingers” for example, or the way Ferro calls white people “pinks”, Jezal’s almost boyish naiveté and, of course, Glokta’s sarcastic thoughts – they are all pretty simple devices if you think about it, but they are so effective. You open the book at any page and you know immediately which character you’re following.

And that’s just me appreciating the craft of it. What really stole my heart are the characters themselves which is a feat in an of itself. Because, let’s face it, they aren’t just “not perfect”, they each do things that are pretty despicable or at the very least morally questionable. My, and everyone else’s, favorite Sand dan Glokta is a torturer, let’s not forget that. Other people’s pain leaves him cold, maybe because he is in constant pain himself, but that shouldn’t excuse his lack of empathy but rather increase his compassion. It doesn’t, because although I love him dearly, he really isn’t a good person!
On the other hand, Jezal dan Luthar, that arrogant, self-absorbed, prancing moron, actually grew on me. The events of the second book did one thing – they made him want to become a better person. The quibbles I had with his sudden change don’t apply here because we clearly see that he wants to be better, we also see him struggling and not immediately doing it. His reunion with Ardee West which happens early on in the book didn’t go at all how I expected and neither of the two acted in a way I saw coming. I like when books surpsise me and when characters seem to have a mind of their own. Even if I don’t agree with that mind.
I also found a new appreciation for Logen in this book. Up until now I thought of his inner struggle and his self-castigation as just a thing he does because he “has a dark past” or whatever. From what we’ve seen of him so far, he’s actually a decent guy who just happens to get into terrible situations that often require killing in order to get out alive. In Last Argument of Kings, however, we see a different side of Logen, one that puts this series firmly in the grimdark subgenre.

As I mentioned already, this book brings all the plot that didn’t happen in the previous ones. There’s a lot of war, several epic battles, sieges, court intrigue, marriages of convenience, secrets that come to life, yearlong plans that come to fruition (or failure, depending on your perspective), and of course magic.
The magic system, if you want to call it that, is probably the series’ weakest aspect but I don’t think Abercrombie even wanted to create a magic system like Sanderson does. That’s not the focus of these books. I also enjoy when magic is something wild and uncontrollable, when it can’t be quantified or put in a neat table where spell X does Y and so on. That’s a little what it feels like here. Maybe there are rules to this magic, but they are so beyond the characters that we, the readers, definitely can’t make sense of it. Depending on what you want from a fantasy book, this may put you off. There is little enough magic as is and what little there is doesn’t make sense. But it looks cool. 🙂

Now I’d really like to talk a little about the ending but I have a no spoiler policy here, so this may not make much sense to people who haven’t read the book. The various plot strings lead to endings of very different kinds. You could say some characters’ stories end mostly well, others really bad, others somewhere in between. What you can’t say is that this book has an overall Happy Ending and I was glad about that. It would not have fit with the tone of these books and Abercrombie’s Lord Grimdark title. But I do have to say that I found certain parts quite unsatisfying.
Some characters reach a sort of point that feels like an end, but it is clear that for them it’s only one further step in their lives and things may still go to shit later. Other characters we just leave mid-story with hints of what’s to come next for them but no clear answers as to what actually happens. I both liked and disliked that. I loved how real it made this book feel. After all, when people disappear from our lives, that’s exactly what it’s like. You may not have seen your school friends since graduation and you may know what they planned to do with their lives but you have no idea what they actually did with their lives. I think my slight dissatisfaction stems from the way fiction tends to be written. We are so used to nicely wrapped up tales that end at a well-rounded point in a character’s life that any deviation from that norm grates somehow.
The overall ending, by which I mean the way this fictional world is left when we close the book, also felt like a lesson. Even if I tried to spoil it, I couldn’t exactly tell you whether I consider it a good or a bad ending. It’s as morally ambiguous as the characters and it doesn’t feel like an end.

Although this is a big book that took me quite a while to read, I enjoyed myself the entire time. There was a part, somewhere in the second half, that dragged on a bit and gave me the feeling that things just weren’t moving along at all. But other than that, there’s not much to complain. It’s been too long since I read the first two books in the trilogy but at least from my general memories of them, I think Joe Abercrombie has developed a whole lot between these books and I will continue reading what he writes. I hope his newer books feature more female characters and ones with a broader variety of personality.
But when I’m next in the mood for a grimdark world where everyone could stab you in the back, where things generally turn out the worst way possible, and where you can find yourself liking a ruthless torturer, I’ll be sure to pick up my next Abercrombie.

MY RATING: 7.75/10 – Very, very good!

The First Law Trilogy:

  1. The Blade Itself
  2. Before They Are Hanged
  3. Last Argument of Kings

6 thoughts on “So That’s Why They Call it Grimdark: Joe Abercrombie – Last Argument of Kings

  1. JonBob says:

    Loved this review 🙂 I didn’t enjoy this book as much as you I don’t think, there were bits of it I really liked but it’s problems were just too glaring for me. I felt like a lot of the big moments with Bayaz fell flat cos they relied too much on me caring about or remembering any of his page-spanning monologues from book 2. I really hated that whole plot line. I think you’ve got it right when you say Abercrombie was trying to turn a traditional fantasy quest trope on its head, and I’m sure there’s a way it could have been done well, his execution was just very unsatisfying, which was my main problem with a lot of books 2 and 3.

    The ending was one of the things I really liked though, the sort of Pyrrhic victories some of the characters achieve, while others end up in some pretty sorry situations and life goes on much as it ever did in many ways. I thought that was great and one of the ways he really successfully upended classic storytelling.

    Suffice to say I really liked book 1, but as a whole I thought this series was pretty mediocre. I’m actually a massive grimdark fan but really struggle to understand why this trilogy is considered so highly by so many people.

    Great review, as always 🙂


    • Dina says:

      I see what you mean and you are so right about Bayaz’ story line! I had also forgotten most details about his past and the other magi and all that lore when I picked up the third book. The ending would probably have had more impact if I had read the entire trilogy in one go. I actually agree with everything you’re saying.
      I think it’s just that I loved Glokta and some of the other characters so much that my enjoymet came mostly from just spending time with them in this world. And Abercrombie does that part really well. Glokta gets to torture and connive and generally hate the world, Logen gets to try and be a good man when we all know he’ll always be the Bloody-Nine, Jezal gets to grow in a two steps forward, one step back kind of way. And that was enough for me. But it’s true that as a larger story, the trilogy really doesn’t have that much to offer. 🙂


  2. Andreas says:

    Great review, it brought back sweet memories from some ten years ago!
    Logen is my hero, though I also like his snarkiness Glokta.
    My personal highlight in the whole series is „Heroes“ which is totally different in structure and style.


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