There are heroes. There are villains. It’s easy to tell who is who. In epic fantasy, it’s good versus evil. In Joe Abercrombie‘s Last Argument of Kings, it’s evil versus evil. There is no room for epic fantasy in this grimdark universe.
The Master Manipulator
While the cast from The Blade Itself and Before They Are Hanged still provide points-of-view for the narrative, the Last Argument of Kings‘ plot is wholly driven by Bayaz, First of the Magi. It’s interesting because we see a character whom in the beginning of the series we’re thinking of as good become more and more warped. Our conditioning to fantasy tropes write Bayaz as good with little evidence. He’s been the same, but as the tension mounts the reader sees the true Bayaz. In a Lord of the Rings context, it’d be like Saruman leading the The Fellowship. What could go wrong?
It turns out, everything; if, you’re not Bayaz.
The fairly obvious setup from Before They Are Hanged regarding Jezal takes place. I’m trying not to ruin things for those of you who haven’t read the book. However, the setup works better than expected due to Jezal’s reactions.
The Undercard: Bethod and The Bloody-Nine
The “main event” is Bayaz versus Khalul; Bethod and the Bloody-Nine scrap it out in the undercard halfway through the Last Argument of Kings. Again, it’s interesting that the reader takes Logen at face value. We want to believe that he’s not as terrible as his reputation. We want to believe that he’s a good guy, a hero, in a way. We want to write him off as a David Banner / Incredible Hulk type of figure who isn’t responsible for the actions of The Bloody-Nine. The reader is wrong. To drive that point home, Bethod says:
Who was it always had to push a step further? Who was it would never let me stop? Who was it had to taste blood, and once he’d tasted it got drunk on it, went mad with it, could never get enough? Who else but the Bloody-Nine?
Is Bethod terrible? Or, did Logen mold Bethod’s nature? As the two fight it out in the North, the reader witnesses the devastation of The Bloody-Nine.
The Thing About Cannibalism
The reader automatically sides against Khalul. He’s a cannibal, a religious fanatic, and a slaver. But, what if Khalul is just in his war against Bayaz? I won’t ask, what if Khalul is really a good guy? That’s ridiculous. But what if he’s not wrong in his fight? The reader never sees Khalul or hears his perspective. We sort of do through underlings; but, that’s not the same as getting in a character’s head. What we do see is Bayaz not denying that he, Bayaz, killed Juvens. We get muddled facts about the deaths of Kanedias and Tolomei, until a revelatory moment toward the end of the book. The reader sees Bayaz’s thirst for power, his disregard for humanity, and his contemptible arrogance. Have we been on the side of evil the whole time? But, at least, Bayaz doesn’t eat people, does he? Or does he do something much worse? Abercrombie sets the reader up to side with Bayaz against Khalul; but, he’s superbly played us all.
The First Law
As far as fantasy series go, The First Law is terrific. I loved how Abercrombie played with fantasy tropes and his readers assumptions. It’s dark. It’s graphic; but it’s not unoriginal or boring. If you’re looking for a series that draws you in and reimagines the form, you should read The First Law.